Running an independent label is a difficult task at the best of times, and harder still when you specialize in deeply abstract experimental sounds. Now imagine how challenging things become if you also happen to be an emergency room doctor stationed thousands of miles from home—in the middle of a pandemic.
That’s the situation Dania Shihab, co-founder of Barcelona’s Paralaxe Editions label, found herself in back in March, when she was suddenly recalled to her native Australia in advance of what was feared to be an oncoming wave of COVID-19 infections. (Full disclosure: Shihab is married to Pitchfork contributor Shawn Reynaldo.) Since moving to Spain in 2011, Shihab, who was who was born in Baghdad and raised in Launceston, Tasmania, has spent part of each year as a medical officer in remote Australian communities. Since she studied and received her certification in Australia, it’s easier for her to work there than navigate the bureaucratic process of getting licensed in Spain. “Medicine is one of those fields that if you aren’t seeing patients, you de-skill quite quickly, so I try to stay in the system,” she recently told me.
At the same time, burnout is a real risk, so she typically caps her ER stints at two and a half months. “By the end of 10 weeks I have complete empathy fatigue, and it’s hard to stay motivated and energized for your patients,” she said. Staying on one’s toes is crucial: In tropical Darwin, where she is often stationed, crocodile bites are not uncommon, and the humidity is such that there’s an entire manual dedicated to dealing with maggots in wounds.
Earlier this year, after spending time on duty in Geraldton, a town of 37,000 people in Western Australia, Shihab returned to Spain just as the novel coronavirus was beginning to make headlines. With the threat of a global pandemic looming and Shihab not scheduled to return to Australia until June, she emailed her boss. “I said, ‘Do you need me to come back earlier?’ And she said, ‘Yes, please come back. You have to come back.’”
She remained there for four months, until the beginning of July, working 10-hour shifts with scant days off. When I first spoke to Shihab in May, she was unsure when she would finish her rotation and be able to return home to Barcelona. We talked again at the end of June, when she had finally secured exit papers. The pandemic situation had changed markedly in that month: In May, regions were under complete lockdown, with travel prohibited between different territories. By June, the virus was largely under control in Australia, which gave way to new problems. “Now that everyone’s socializing, there’s been a big spike in car accidents and domestic violence and assault,” she told me. “The ER has been busy for a different reason.” Though Australia has seen a relatively low number of coronavirus cases and deaths to date—10,810 and 113, respectively—the country is currently experiencing another wave of infections. “I think that’s just going to be the new normal from now on,” Shihab said.
In between all-nighters at the hospital, she managed to record a DJ set for her monthly residency on Dublab Radio, straight from her bed, and sorted out details for upcoming releases from the versatile Barcelona producer Ylia and Russian ambient experimentalist Perila—no easy task, given the differing time zones and the ways that the pandemic brought production of physical releases to a standstill.
Launched in 2014 as a hybrid photo book publisher and tape label, Paralaxe Editions now specializes in cassettes and vinyl, and all the label’s packaging is printed by hand on ancient letterpress machines. The word “parallax,” often encountered in photography, refers to the apparent differences in an object when viewed from two different perspectives. It’s a fitting concept for someone who balances two extremely different callings.
Pitchfork: At this point, what would you need to see before you would feel comfortable attending a live show again?
Dania Shihab: I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t know when a vaccine is going to be available. And when we do open up, I don’t know if there’s going to be a second wave of coronavirus and what that’s going to mean. No one knows. Even in my hospital, every day the information we’re getting is changing.
As someone with a firsthand view of the crisis, what would you say to people who believe that the global response has been overblown?
I think that’s rubbish. Absolute rubbish. I understand that that comes from fear, and a lot of people would like to think it’s overblown because their livelihoods are in jeopardy. But I’m a scientist. I believe in science and evidence, and the evidence that has come out is that it’s scary. I can only imagine what it was like to work in Spain or Italy, where no one knew what they’re dealing with. It’s completely not overblown at all.
Many of the patients you serve in Australia come from First Nations communities. Do you feel like they have been especially let down by government institutions right now?
As an emergency doctor, I have a unique perspective on healthcare. I see this longitudinal cross section between birth and death, so I see indigenous children being born into a system where the odds are completely stacked against them. When an indigenous person dies early, it is a failure of multiple institutions. It’s not just the police, it’s not just education, it’s multifactorial. And unfortunately emergency medicine is the last port of call. It’s the dead end for a lot of people. Because I don’t see medical emergencies a lot of the time. I see social crises, I see financial crises, I see mental health and drug and alcohol problems, even though I’m trained as a medical specialist.
Forty percent of my patients are indigenous even though only 3 percent of the Australian population is indigenous. And it’s because everything’s failed them, even healthcare. There are no indigenous nurses or doctors on my staff, and that’s just a complete failing of the institution of medicine. I’m not immune from that either. I feel like I’m part of a system that fails.
Do your colleagues in the hospital know about your label or your radio show?
Yeah, but I don’t think they quite understand. I played them the radio show the other day and there were a few raised eyebrows. Their idea of experimental music is very different. But you know, everyone has their own hobbies and interests, and that’s fine. A lot of them are into fishing or surfing.
Paralaxe’s releases are quite elaborate, with letterpress printing. You seem very interested in the object itself.
I came from this DIY background. In 2012 I went to see Penny Rimbaud, from Crass, do a poetry recital at this letterpress factory in Barcelona called L’automatica, among all these old letterpress machines. Afterward they printed some of his poetry on cardboard. I was really blown away by that whole process, and I spoke to the designers who work with the factory, who do all my letterpress printing now. They’ve got these 100-year-old Heidelberg machines, and all the design is done without a computer. We go in, listen to the music, get a vibe of how the tapes will turn out, and they typeset everything and just print it there. Everything is done by hand.
What is it about tapes particularly that you like so much?
I’m a child of the ’80s and I grew up with tapes. Also, I really still believe in consuming objects rather than just digital consumption. When you make a tape, there’s something beautiful about it—the J-card and the design that goes into it. And you can determine how many editions you want to do: You can dub yourself and do two, or you can do 200.
Experimental music has a reputation for being a white boys’ club. What changes need to be made to address its problems with representation and inequality?
When it comes to curation, everyone needs to take a more active role in fostering diversity. Solely relying on the demos we receive and our personal social circles isn’t going to cut it. We need to expand the pool of participants and that responsibility falls on those of us who are already in the scene.
What are your thoughts on the future prospects for experimental music?
It could go one of two ways. The death of the festival could mean the resurgence of local music and local scenes—that would be nice. Maybe the fact that we can’t meet more than 10 people at a time might mean that experimental music goes further into the internet world. I don’t know what that would look like, but I think humans have always found a way to reinvent themselves and create new ways of doing things. I’m excited.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork