Machine Learning

Iain Chambers has launched a new record label called Persistence Of Sound. Its first three releases all came out at once and they were all issued as LP records, presumably in attractive packaging with covers made by Matthew Young (I have promo CDs in my hands). You may know Iain as one of the four pillars that make up Langham Research Centre, that very English ensemble who elect to work with old-fashioned tape recorders in pursuit of their very distinctive take on musique concrète and its methods. The first release on this label is The Eccentric Press (PS001), composed by Ian himself. Two side-long pieces on offer, all made from “location recordings”, in the context of a European-wide project called Sounds Of Changes. This project – involving several large museums and related institutions – is trying to perform a “rescue” job of sorts, identifying endangered sounds in our modern society and capturing them before they vanish. It’s an intriguing concept; what qualifies a sound as being “endangered”? According to the project website, it’s to do with the ways in which society is rapidly changing; they see the 21st century as a period every bit as important as the Industrial Revolution. Without explicitly saying so, I suppose they mean that computers are (very quickly) changing everything and a lot of “physical” things in daily life we currently take for granted are nearing end of life, from the infrastructure of our cities to our manufacturing base.

Taking a cue from all these themes, the title track here ‘The Eccentric Press / Die Exzenterpresse’ is made from the sounds of old industrial machinery. In the shopping list we have a button-sewing machine, a steelwork furnace, a time clock, and atmospheric sounds captured from a railway station in Wuppertaler. Plenty of opportunities there for “internal rhythms” in the resulting 22 mins of sound-art, which Chambers doesn’t waste, but the real genius has been in the selection and editing of his materials, and overlaying them with sonic pitches “to create unexpected harmonies”, which I assume means we have a mix of collaged documentary recordings along with low-key electronic music. While it’s true this is an “industrial” space, Chambers’ music is nothing like the sort of ugly music we used to get from the industrial school, some of whose adherents tended to view the factory as a place of menace, torture, pain and death, and accordingly created music of high gloom and threat. By contrast, this is a beautiful and nuanced composition, making art from unexpected places, creating a kaleidoscopic portrait of the world through what I assume are rapidly-vanishing source materials.

Further such elegiac sentiment can be found on the B side, a work called ‘Maudslay Engine’ which was a commission for ABC Radio in Australia. The machinery recordings this time include a metal cutter, a mortise machine, a linotype machine and a grain dryer – the latter used in an agricultural context to create animal food on an industrial scale. Linking all these together are two big vehicles, a Saan fighter jet and a 19th-century steam engine. And lest you think it’s all cast iron gears and steel plated radials, there are even recordings of old-school computers in the mix – an IBM computer from 1991 contributes the sound of its start-up routine to the composition. As above, the delicacy and charm with which Iain Chambers sequences his materials is really something to admire. The machines live, breathe, and talk to each other – and to us. Yet there’s also something faintly valedictory about the tone, as if reminding us this is probably the last we’ll hear of these old-fashioned devices built on Newtonian principles.

In the early 20th century, the Italian Futurists were bursting with optimism about the potential of these new machines, the possibilities for changing society with speed, power, and efficiency. It’s only taken 100 years for that culture to be undermined, and the optimism to be replaced by a rather wistful sorrow. From 15th April 2019.

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