Baltic Triangle. SALA
(OtO 2013)

Review by Chris Whitehead

‘And the answer came from the sea, quietly howling and murmuring among the swaying shore grass: It is the wind, wind, wind.’
(M. K. Ciurlionis, 1875 – 1911)

To successfully bring to life the essence of a place requires far more than simply recording a catalogue of noises from the area in question, it requires an understanding of the structure and architecture of interconnecting soundscapes that render a location unique.

As might be expected from the title, three towns in Latvia provide the focal points for these sound portraits. All coastal towns are subject to wind and wave because they endure on the threshold of these two adversaries, the wind scouring the beaches and houses with its thrill of cold and the waves beating sea walls and piers with feral disdain. To exist at all for any length of time these settlements must have an inbuilt resilience and tenacity.

When it was still a part of the Soviet Union, Jurmala was once the favourite holiday destination of the Communist Party elite. Brezhnev and Khrushchev walked in front of the beach houses and strolled over the white quartz sands. Sala lets the gentle, shallow waves of the Gulf of Riga open this composition. Gradually however the mood changes in stages, and by twelve and a half minutes unsettling metal resonances dissolve into silence. It transpires that we are surrounded by water, almost still but with the occasional current, a claustrophobic submarine realm.

Back out in the light, vegetation rustles in the breeze and the panorama opens out. Voices almost snatched by the wind occasionally filter through and the sea is there, a constant truth, a breathing language. Close to the end of the track loud engine sounds jolt the mind back to a contemporary reality.

Ventspils is a port situated at the mouth of the Venta River which empties into the Baltic Sea. Tourists tap on a metal observation tower and create an improvised, rattling piece of percussion. Footsteps up and down iron stairs or walkways fuel a complex matrix of clattering which duly gives way to the sea again, kinetic and wind-driven, forceful and ubiquitous. Voices appear and are raised at times to cut through the rushing waves and moving air. A walk begins on a gravel path and birds call along the way.

At around sixteen minutes we are in a world of gentle rubs, scrapes and crackles triggered by a quietly undulating sea. Soon the port is alive with people and against the water as it variously splashes, surges and flows, they carry on their work and play. Vehicles pass us and we become aware that Ventspils is a hive of activity happening around our ears, a busy and thriving component of the Latvian economy.

Using a compositional technique that carries us along with it, Sala is our navigator allowing us to examine the layers of these places. Through, over and above various textured surfaces of differing tactility we can, if we submit to it, feel the rush of discovery and the thrill of travel.

The final track Kolka is the most exposed. It is a cape on the Baltic Sea at the entry to the Gulf of Riga, a dangerous place to sail, a place where two seas meet and clash with each other, often in anger. It is also the place where the final glowing embers of the ancient Livonian nation are gradually burning out. As a last refuge 14 villages on this coast are protected by the Latvian government. Hotels and restaurants are not allowed to be built here. It is thought that only around 20 native speakers of the Livonian tongue remain.

The simplest of the tracks in construction, and yet for me the most poignant, Kolka is a celebration of wildness and untameable nature: The glint of spray in the sun, the taste of salt on the lips and the ever moving, breaking surface. Currents pull and tear themselves apart only to reform and continue the ocean’s never ending tortuous dance. Yet Kolka also carries a sadness within, because to close The Baltic Triangle, as if to reflect on the Livonians’ fading culture and language, footsteps are heard walking away along the beach into silence.

[Sala -Audrius Simkunas: up, Vasha Dadaja: left, Ramunas Personis: right-]

Sala discography
OtO website

Chris Whitehead

Sound artist.