Czech Republic

Peter Cusack: Lignite Clouds (Sound Workshop)

Written by
Michal Kindernay

A two-day workshop focused on the sound environments around the brown coal industry in Most Basin (North Bohemia). We useed both listening and making field recordings. We also used photography and writing to compare the differences between the sound, visual and language perspectives on the area.

Peter Cusack - Coal and Peterochemical Soundscapes in North Bohemia: Some Personal Thoughts

Sonic journalism asks the question, “What do we learn of places by hearing their sounds?” and is based on the idea that valuable information about places and events is revealed by the way they sound and that careful listening will give insights different from, but complimentary to, visual images and language. 5 examples from the lignite mining areas of North Bohemia to understand the sonic consequences of the landscape transformations due to the major industrialisation of these areas.

1) On the edge of Bilina mine (Sept 12 2015)
Bilina opencast mine is huge. Standing on the edge one can only be impressed by the size of the area carved from the ground. Yellow earth is exposed into the distance and at it’s deepest the dark brown coal seams are visible. There is always low-key activity. It is a 24/7 operation. The perpetual drone of conveyor belts carrying earth and rock from the digging machines for kilometers across the mine is a constant presence not only at the mine edge, but in the surrounding villages too. A siren regularly sounds as machines stop and start. Distant trucks rumble. But there is wildlife too. A Kestrel hovers and small birds call. Two deer leap through crackly bushes. Whilst recording at dusk a magnificent wild boar makes its way from down below, up the cliff and away across the dry landscape. As night falls twinkling white lights outline some of the machinery.

2) Underwater sounds in the derelict fountain of Libkovice (Sept 12 2015)
The village of Libkovice was cleared and demolished in the 1990s to make way for the expanding Bilina mine. Only traces remain like earthworks, outlines of houses and an orchard still bearing fruit. The village fountain still exists but is now smothered in trees and water plants. Dragonflies patrol up and down a shady patch of water. I use a hydrophone (underwater microphone) to listen below the surface. There are tiny bubbly and scrapping sounds. I have no idea what makes them but it is probably small insects and water plants that bubbles oxygen in sunlight.

3) Sounds of opencast mining, Libkovice (Sept 12 2105)
I sit recording amongst the rubble of one village building. Except for the machines in the mine near by and a small red plane that drones overhead it is very quiet. Small birds and insects are occasionally audible. Every now and again the atmosphere is interrupted by empty trucks passing by, bumping and shuddering on the uneven dirt road, their engines grinding up a small hill on route to the mine. It is not really threatening but I find this sound disturbing and can only relax again after it disappears into the distance. I wonder if the people living here, who must hear this everyday, are able to ignore the sound.

4) Radovesicke údolí (Sept 11 2015)
In a photograph this place looks like a normal, natural grassy hillside overlooking the town of Bilina. But it is not. The whole area has been completely reconstructed and landscaped anew. Once it was a steep valley, now it is the opposite, a hill created from 40 years of soil and earth dug from the Bilina mine. Somewhere underneath is a buried village with houses, a church, streets and a square. No visible trace remains. One now sees fields, a stony track lined by poplar trees, conifer plantations and a small fishing lake with reeds around the edge. From the top the different coloured apartment blocks of Bilina appear and further in the distance columns of steam merge with clouds above the huge cooling towers of the power stations associated with Bilina mine. The soundscape is quiet. Leaves flutter in the light wind and small birds call occasionally. Distant machines still creating this landscape can be heard, as can the voices of my friends as they climb the hill. My breathing and pounding heart become audible when I do the same.

5) Růžodol - beside Unipetrol Litvínov near Kopisty (Sept 13, 2015)
This place is just outside the Unipetrol petrochemical factory at Litvinov. The landscape is crossed by lines of metal pipes, some rusty and broken, others still in use. At one point near the village of Kopisty a whole series of pipes end abruptly and gobs of hot (50 degrees), evil smelling, black water blast from them into an open concrete channel that runs down the hill for 100 meters before disappearing into another building of unknown purpose. This building creates deep drones and slight ripples. The polluted water is under pressure and the sound is powerful enough to make normal conversation difficult. Steam rises from the hot pipe and the smell is choking and sulphurous. This must be illegal. We listened to the flow of the liquid inside the pipes using contact microphones. You hear the water jetting along, the sound resonant to the dimensions of the interior. I find it scarily musical.

Peter Cusack is a field recordist and musician with a special interest in environmental sound and acoustic ecology. His projects have included community arts, research into sound and our sense of place, and documentary recordings in areas of special sonic interest (Lake Bajkal, Aral Sea, the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the Caspian oil fields, or UK nuclear sites). The project Sounds From Dangerous Places explores soundscapes at the sites of major environmental damage. Cusack initiated the Favourite Sounds project in London 1998 with the aim of discovering what people find positive about their everyday sound environment. The project has since been established in Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Chicago, Prague and Birmingham. He lectures in Sound Arts and Design at the London College of Communication and was recently a DAAD artist in residence in Berlin.