Killer Road live at Florence Gould Hall, NYC with Patti Smith and Jesse Paris Smith. Left to right: Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli, Kamran Sadeghi (photo: Darren Keith)

Unmute the World: Soundwalk Collective

The international music and art group Soundwalk Collective collects sounds from all over the world. In their sound art they make audible the sounds and people who were long muted or invisible, and through this create a sonic mapping of the world.

Sounds that were once thrilling, captivating, and wrapped into the aura of the unexplored seem to have lost their aura in a disenchanted post-modernity. However, there are a few enthusiasts and niche labels who work against the reductive view of sounds as a commercially exploitable resource. They are open to reappropriations, remixes, and different forms of recycling in the post-production studios of the new age. One of the spearheads is the Soundwalk Collective, a group of artists based in Berlin and New York working since 2000 towards the reconstitution of this sonic aura. Their mission is to reconnect natural or humanly made sounds - which belong, in the words of ethnomusicologist Max Peter Baumann, to those invisible and those muted in this world - to our media-saturated world. This mission is facilitated, apart from the multimedia aspect of many works, by the artistic enrichment of these sounds with grooves, loops, and procedures characteristic of contemporary DJ culture. Stephan Crasneancki, Simone Merli, and Kamran Sadeghi describe themselves as sound nomads travelling around the world in an attempt to create a sonic mapping of the world. They excavate sounds that are muffled, censored, or fluctuating in aesthetic and geographic in-between spaces: in the hidden corners of Albanian archives, Tibetan monasteries, or emptied Bessarabian village huts.

Ethnomusicology purists might criticize this melding of roots sounds with urbanized arrangements as a violation of sonic authenticity, and as a egocentric way of aestheticizing disappropriated sonic artifacts. However this aestheticization as post-modern polishing might be urgently needed to make these resilient sounds accessible to the urban ear. When performed in urban settings such as clubs, exhibition venues, or public spaces, these sounds regain importance and encounter new audiences. In the sound installation Jungle-ized in New York (2016), environmental sound recordings connect with film negatives of the rainforest projected onto eight blocks of New York's Times Square. It makes us think about the common bonds between the concrete jungle of a modern metropolis and the rainforest, raising our awareness of the impact of climate change through listening.

The Soundwalk artists also tend to focus on the capacity of sounds to transcending spaces. This becomes audible in their sonic narrative of the Ulysses myth across the Mediterranean, in following the Antique traces of Medea at the edges of the Black Sea, as well as in the recordings of sound scanners installed on top of Bedouin cars crossing the Empty Quarter of the Rub' al Khali desert. A newly issued 4 vinyl album set Transmission - co-edited by Dischi Fantom - is dedicated to these nowhere spaces, seemingly sonically immobile but in fact marked by a constant fluctuation of sounds.

Field recording in the Rub’ al Khali desert in UAE. Left to right: Simone Merli, Kamran Sadeghi, Stephan Crasneanscki. (photo: Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya)

Based on earlier yet unreleased works of the Soundwalk Collective issued between 2009-2011, these tracks have been broadcast internationally as part of the radio program of «Documenta 14». The album contains archetypal examples of the sonic heavy description, as practiced by artists with a preference for dark abysmal sounds embedded in a particular transitory temporality. Their compositions usually develop over long time spans commenting on time and timelessness. Each sound in a composition is given its time to develop-to unfold from silence and vanish into it again - such as the dissolving and disembodied «ghostly voices» of Jewish survivors of the Shoa from Bessarabia, made audible in the dissolving magnetism of the tapes and authentifying «wow- and-flutter» effects. The collective follows a contradictory aestheticizing process aimed at the gradual remystification and re-enchantment of sounds: it brings the marginal to our attention, it rehabilitates those who were forgotten, and reconnects our senses with the soundscapes of an endangered nature. With the help of technology, The Soundwalk Collective change something about how we sonically and socially understand our world.

Published on March 31, 2018

Last updated on January 16, 2020


Eckehard Pistrick is currently substitute Juniorprofessor at the Institute for European Ethnomusicology at the University of Cologne. He has published extensively on Southeast European music and on issues of music and migration including Performing Nostalgia-Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania (Ashgate, 2015). He has co-directed two documentary films and has collaborated with the Soundwalk Collective for a project on the rehabilitation of the Radio Tirana Sound Archives.

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