Forcible Immersion in Sound

Various Artists, Political Field Recordings Vol 01

Political Field Recordings: Vol 01 reminds us how important public space is.

Although the ten tracks on this compilation were made in different places, under different circumstances, they all testify to the need to preserve opportunities for cultural confrontation in an era when they are under attack from privatisation on the one hand and policing on the other.

That’s easiest to comprehend when listening to protests captured by Al Zlogar (New York), Preethi Nallu (Beirut), and The Battleground’s Joel Schalit (Brussels and Berlin.)

When people are too fearful to come together, their power is literally muted. No amount of petition signing or social media activism can substitute for the experience of solidarity that comes from making noise at a protest.

But the irreplaceable value of public space also comes through on the more subtle tracks of this album, such as Raz Mesinai’s collage of sounds captured at different European airports, European Airportmosphere (Barcelona, Brussels, Amsterdam Mashup) or Schalit’s wryly titled Occupation ASMR, recorded in Tel Aviv, which documents a few minutes in a multicultural Israel that belies the exclusionary fantasies of Israel’s increasingly right-wing leadership.

Those two pieces do a particularly good job of showcasing the collections’s approach to what might be called “street audiography”, in which both aesthetic and political goals are met by an immersive approach.

There aren’t many signposts here. Even the protest recordings resist easy comprehension by anyone not familiar with the circumstances under which they were made.

Listening to the tracks on Political Field Recordings Vol 01 from start to finish almost feels like listening to an impressionist landscape, in which the details we are able to discern matter less for their literal meaning than the broader mindset they metonymically communicate.

The idea that personal sound can serve as a way of warding off the outside world has been around since the introduction of the first Walkman over four decades ago. But if that mode of isolation was once the exception, it is fast becoming the rule.

In the developed world, enormous attention has been paid in recent years to the commercial potential of noise suppression, from audio and video calling designed to minimise background distraction to the ear-cocooning headphones that have become urban status symbols on par with high-end athletic shoes.

Just as the tiny screens everyone seems to be staring at on mass transit or even walking down the street demonstrate a powerful resistance to connecting with our surroundings, so do the means by which we tune out our neighbours.

Within the context of this siloed existence, being compelled to listen to languages we don’t know or the expression of feelings we don’t share is a political act in itself.

Although the impulse to break listeners out of their technological bubbles might seem at odds with art, Political Field Recordings Vol 01 also demonstrates how forcible immersion in a landscape can reveal beauty that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The first track on the album, Horns for Berlusconi, is a great example. Schalit’s recording of ultras blowing plastic horns after a soccer game in Torino sounds like an avant-garde musical composition, a Charles Ives single.

Listening to it now, twelve years after it was recorded, one can’t help but think about the oligarch’s death last year, as though this were a protest against his legacy and its persistence in Italian politics. This is how you exorcise ghosts.

Mesinai’s nine-minute Return to Brooklyn makes it clear why New Yorkers complain about being unable to sleep when they vacation in the countryside. The sounds they have learned not to acknowledge are also the sounds that free them from the din of their own minds.

Schalit’s Roma on the Metro, capturing a musical performance by members of one of Europe’s longest-suffering minorities in Milano, does an especially good job of reminding us what we lose when we hide behind personal soundproofing.

When AIDS activists coined the phrase “Silence = Death” in the 1980s, they were advocating for public expressions of rage over private feelings of sadness.

While that logic continues to apply today, whether in protests over racial injustice, sexual discrimination, or political persecution, it also reminds us of a deeper truth: a world going quiet is a world dying out.

Photograph courtesy of The Battleground. All rights reserved.