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  • Musica Automata:Machines and Bodies
  • Caroline Wilkins

One of my main musical concerns is with the "play of time," a dialogue between present and past. It is possible for music to travel through time quite freely, by sliding through different contexts and juxtaposing different influences. To look at what has gone before and see these origins in relation to the present is to observe tradition from a new perspective, removed from its usual context.

Early recording methods (see Fig. 2) and music machines reveal an undisguised rawness in their sound. It is exactly this immediacy, this undeniable imperfection of a sound-source, that interests me—the "body," or physicality of a machine. Any comparison between past and present is all the more pointed when seen in relation to contemporary expectations of sound quality, where increasing refinement and standardization assume an underlying aesthetic. I would like to address what it is that has been refined in sound recording and what we have perhaps ignored in the process.

In my earlier compositions, this research resulted in a number of purely electro-acoustic works, such as Music for Mechanical Instruments (1987), or in the combination of live music with machines, as in for accordion and phonograph (1986). More recently, I have become interested in the medium of radiophonic art as a way of exploring this aesthetic further. Theatri Machinarum—Theatre of Machines, which was realized at the Studio for Acoustic Art, West German Radio, in 1994, creates a "dialogue" between the mechanisms of early machines and the movement of objects recorded in a large echoing room. For example, a small toy music box placed on a metal resonator and played very slowly is heard together with the sound of a glass chandelier stirred into motion—each recording retaining its own corporeal reality, its own acoustic environment.

Mecanica Natura, produced in 1999 at the same studio, is a further development of this theme, where music machines come into dialogue with the rhythms and patterns of environmental sound. In this case, I used both historical and contemporary material, such as early recordings of Percy Grainger's Free Music Machines[1] and a Talking Machine, invented by Martin Riches, a British artist living in Berlin [2]. A third element of the work, alongside the music machines and environmental sound, is a composition for flutes, entitled ffffff . . . , which I wrote earlier in 1996 as a result of encountering Riches' Flute-Playing Machine[3]. This composition provides a vital link between the other sound material, stemming as it does from the same influences of mechanical and natural environmental sound.

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Fig. 2.

Caroline Wilkins, 78-rpm record and pick-up arm of gramophone. "Schalldose," meaning literally "soundbox," indicates the method of amplification used in early sound reproduction, a small diaphragm being built into the pick-up arm itself and converting the shellac grooves into sound waves.

Photo © Caroline Wilkins

For the purposes of radio broadcast the production team at West German Radio—Daniel Velasco, Barbar Gobel and I—made a stereo version of Mecanica Natura. However, during the same time we also realized a version for five-channel distribution in a live performance situation with a flautist, in order to effectively "spatialize" the numerous sound elements.

Grainger's search for a "free music," reflecting the sounds of nature, led him to write complex rhythms and "gliding" tones [4] that were only possible to achieve with machines. This apparent contradiction to nature is exactly where Mecanica Natura begins. Natural sounds juxtaposed with those of machines take on a different aspect when their "mechanisms" become perceptible through the medium of microphone and sound analysis. Our acoustic reality is no longer "natural" as such. We hear "another nature" through the experience of sound reproduction, of the microphone "without a consciousness," to refer to Walter Benjamin's study The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction[5]. My work confronts this question of our relation to environmental sound, language and music as something unconsciously repeatable through means of technology.

Caroline Wilkins
1 Rue Croix Paillere, 79500 Melle, France.
Received 21 March 2001. Accepted for publication by Roger F. Malina.

References and Notes

1. Percy...


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