Thursday, September 25, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (I)

Memories of Steam (A Collection of Steam Locomotive Stereophonic Recordings, recorded and compiled by Kenneth Granville Attwood) (Hallmark, 1970)
I must admit that when I purchased this LP for 50p in a flea market in Leeds (least romantic of cities!), it was definitely in the spirit of contemptuous curiosity towards this strange novelty. I chortled to myself: "What kind of acne-splattered, anorak-shrouded, thick-rimmed-spectacle-wearing obsessive trainspotter would fork out money for an entire record of steam engine noises?" My amusement was heightened by the snoringly detailed liner notes, which act as a stage-by-stage guide to the sounds heard on each of the 19 tracks ("Shortly after leaving, 70013 develops a leaky cylinder gland... with steam bursting out of the open cylinder drain valves, [the train] heads towards the points adjacent to the engineman's bothy... 44709 passes with a squeaking noise from the valve motion..." and so forth). I brought it back with me when I returned to Dublin and promptly forgot about it entirely, neglecting to play it even once. Only comparatively recently, when I was in the process of shifting my records out of the barely-believable chaos of my attic, did I come upon it again and, in a fit of joie de vivre, hurled it onto the turntable and actually listened to it from start to finish. And I'm delighted to say that it's bloody brilliant, and anyone with the slightest enthusiasm for contemporary composition, electronica, sound art, or (of course) trains, will definitely get a kick out of it.
Firstly, I suppose I should apologise to the imaginary trainspotter whom I so cruelly maligned above. Whilst it is certainly true that the hobby does attract a rather strange, geeky, and fixated class of person, I can genuinely understand why someone would fall in love with these remarkable machines. There is something wonderfully evocative about the sound of a steam engine as it trundles along, redolent with tradition and possibility, and it must be a glorious (if leisurely) way to traverse the countryside on a fine day. And many of those who sneer at trainspotters are the sort who'd waste a whole afternoon in a pub swilling lager and gassing on interminably, for hours, about football or golf, without realising they're indulging in the same nitpicking and obsessive behaviour, just on a different subject.
Personally, I've always loved the experience of travelling by train, especially through a dense and grimy metropolis (ah, the trains in London! Pulling into St. Pancra's after passing the huge gas towers and crumbling brick buildings! The wonderful sounds of the tube train as you travel out to the East End! The not-quite-so-wonderful odours and inexplicable stains on the seats! That fabulous moment as the train leaves the bowels of the city and goes overground! [Continues droning on like this for several minutes...]) But even for someone who hasn't the slightest affinity for the locomotive and its evocative quality, these pieces are still fascinating. They are like miniature compositions - sound paintings (if you like) - utilising a whole array of dissonant sounds which are echoed in a lot of contemporary experimental music and should have an immediate appeal to anyone who, like me, has a deep and abiding passion for seriously horrible noise. The thumping, insistent piston rhythms as the trains gather speed would certainly strike a chord with any fan of the odder reaches of dance music and electronica (I'm thinking of Autechre or Squarepusher in particular) but can equally be seen as an inspiration, in part, for the machine-like beats of music like funk and techno, which came out of a heavily urbanised and mechanised environment. The metallic clonks, groans, scrapes, and shrieks, often startling abstract and grating, as the trains pull into stations (their leaky cylinder glands protesting!) are not a million miles from the musical landscapes created by such giants as Karlheinz Stockhausen (check out Mikrophone I to see what I mean). And one can easily imagine free jazz and Improv titans like Evan Parker or Anthony Braxton pitting their saxes against these sounds to create a stormy, bracing, and exhilarating noise (in fact, it seems right up Braxton's alley, considering some of his more unusual projects; Composition 500 for contrabass clarinet and steam engine, anyone? It would sound awesome!) Credit must go to KG Attwood here, whose choice of tracks seems to betray an aesthetic as well as a scientific intent; if one listens to them simply as abstract sounds they come across as Cageian "compositions" of remarkable, if unintentional, charm and intelligence. (By contrast, I have a different LP of train sounds recorded in the 1940s which is much more pedestrian and dreary, and demonstrates the discernment shown here.) I can't imagine ever buying another LP like this - two is quite enough! - but I can picture myself dusting it off every now and again and listening with genuine pleasure. It's certainly more stimulating, and the sounds more agreeable to my ear, than, say, pompous buffoons like U2, and definitely worth 50p!

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