Sonic Reporting

Everywhere But There, by Joel Schalit

Battleground editor Joel Schalit’s new album Everywhere But There forcefully demonstrates the need for a new kind of political reporting, one which presents the world as it actually is instead of distorting it in the pursuit of profit.

The look of fear. Brussels, September 2014.

That used to be the function of newspapers. Unfortunately, decades of slashed budgets and newsrooms reduced to skeleton crews have made even the most prestigious dailies hard to distinguish from tabloid yellow journalism. 

Although the sentences might be longer and the layout more classy, they have largely abandoned their former high-mindedness. Whereas ads used to seem like a necessary evil, the only way to sustain a noble mission, it is now the stories themselves that have that feel, inserted here and there to fashion the necessary spacing. 

Not just any story will do, however. In order to keep people picking up the paper and turning the pages, news organisations rely on marketing research that tells them just what to say and when to say it. 

While there is still a pretence of objectivity, the harsh truth is that investigative journalism is largely reserved for the demographics who prefer their rivals. And woe to the story that doesn’t feature one of the limited numbers of topics that get recycled over and over. Repetition is both cheaper and easier for audiences to cope with. 

That’s where Everywhere But There comes in. These field recordings of Palestinian protests on the streets of Berlin and Brussels capture a rich culture of opposition that nobody in power is particularly interested in providing a platform. 

This is particularly true in Germany, where many of these recordings were made, because of the perception that criticising Israeli policies will inevitably lead to accusations of Antisemitism.

Even if such stories about these protests saw the light of day, the likelihood is high that they would still get slanted to the disadvantage of the Palestinians, a people who have been paying the price for Europe’s failures for a century.

Everywhere But There solves that problem by providing us with the texture of sounds that capture these gatherings, without superimposing a narrative or ideological frame on them. At one point, we hear Schalit asking a German solidarity activist whether he can speak English, explaining that he’s an Israeli journalist. But that’s where his words come to an end.

This record is not intended to add yet another hot take on the predicament of Palestine, talking about it from a safe distance, but rather an occasion for listening. 

If we don’t entirely follow what’s going on, if the fragments of conversation and chanting that we hear resist our attempts to reduce them to a neat-and-tidy meaning, that’s because Joel Schalit recognises the importance of not trying to reduce the problems that animate these Palestinian voices to soundbites. 

That’s why the emotional resonance of what we hear on the record is part of the reporting. It underlines the seriousness of what the protestors are trying to articulate through the sounds they make – both as individuals and as crowds, amplified by buildings and the street. 

The acoustics of their rage delivers their own message. Schalit’s recordings provide the full frame, like 35mm-equivalent camera sensors that don’t crop images, because they reproduce what it sounds like to stand in the middle of a crowd unburdening itself, unedited.

For a reporter seeking to get to the bottom of things and let their subjects speak for themselves, it’s a complex gesture that’s as indicative of Schalit’s journalistic politics as it is his opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Listening intently to tracks like “Protest Singalong Medley, Sonnenallee” and “The Karl-Marx-Platz Clap”, my thoughts kept drifting – counter-intuitively, at least on the surface – to the state of mainstream movie-making. 

Whereas the use of green screens used to be confined to scenes that required special effects, they are now so ubiquitous that the word “special” seems deeply ironic. 

Why should studios take on the expense of adapting their shoots to actually existing circumstances when they can make a bigger profit by fabricating a passable simulation of reality over which fantastic creatures engage in fantastic conflicts? 

In other words, it’s the green screen that comes first now.

Everywhere But There is the auditory antithesis of this kind of movie-making. Instead of isolating the voices of a reporter or people being interviewed, Schalit turns the relationship between background and foreground on its head. 

Our capacity to produce is a big part of what distinguishes us from other species. Even though the vastness of the universe makes the scope of our activity seem absurdly miniscule, the world we face on an everyday basis is shaped by what we have created, whether for better or worse. 

Although there’s nothing new about that from a qualitative perspective, the sheer quantity of new things being brought into existence grew enormously with the industrial revolution. More recently, the computer shifted the balance from physical objects – even though they are more numerous than ever – to functionally intangible products that can be grouped, however loosely, under the rubric of data. 

Now that we have entered an era in which physical objects we used to rely upon for reality proofing are being conjured digitally, we struggle mightily to discern whether what we are looking at or listening to is real or fake. 

For the moment, the best way to combat that destabilisation of reality is to record the kind of dense mise-en-scène that still resists being conjured out of nothing.

Joel Schalit refers to projects like Everywhere But There as a kind of “sonic politics”. That not only holds true for their content, recording marginalised communities trying to make themselves heard, but their form as well. 

When we listen to this record, we are reminded of what we have been assiduously instructed to ignore. 

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.