We Are Getting Healed: Sanatorium Of Sound Reviewed

Jakub Knera reports from the ninth edition of the Sanatorium Of Sound, in Sokołowsko, Poland and focuses on the wild intonarumori instruments of Italian futurism, takes a deep listening walk to a mountainous opencast mine at dawn, and enjoys the healing properties of outdoor sound

Photograph by Helena Majewska

“I suggest you channel your vocal energy inwards – the more we all talk, the more we won’t hear anything,” says Edka Jarząb as we ascend the hill outside the village. “Let the bottom of your feet become ears,” she says, recalling Pauline Oliveros. I listen as we climb a narrow path whose ground changes every few hundred meters. First, the soft earth sounds deafening, then the gravel rattles, then the grass rustles, and finally, the sand lashes underfoot.

Jarząb is a sound artist. She’s practicing deep listening as a starting point for sound activism and research on the biopolitics of voice. In her Going Out – Walking, Listening, Soundmaking book she speaks about the soundscape of protests in Poland. She moved to Sokolowsko from the Polish capital after visiting one of the previous Sanatorium Of Sound festival editions. 

We meet on the festival’s third day at 4:33 a.m. when she leads the sound walk. She looks surprised – probably she was expecting a dozen people, whereas almost 100 attendees have gathered outside the Kino Zdrowie cinema before dawn. During the climb she encourages us to listen to nature. When the sky turns orange, Jarząb tells the story of Bukowiec Mountain, the highest in the area. We can see its green, forested face – on the other side is a massive and deep open-cast melaphyr mine.

Jarząb dedicates a sound installation to this issue. She pours aggregate from the mine into speaker cones which hang horizontally, and the matter then trembles to the rhythm of the site’s bass field recordings, excavations, and earth vibrations. The whole thing, enriched by the sound of organs, has a strongly lamentative character. When we see Bukowiec, after two hours the tour ends.

The Sanatorium Of Sound is different from most city festivals. There are no dizzying distances, no multiple clubs, but rather a few locations available at your fingertips. You can cross the whole village in 15 minutes.

Almost two decades ago, artists Bożena Biskupska and Zygmunt Rytka came to the village from Warsaw and decided to stay. They bought the former Villa Rosa and the destroyed Brehmer Sanatorium to rebuild them each year, part by part. The latter is a majestic red brick building reminiscent of a ‘Moorish’-style castle, initially opened in 1855 as the world’s first specialist sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. It was the inspiration for the world famous Davos sanatorium in Switzerland a decade later. Just as this setting was the inspiration for Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Sokołowsko and the Brehmer Sanatorium was an inspiration for Empusion written by another Nobel Prize laureate Olga Tokarczuk in 2022 [an English translation should be available via Fitzcarraldo Editions next year].

Biskupska’s daughter Zuzanna Fogtt and Gerard Lebik have been organizing a festival here for nine years. Through various artistic practices, they explore sound, including its healing properties; this year’s theme is noise and futurism. People walk among almost 100-year-old townhouses decorated with floral patterns, as are the nearly fairytale-like balustrades on the bridges that cross the stream that flows through here. 

I spend a lot of time at the extraordinary Park Stage created by the Biuro Dźwięku Katowice, a few meters away from the towering sanatorium building. They have installed loudspeakers on several trees facing inwards, with space for the musicians and the audience. When artists play, Piotr Ceglarek from BDK controls the sound from different sources, making the experience unique. It’s good to move around within the sound field as you can hear music differently, depending on your position.

Justyna Stasiowska plays unusual, punctuated music, creating gradual, emerging and meditative patches. She is usually a sound designer or soundtrack composer for the theatre, which is closer to what we hear in Sokołowsko – she fills a forest space, pointillistically annexing its soundscape. She describes herself as making ‘fakescapes’ – sounds that seem to us to exist, yet don’t. Her set is a hybrid of the easy and the hard-to-recognize sounds, combining musique concrète, short drone forms, synthetic passages, and metallic interventions. In a completely different way, Yan Sheng Wen plays a combination of electronic passages and pulsating post-club rhythmic textures. But it plays amazingly with the forest space and looks surreal with high trees. Guoste Tamulynaite, on the other hand, builds up long-winded ambient passages, which after a while, he complements with an uneven subtle beat and his vocalizations: first with melodeclamation and then with his transformations.

On the second day, Ursula Sereghy – an artist who released the excellent OK Box in 2022, which explores some of the ideas of Luigi Russolo – plays a very fluid, coherent concert at night, combining her ideas of broken electronics. The night sets in the park must be listened to on headphones due to protests from the local community, which slightly changes the perception of her music. But this mystical, mysterious atmosphere conquers – the Czech instrumentalist’s non-obvious structures, mesmerizing melodies, and rhythmic ideas result in a spacious, dreamlike, and unusual live act.

The festival’s culmination is a sixteen-member orchestra concert between the monumental and mysterious-looking intonarumori instruments ("intona" – to tune, "rumori" – noise, in Italian). The devices were designed in 1913 by Russolo, an Italian futurist, and fully reconstructed by Luciano Chessa in 2009 as part of the 100th anniversary of Italian futurism, for the Performa 09 biennial in New York. They have now travelled from America to Europe for the first time.

During the two days the orchestra performs a total of four compositions. The first and last pieces, conducted by Chessa, are the most interesting. On Friday, the group performs a piece by John Hegre – an ode to these instruments, their sound, noise, and futurism. It begins with single rasps, metallic, noisy sounds that gradually harmonize, revealing their orchestral potential. Dense bass sounds on one side, screeching sounds on the other, some sounding like human voices. The whole thing gradually develops into a colorful, coherent structure that orchestrally explodes in the finale. A day later, in the end, the orchestra performs a piece by Russolo – ‘Awakening Of The City’ shows the non-musicality of the intonarumori, whose aim is to produce urban noise, the sounds of everyday life. The piece sounds like driving through the metropolis in the morning, sticking the microphone out of the car window, and recording the noise. Both compositions weave these futuristic instruments together in an unusual way, unconventionally approaching their diverse possibilities. Intonarumori are unamplified; we can listen to them with no PA – their gnarled sound is self-contained, carrying around the hall of the Kino Zdrowie.

This is one of only two examples of strictly acoustic concerts compared to the wealth of post-club electronica or dense noise concerts from the likes of Robert Piotrowicz, Jenny Pickett & Julien Ottavi, or Jon Wesseltoft that is on offer. The other one happens on Sunday – Klaus Holm plays a surprising acoustic concert in the park. He plays on the clarinet and saxophone, sometimes by gasping lightly into the mouthpiece, sometimes pressing individual keys. The urban space carries this sound brilliantly, almost as if it were amplified by reverberation, a shrill or snapped sound has among the trees. Surprisingly some phrases on the saxophone sound synthetic, unusual for a woodwind instrument, almost as if he is generating them on a synthesizer.

His short performance contrasts nicely with the mostly electrified, sound-dense program. And it has a sanatorium therapeutic quality as most of the concerts in the park, where the audience listens to it with concentration, sitting on dry bedding, blankets, or deckchairs. As tuberculosis patients used to soak up the fresh air here a century ago, no people now soak up the music. After all, now we are getting healed here in a different way.

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