February 08

Revelation Time

Joel Schalit

Adapted from Israel vs Utopia, (to be published by Akashic Books, 2008)

As any electronic or hip-hop artist will tell you, one of the most important aspects of making music is capturing the right sample. Not just any sample, but something that you can rightfully call your own.

Though I continue to enjoy music that intentionally borrows from other works (plunderphonics, as Canadian composer John Oswald once called it,) I find myself more and more compelled to look for sounds I haven’t heard before--or, equally, to capture for others the sounds I encounter that I think might warrant a metaphorical second hearing. Often such sounds, despite having no immediate aesthetic value, can still be enormously instructive.

Finding such sounds was part of the plan when my friend, and longtime musical collaborator, Vance Galloway, came home to Israel with me last summer. Eager to see the country and my family, Vance and I came prepared to enjoy it the way we knew best: with omni-directional microphones, a digital recorder, and a lot of compact flash cards. Driving around Israel in my parents’ 1999 Opel station wagon, we were on the look out for source material for our next album.

Towards the end of our trip, we found ourselves in the south. It was already near evening when, driving along the crest of the Eilat Mountains on Highway Twelve, we spotted a perfect photo opportunity. Spread out in front of us, like a large blue table cloth draped over the desert, the Red Sea stretched south towards the horizon.

To our left lay Jordan, its port city of Aqaba a microscopic collection of warehouses sitting in the shadow of sand-colored mountains. Less than 200 feet to our right stood the beginnings of the Sinai and Egypt, formally introduced by two tall guard towers flying tricolored flags, flanked by hills colored black by thousands of tiny volcanic stones.

If what you wanted was an experience of the undeniable grandeur of Israel's mythical topography, from the overpowering sun to the omnipresent sand, this was it. Every visual cue responsible for seducing over a millennia's worth of starry-eyed visitors to the Holy Land was on full display.

"The German philosopher Rudolf Otto coined the term 'Mysterium Tremendum,' in order to describe what it feels like to be in the presence of the Holy," I remarked to Vance as we surveyed the scene. Pulling down his sunglasses, Vance looked at me, somewhat amused. I usually don’t reference the Holy.

The feeling didn’t last long this time either. If there was one thing that punctured the immense, piety-inducing awe inspired by our surroundings, it was the thick layer of concertina wire demarcating the Israeli-Egyptian border. Surveying the scene, the sound of the fence’s rattling razors grew increasingly louder as the evening wind slowly began to make its way up from the desert floor. Unable to do anything other than take individual photos of each bordering country, we decided to try and record the sound of the fencing, as though this were the best possible way to capture an otherwise indefinable experience.

Listen: "Concertina Wire Sample" field recording by Joel Schalit and Vance Galloway.

Later, we listened to what we had jokingly referred to as our Negev concert. With occasional transitions in pitch dictated by the subtle fluctuations in the direction and the speed of the wind, (not to mention bits of dust blown up into the barbed wire), the recording sounded unexpectedly cold and harsh. A steady drone interrupted by random, scraping sounds, the white noise we were picking up seemed almost Sisyphean, struggling to get nowhere. The sound was an obvious acoustic feature of a partitioned physical environment, if not its actual voice, broadcast through the painful medium of a barrier designed to inhibit free movement.

Though we had had a sense that this is what the actual recording would end up sounding like (after all, this was concertina wire,) there was something ironically refreshing about how patently obvious it was. Of course it would turn out noir. Yet, despite the context, it was still surprising. This was one of Israel's most relatively quiet of border areas. Though a suicide bomber from Gaza had blown himself up at a bakery in Eilat six months earlier, this was an area of respite for Israelis and foreign tourists alike, who came from all over the country and the world to escape into a mirage of luxury resorts and beaches.

Hearing such sounds was almost a way of reminding ourselves of the fragility of the context. Irrespective of how we constructed the event as musicians and journalists, the noise we captured would still be there without us. And, irrespective of the interpretation we brought to it afterwards, the recordings would still be acoustic reflections of the same conflicting physical sources that hold such a terribly tragic meaning for us. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to distinguish our experience from that of a culture that has always gone out to the desert in order to hear the so-called truth. Whether it be your mind, or the voice of God that does the talking is unimportant.

The brief bit of headphone monitoring we did during the recording session was enough to leave a lasting impression, especially when we were later confronted by the deafening sounds of downtown Eilat. Spending the evening strolling through a decidedly more profane environment, Eilat's perversely appropriately named indoor shopping center Mall Hayam ("Mall of the Sea"), we found ourselves assaulted by the intensity of its audio-visual mix, a Las Vegas-like discount luxury goods complex full of Russians, reaching its orgasmic retail apex in a top-floor music store we found blasting out the 1980s hit, "Da Da Da" by the German band, Trio.

Whether due to its meaning or its melodic properties, the recording we'd done still managed to drown it all out in my head. Like a song being played at maximum volume by a college dorm resident eager to triumph over his neighbors' inferior musics, memories of the sound of clashing razors cut through the noise, the musique concrète, so to speak, of this version of the Israeli cultural ecosystem. I was still in the desert.


Images by Vance Galloway


Joel Schalit is Zeek’s Media Editor. The author of the forthcoming book, Israel vs. Utopia, his previous works include Jerusalem Calling and The Anti-Capitalism Reader. Formerly a member of the Christal Methodists, Schalit pushes buttons in the San-Francisco-Seattle duo, Elders of Zion. They are currently recording their next release, Donkeys of the Earth, using field recordings made in Israel.