Saturday 26th Feb. I took the train into central Helsinki to join the We Stand with Ukraine demonstration, which was organised by a coalition of youth parties from various Finnish political organisations (Poliittiset nuorisojärjestöt in Finnish).
I’ve been to a number of demonstrations before (the last being the BLM demo when I was still in the UK in 2020). The collective anxiety & emotional weight of the Russia/Ukraine war feels especially heavy today, given our proximity to the conflict in north-eastern Europe. I took my audio recorder with me. It helps me to focus my listening, and I can tune into the space around me. As Christopher DeLaurenti states ‘In the city it feels right to carry a microphone, for no ear can take it all in.’ (Environmental Sound Artists - In Their Own Words, Bianchi and Manzo).
The Finnish term for a demonstration is mielenosoitus, which translates closely to ‘stating your mind’ (Thanks Jeff for the translation!). If the cause is just, I’m a big believer in the positive forces of demonstrations in public. It’s difficult to find a comparison to the collective power it gives to those who otherwise feel unheard. This sounding of opinion interests me from a sonic perspective. We have a need (maybe even a human right) to feel heard. We talk about the ‘echo chamber’ of controversy on the internet, so perhaps a suitable metaphor for a physical demonstration is that of a cooperative voice, spiralling outwards in agreement.
The crowd gathered at the Esplanadin puisto. I was interested to hear this outdoor space, and how the sonic atmosphere might be super-charged by the crowd. It’s a pretty little park - a small strip of green in central Helsinki, surrounded by lavish hotels, restaurants and cafes. In the centre of the park is a statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland's national poet and composer of the national anthem. People often picnic here in summer. The brick buildings help frame the parks sonic environment, filtering out the wider city, and reflecting back the sounds of birds and traffic encompassing the park.
As I stand on the fringes of the crowd, people arrive equipped with homemade banners, posters, flags, warm coats and backpacks. There is a murmuring of voices all around me. Footsteps in the frozen snow that make a distinctive crunch. To my left and behind, the road traffic hums and beeps. Birds flitter around in the park trees, and continue to sing over the human noise. I can hear different languages. Finnish mostly, but there is a group closer to me speaking German. I hear bits of English and Swedish too. Variety is a sonic privilege of living in a city like Helsinki.
The demonstration has started. The crowd murmur softens, as people turn their attentions to calls over a megaphone. There’s a shift in the density of sound in front of me, as people gather closer to hear the words. As the first chant begins, the acoustic space opens up. Activated by the amplified unity of voices, the park resonates with the crowd.
There is a vibrant and varied atmosphere at these events which is rarely captured in the photographs we see in the mainstream and on social media (often taken with their own agendas and ambitions). The energy of a crowd undulates, and it’s important to feel these moments of calmer tone, as they reveal a true sense of togetherness which is far longer lasting than the ramped up intensity of slogans. When the chanting dies down, the murmur of the crowd comes back into our sonic foreground. I listen more closely to this, and I hear people talking. Laughing. The murmuring becomes the sound of friendship and a sense of affection falls about me. Chanting is a directive - it’s a report of many voices stating an informed (political) message. But it’s only part of the reason why people come together in these demonstrations. We come together to share a space, to share our frustrations and fears, and to feel connected. Sound, with its tactile qualities akin to touch, offers an aesthetic that channels this feeling of intimacy.
Images are framed to show a particular banner, or an outfit. They are effective tools at freezing time in a moment of the photographers choosing. A facial expression, taken to sum up the wealth of emotions of the moment. These images are dramatic and powerful, especially when the political context of a demonstration weighs so heavy. I realise that the flow of energy at these events is lost in a visual image. A face is seen shouting into a megaphone, expression preserved in the image, but the actual tone of voice and message is lost. Except perhaps to the imagination of the viewer.
As we begin to march over to the Russian embassy, I come across a friend in the crowd. He invites me to join his group as we make our way in the procession. A familiar voice heard in the crowd is always welcome.