The ingenious and talented Mark Vernon sent in a copy of Sounds Of The Modern Hospital (MEAGRE RESOURCE RECORDS mere025) over a year ago now, so I hope the limited pressing of 250 vinyl copies hasn’t sold out. It’s field recordings, captured in various NHS hospital departments in Scotland during a two-year artist residency. But (as with most of his work) Vernon has worked very hard on presenting the work in a very particular context. To begin with, he is paying explicit homage to Sound Effects LPs of the 1970s and 1980s, especially those released by the BBC; this 2011 blog post by Simon Robinson may give you a clue, or jog your memory. Accordingly, each recording is very short (some are less than one minute in duration) and the LP is very carefully banded, with judicious gaps between the tracks. The overall intention is bolstered to some degree by Marc Baines’ knowing sleeve art, which is described to us as a “retro-styled” package; without pastiching anything specific, it successfully conveys the feel of a secondary school textbook published any time between 1950 and 1969. Indeed one possible reading of the LP is as a didactic, “educational” or instruction record, an impression that’s also reinforced by the near-clinical descriptions of the track titles on the back cover, which appear to be describing medical procedures and equipment for the benefit of a trainee surgeon rather than from any musical standpoint.
The three-and-thirty separate recordings have been arranged very carefully into a compositional sequence, and indeed we are invited to view the work as a start-to-finish statement, rather than a random collection of aural jottings. What comes over on today’s spin is how neatly-separated from its neighbour every recording is; the banding of the record assists in this, but each brief sonic episode has been laid down, showcased and positioned with a degree of calibration and precision that is just perfect. None of your amorphous sound-scaping and random cross-fades here; Vernon works like an old-fashioned engraver in the print shop, and if he could find a way to cut his own vinyl masters using a Lazy Susan and a dressmaker’s needle, I bet he would do it.
It remains to mention the “radiophonic” vibe of the record, by which I mean it almost presents a narrative or linked narratives through sound effects alone, provided the listener is prepared to bring a lot of imagination to the picnic. Vernon excels at this skill, and there are numerous published examples of his radiophonic art; 2012’s Static Cinema is one such, restrained though it be. I can discern at least two narrative strains in Sounds Of The Modern Hospital; the principal strand is almost purely technical, and it follows the actions and outputs of various machines, which produce rhythmic sounds, electronic beeps, or something resembling an abstracted “Industrial” noise, and all emerge as a form of programmed background music. The second strand is more buried, but it’s a human narrative; voices of nurses, doctors and patients, either performing particular routines or undergoing examinations. Some of them, taken so deliberately out of context, are ever so slightly absurd, even a little hilarious. If you listen to the record at one angle, it’s like a minimalist version of Carry On Doctor rescripted by Samuel Beckett. Some of these Vernon snippets would be perfect for a collaboration with People Like Us; the two of them should meet up some time. From 27 February 2014.