Interview: Graham Dunning and the Mechanical Techno Machine
Interview: Graham Dunning and the Mechanical Techno Machine
How the experimental sound artist improvises with his self-playing Frankenstein turntable
Multiple layers of modified records rotate on the turntable. Some of the vinyl has been sliced and bent, while others have little nuts and bolts drilled in or are covered in stickers to blank out certain sections. A ring stand—normally used to clamp test tubes in laboratories—holds a few contact mics. The tonearm is precariously held in place, tethered by a string leash. With every revolution, analog synths and drum machines are triggered. A beat even gets tapped out on a cowbell, without any human touch. This is Mechanical Techno.
The main characteristic of this "machine's" music is its inclination toward irregularity and variation, despite the repetitive structure. The DIY nature of the set-up allows for mistakes and accidents—contrasting with traditional dance music's rigid rhythms and melodies. The latter can feel fatiguing after some time due to its robotic exactness, but the Mechanical Techno is like the impulsive amateur drummer in a punk band. When a new video demonstrating Graham Dunning's self-playing Mechanical Techno machine surfaced on YouTube last week, we reached out to learn more about the artist's improvisational techno music-making tool.
Dunning, a London-based musician and sound artist, is attracted to found sound and objects, sampling and manipulating them to reveal memories, artifacts, age in fragments. Think decades-old tape spools to homemade cassettes, and of course, vinyl. "Partly it's the weight of stories behind them—it fascinates me to bring things back to life that were once loved but then got chucked away," Dunning tells CH. "And partly it's come from necessity—DIY—making it up as you go along and on the cheap."
"People have a strange relationship with records. They're still quite expensive to buy, but a lot do go out of fashion very quickly. All the ones I use for stuff are secondhand—either found in bins or on the street, or in charity shops or car boot sales," remarks Dunning. "There are crates and crates of the things that nobody wants. Round here, about 80% of those are from elderly people who've passed away, whole collections of popular classical music, easy listening, Irish music, soundtracks to musicals, etc. Most of the rest are dance music—collections [DJs] no longer want, because it's unfashionable, or they've given up DJing or whatever. For the Mechanical Techno project I only use white labels. So it's all from unwanted dance music, but records that would have been very precious (artistically if not in monetary terms) to the person who owned them. Either that or represented someone's hopes and dreams—a short-run pressing of their hit single that never was."
Taking inspiration from Milan Knížák and Christian Marclay—conceptual artists who intentionally damaged records to create new sound works—Dunning began modifying records and turntables while making "musical" drone/noise with fellow artist Gary Fisher in 2009. While most of us are satisfied listening to the music preserved within the grooves, Dunning was interested in something beyond their preserved content. Rather, letting the materiality of the records expose themselves: their crackle, their noise and hisses. It's viewing the record player as an instrument itself, not a messenger. These earlier experiments, from a hacked turntable with a variable speed as slow as 16rpm to about 180rpm (instead of the standard settings of 33⅓ and 45) to dropping marbles on a spinning record, would eventually inform the Mechanical Techno project. (The idea for multiple tiers came from watching Vinyl Terror and Horror, a Danish duo, mutate records.)
Each iteration of the Mechanical Techno machine is always different. "The building of the machine is the composition of the track," says Dunning, who wanted a new tool for writing music in the studio. This construction and recording process that he describes to us is intricate. "Obviously the bottom layer comes first—and that's where the main turntable's tonearm is, so that gives me some limitations. I can either play a 'sample'—or use the sound from the turntable to trigger the synth or the drum synth. Normally I go for the former. Then I plug that into the mixing board, find something I like and move to the next layer. Add that in and get it sounding good; each layer suggests what the next one might be. I add things a bit at a time until it feels like there is enough to play with to make a track."
"I just leave the recorder rolling and do a few dubs. Some might be a couple of minutes long, others like 20 mins, sometimes up to an hour. It can end up sounding totally different than when I started sometimes. Just gradually changing all the parameters individually changes the whole. Moving the tone arm on the 'sampling' records can give a totally different sound too!" says Dunning. "I've recently been reading some Deleuze and Guitarri and thinking about their concept of rhizomes and how that relates to this. That each of the parts affects each of the others," in a non-hierarchical way.
Listening to a recording that used Mechanical Techno, embedded above, there's an oddly human, faltering temperament to all of the repeating sounds in "Ends" that contrasts deeply with the actual drum machines and perfectly quantized beats of today's club tunes. "A friend of mine said that track sounds like it could fall to pieces at any moment, which I like," says Dunning. And it's still very much a grimy techno track—one that captures your full attention as your brain tries to latch onto the clumsy yet tension-filled rhythms.
While originally meant for composition, Mechanical Techno has successfully been incorporated into Dunning's live performances. He can build layer by layer in front of the audience, deconstruct it, and build something else all in the same set. "Playing with this set-up is like improvising with another person," he says. "Albeit a slightly more repetitive person I suppose than a real one."
"It's an ongoing project, so I will continue making recordings—that's the fun part for me, really," says Dunning on how Mechanical Techno might evolve. "The thing I like about it is that it's totally modular—I can invent a new "layer" and it just slots right in with the others. Planning on doing some more stuff with triggered solenoids to play acoustic things/drums. I've done a bit of that already but more can be done. I need to keep it lo-fi though really; it needs to be a bit ramshackle." He's also incorporated light as an element. Dunning uses a light-controlled analog noise machine, the Pico Paso, that goes haywire when he places a few prisms on top of Mechanical Techno—making for an unexpected audiovisual climax during his sets.
Hero image courtesy of Brian Wahr, profile image courtesy of Elyssa Ionna, final image courtesy of Jonathan Waring