Two years ago, the artist and musician David Byrne created a series of installations called Playing the Building, in which he converted cavernous warehouses in New York, London and Minneapolis into gigantic musical instruments.
Byrne stood on the shoulders of artists like composer Annie Gosfield, who more than a decade ago recorded sounds produced by massive metal presses, welding guns and mallets banged on acid baths at an electric motor factory in Nuremberg, Germany, and turned them into a harmonious industrial symphony called Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery.
Industrial companies are now also joining the movement. Last year, GE and CSX let Ladytron’s Reuben Wu record a giant container shipping terminal in Ohio, and in July, GE invited DJ and musician Matthew Dear to hunt for interesting sounds at its global research headquarters in upstate New York.
GE also set up Dear with a library of 1,000 sounds generated by machines spanning its entire industrial portfolio, from jet engines to MRI scanners. Dear turned the sounds into a propulsive track called Drop Science. He talked to GE Reports editor, Tomas Kellner, about his sonic adventure.
Tomas Kellner: What attracted you to the project?
Matthew Dear: I’ve become known as someone who likes to mess with everyday sounds and incorporate them into music. You can hear that all the way back to my [early records like] Backstroke. My albums are always very dense with natural sounds that sound very real and electronic at the same time.
TK: Was the creative process for Drop Science different from making a track for one of your records?
MD: When I’m making a record, I usually produce a song in a week or so. It’s a very organic process. But a project like this can be a daunting and overwhelming experience. Just the sound bank I was given to start with was massive.
Matthew Dear recorded sounds for his track Drop Science at GE Global Research labs in Niskayuna, NY.
TK: How did you start?
MD: I tried to listen to as many of the sounds as I could and started looking for those that would fit. A lot of it was just noise that could be a little too aggressive. Nobody wants the sound of an engine running at full volume scratching their ear drum.
Once I found the base sounds, the sounds that I really thought could work, I started whittling them down even further. I put them into samplers and ran them through all sorts of processing equipment in my computer, little plugins that made them sound a little bit different.
It’s almost like a painter taking all his paints, starting to mix them on a board and then getting the palette ready for the painting.
“Nobody wants the sound of an engine running at full volume scratching their ear drum.”
TK: How long did it take you to finish Drop Science?
MD: It took me about a week and a half to arrive at a core group of sounds that could easily become something bigger. That’s when I started playing with sequencing and the length of the track.
It was a little confusing at first because some things sounded just too machine-like, just a little too mechanical. But once I made some executive decisions, it fell into place.
TK: What kind of executive decisions?
MD: The drums, for example. I decided that I’m going to create them in my studio with my own equipment. But they will be a reflection of my time spent at the research center. It was kind of a push and pull between what happened and what I imagined happened.
TK: Do you have a favorite sound?
MD: At the lab, they had a really long tube, a test apparatus. I was running up and down and messing with it and hitting it with a stick. It sounded like you were dropping a coin into a thousand-foot well. It had a really cool, bubbly reverb sound.
Matthew Dear is making metal music.
TK: What about machine sounds?
MD: It terms of the sounds they gave me, I liked the MRI sounds the best. They were hit or miss, but those that really worked reminded me of a lot of stuff that I use in my own songs. They were very cyclical, almost like a sequencer. They sounded like an analog synthesizer that I could loop and play with.
TK: What kind of sounds did GE give you?
MD: They gave me a whole batch of sounds. There were sounds from some equipment north of the Arctic Circle in Norway and also from a jet engine test. I couldn’t go to all of those places myself. I took them and blended them with those that I recorded personally.
TK: Could you record anywhere at the lab?
MD: We didn’t really have any closed doors. I got to see a lot of things and talked to a lot of people. I did not feel at any time that GE had its own notion of what the result should sound like, as it could with a project like this. They were very open to the artistic experience. They wanted the whole thing to be a very natural process.
TK: Can you describe it?
MD: It was like a melding of minds. There was the team from m ss ng p eces filming it, we had The Barbarian Group, which is known for very creative ads that push boundaries, and then GE, which is just so massive and creative in its own sense. It did not feel at any point like it was a commercial experience.
TK: Did you draw inspiration from other projects?
MD: I’m familiar with David Byrne’s installations. It was great to be able to continue the legacy of blending machines and music.