THE MACHINERY (2020)
For a little while between the years of 2019 and 2021, I believed I had found my calling in the form of composition based in field recordings, tuning theory, and Max/MSP. The Machinery was the first in what I planned to be a series of works that would allow me to serve these interests.
The piece, as with some of my previous works, had utilitarian origins. As an undergraduate, I attempted an electronic composition that would inflict upon the listener a switch from what I was conceiving as ‘diegetic’, or conventionally musical, sound, to non-diegetic, or ‘background’, sound—essentially a jump from music to soundscape and back again within the same piece, while I search for the proper vocabulary.
I lacked the knowledge and points of reference needed to do this to any effective degree at the time, but serendipity is such that around the time I was thinking about revisiting it, I began engaging first with the concept and liminality via scholarship on Spectral music, and then with Cornelia Fales’ writing and research on timbre. The latter proved invaluable—from Fales’ article Short-Circuiting Perceptual Systems I obtained the concept of categorising synthetic sounds based on the extent to which they can exist as the product of corporeal sound sources, from those that clearly have their origins in an acoustic sound source in category one to those that make no reference to reality and can only exist electronically in category four, and saw that I might well have found the means by which I could achieve my aims in a gradual traversing of these categories.
My interest in liminality provided the how to this what. I learned that what is termed ‘spectral’ music really isn't spectral at all, rather the interest of the earliest proponents of the movement was more about capitalising on the bounty of discoveries about sound that technology had made possible. Particularly fascinating is the idea, for example, that pitch and rhythm aren’t really two different things, since all pitches are, in fact, merely pulses at a sufficiently rapid tempo, though this same idea applies to many of what appear to be discrete and unrelated parameters. There is musical interest to be found in the transitional space between parameters. What happens in the ‘in-between’, when does one thing become another, or is there a period in which a thing is neither thing? Fascinating stuff, and my design for The Machinery created opportunity for such questions to be posed en masse.
If the piece works as intended, a listener will weather periods of ambiguity and uncertainty during a long-range transformation of a relatively un-tampered-with field recording to a mass of synthetic sound. Again I lack the vocabulary (even canvassing Reddit users failed to lead me to the right word), but what I was trying to achieve was ‘smoothness’, i.e. a process that moves continually rather than by increments. I avoided using the word ‘analogue’, since my understanding is that digital is generally taken as ‘better’ than analogue, but I suppose this is what I mean. Whatever the case, the sound(s) with which the piece ends do not resemble those that started it, though at no point is the process necessarily audible and there is no clearly defined point at which one thing stops being something else. The whole thing unfolds in a single, smooth, continuous process.
The abrasive sound mass at the conclusion hopefully rises to the occasion of doing something relevant for the politics-light of my subject matter, and in a suitably heavy-handed way. I think there is some kind of ethereal parallel between its onset and what I decided was the gist of Tetsuo the Iron Man after a single inattentive viewing of it, as well as the paranoia that forever surrounds technological development. If not, we’re at least kind of talking about the same thing.
The invasion of technology into natural spaces is necessarily a violent endeavour, but, as with the case of Graveney Marshes, is often undertaken ostensibly for the more virtuous purpose of helping to minimise our long-term impact on nature, so ambiguity abounds. Ambiguity is, at least, rich in this piece, not least in the fact of my heading into the marshes via car loaded with technology—my recording equipment chief among it—and now have a collection of recordings that document the soundscape of the place before it is changed forever. Would I have done more net good if I’d stayed at home that day, not driven, and not done all the charging and bought the batteries needed to use all my stuff? Who the hell knows. I suppose it’s neither thing.
My feeling was that this piece would be most effective blasted at people from large speakers in a decent-sized but darkened room. I had enthusiastically earmarked The Hot Tin in Faversham for a triumphant homecoming return to my hometown for a mini-festival that would showcase my works and the still-pending acquisition of my arts organisational and management skills, but a platter of obstacles both navigable and not prevented this from happening. I sought funding and commissioning for the planned second piece, In From the Cold, that would have featured in that performance, by other means, but was unsuccessful. I’m determined that it will be space-specific and will therefore require a lot of time and some funding to develop. That’s one for another day.
The title achieved my aim of working a Prince lyric into one of my more serious compositions by clandestine means.