The train is possibly my favorite means of transport. One of the few European countries where this is still affordable is Slovakia with a single ticket from Bratislava to Prague costing 15 euros for a four-hour journey. For his latest installment in his field recording series, the Bratislava based sound artist and enthusiast Jonáš Gruska boards the Jaroslav Hašek Eurocity train from Budapest to the Czech capital in order to reveal its electromagnetic makeup. To do so, he employs the Elektrosluch an open-source device for electromagnetic listening of his own making, now in its new and improved 3+ version.
Just like with previous examinations of local trolleybuses and trams from the Bratislavan transport network, what emerges are the hidden workings that operate these “electric creatures”. Gruska dissects the train in its constituent parts, with track titles relating to the viscera (Vnútornosti) the nerve system (Nervy), and the heart (Srdce), complete with its unnerving pulsing beat. It all makes for a disquieting journey though low humming tones, and automated signals. The absence of the more familiar chugging or rumblings, strip the “off screen” passing scenery of its poetry reducing the movement in space to a question of mere functionality.
Gruska is not interested in capturing exotic sounds or in creating idyllic soundscapes by manipulating field recordings. On the contrary, he devotes his attention to the more mundane elements of his aural surroundings. He would rather explore to ventilation shafts of a post office depot, for instance, that travel the globe to record the aural world of the rainforest. Not that he is averse to nature. As a matter of fact, his album Lúky, 2015, sees him setting off in search of pristine meadows around various parts of Slovakia. Industry, though, seems to provide a sizable source of inspiration, in his case, when it comes to mapping the territory, as with Zvuky Slovnaftu (Sounds of Slovnaft), a set of field recordings, dedicated to flare stacks during unusual activity at the Slovnaft oil refinery, in Bratislava.
It is amazing how effectively the brain manages to block out what it perceives as intrusive “noise”. Playing Vlakom in the background, I caught myself, a couple of times, becoming completely oblivious to the unsettling sonic ambience coming out of my speakers. And yet when high frequency hissing sounds merge with mobile phone interference, as in the track Komunikujeme, the traveler’s place is exposed as being firmly plugged in into the midst of a complex “neuro-digital” communications network. Unwittingly, we become part of the electromagnetic field.
By uncovering the electromagnetic dimension of our rail journeys, Vlakom manages to become a moveable feast of fascinating, if sometimes sinister, sounds. Recommended, and not just for trainspotters.