Graham Dunning - Mechanical Techno Wizardry

Graham Dunning - Mechanical Techno Wizardry

February 24, 2016

Written by:

Beatrice Sommer

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What is mechanical techno?

Graham Dunning is an experimental artist living and working in London. He uses tape, dubplates, field-recordings and home-made electronics to make sound in a variety of genres. Dunning incorporates mechanical rhythm generators into his performances, to create an alternative to computer-perfect repetition. His work explores time and commemoration: how people store their memories, in personal archives - photographs, audio journals, post-it notes - and what becomes of those archives.He finds discarded objects interesting in themselves, for the stories that they suggest or that can be read into them.

This is an interview with Graham Dunning via email.

When and how did you become interested in making mechanical music?

The Mechanical Techno project developed from other stuff I was already working on. In 2009 I started experimenting with turntables and modified records with a view to using this in an experimental music context. I used these in early live sets to create abstract collages of rhythm and drone. Looping rhythms from scratched up, retextured or partially blanked-out records have been a part of my work since then. Lots of small things developed over time to contribute to the project. The realization I could trigger a synth with the rhythms of record crackle was a big one, something I discovered at a workshop I ran at my studio for artists working with turntables in 2013. I made this track with that method.

I've been playing objects and things other than records on turntables since 2009 too. A glass clock face, a metal disk, broken cymbals. Stones and marbles. Exploring combining rhythms from different sources more, I put together this machine in January 2014. That was when I also started calling it mechanical techno.

Around that time I saw this video by Danish experimental turntable duo Vinyl Terror and Horror. I realized that their technique of stacking up the records would also work really well for rhythmical compositions - all the layers rotate together so they will always stay in sync. I used the idea in the mechanical techno setup and developed it from there.

I bought a drum synth module which I could trigger with piezo contact mics, which started to give it a much more banging, electronic feel. The first live set in which I used the techniques was in Brighton in February 2014.

What was the creative process of the project Mechanical Techno?

As a project it's constantly evolving. It began just as a studio thing really as I thought it would be too cumbersome to carry all the gear around to gigs, and in the studio I build the machine differently every time. I played a couple of live sets incorporating parts of the setup, and finally now perform with the whole thing live.

What I like about it is that it's modular, so can keep growing all the time. I can come up with a new idea and know it will fit alongside the existing sound sources - I can add different things on different levels of the machine and they will always stay in sync.

So, for example, the mechanical cowbell was a later addition that took a few failed attempts before I could get it to work. The copper disk sequencer I developed over the course of a month at Machines Room, using the pattern plotter and laser cutting machines there. I've been working on triggering solenoids to play other acoustic objects, but this needs a lot more work.

There are also lots of minor adjustments that happen with each new recording setup or performance. Sometimes it totally surprises me with something I could never have planned. At one gig, a speaker I was using as a bass drum started feeding back, due to the low frequencies coming from the subs of the PA. Due to the specific physics of the space, it was pulsing rhythmically with the track I was creating, so it worked perfectly to incorporate it into the set. So feedback systems are something else I'm now starting to incorporate.

Sometimes I also adapt the setup for a specific performance. One event was linked to Brion Gysin's Dream Machine - a rotating cylinder around a light-bulb, which creates stroboscopic patterns with the intention of triggering a trance state. I made a miniature version to incorporate into my setup, using the rotating lights to create a pulsing pattern from a light-responsive synth.

How do you feel about your project ''Mechanical Techno'' becoming so popular? Does its success influence you in a certain way?

It was quite crazy to see the video 'go viral', interesting to see how it spread. I was booked to play a gig in Berlin in February which came directly from the video. It's also a great way for me to explain the project to people. Having more opportunities to perform with the project has helped me improve it, but I'm trying to keep to the original function of the machine - for composing new tracks that I might not otherwise be able to write. I'm focusing on the things I can do with the machine that would be harder to do with a computer, drawing out the fallibilities and inconsistencies, the wonkiness and mistakes.

My process is to set some initial parameters or restrictions, initial conditions, then set about seeing what happens. There's no wrong answer, you might prove or disprove the hypothesis, the results are equally valid.
Graham Dunning
Graham Dunning


Are you musically trained? Do you play any music instrument? Are you interested in that?

I had a few keyboard lessons as a teenager but I mostly hated it - I was into grunge music and just wasn't interested in learning to play Imagine on a Yamaha organ. Also I couldn't get the hang of reading music properly so it made it a real chore to practice. Later had lessons on bass guitar for a bit, but by then was playing in a punk band so mostly learned through doing. I taught myself to play drums later (listening to Abba Gold and working out the beats) and think that's probably my favorite instrument to play.

My main musical learning from school was through the kindness of my music teacher Mrs Lowe. She could see I was interested in music production and recording. I was allowed to go on the one music computer when the rest of the class played the keyboards. You had to program the notes in as musical notation. I was writing primitive break beat stuff, midi snare rushes. She also let me borrow a four-track tape recorder over the summer break - my first experiments into tape production came from that. I own the same model now and do lots of recording with it.

Can you please talk about your musical background? How did you get to this form of making music?

I was in various punk bands at school and college in the late 90s, playing either bass or drums. But also introducing bits of tape loops, a home made square wave synth, rudimentary sampling from records. Lots of experiments with four-track production round that time too.

I went to university to study physics, and spent all my student loans on a computer for recording music, a mini-disk recorder and some old synths. Lots of recording electronic music, plus playing live electronics in a noisy band.

Later I started a band called Blood Moon with artist Louise Woodcock - this was my first steps into improvised music. Blood Moon was loud, Dionysian, primal. Doom, feedback, motorik rhythms, sub-bass, screaming. We made our own amps and distortion pedals. We practised and recorded in a derelict Victorian mill, it felt very industrial.

Later, as more of my friends were artists and experimental musicians than folks in normal bands, I began to think in terms of art - this seemed to really open things up for me in creative terms. I managed to get onto a week long artist's residency near Düsseldorf. Having that time to make things and think about what I wanted to do gave me a good kick start.

I played my first "sound art" gig in 2009 with Gary Fisher, whose work still really inspires me. I was using modified records and electronics, and a dubplate of a video piece I had in the exhibition.

Graham Dunning
Graham Dunning

Collecting things

Please tell us how did you end up doing the project Music by the Metre.

The catalyst for the project came from a small segment in a video documentary about the Situationist International. It mentioned Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio's Industrial Painting project - the artist made machines to fill rolls of canvas with abstract designs, then cut up the scrolls and sold the pieces by the metre. There was very little detail but I had the idea to make an analogous audio project, and also to use it as an excuse to do more research into the artist.

For my recordings I set up record players, tape loops, synth drone, live environmental mics and other continuous sound sources, to create a polyrhythmic, shifting collage of textures and drones. I then left the sound to run and fill both sides of a spool of tape. Finally I set up a stall at an art fair to sell sections of the tape by the metre. I enjoyed the restrictions of composing in this way and was pleased with the sounds which resulted - different to what I would have made without these restrictions.
In subsequent iterations I've made recordings live at festivals, and given demonstrations of the process.

Mechanical Techno developed out of this project, a way of performing the machine rather than just leaving it to run.

Have you thought about your music as written music?

I'm not trained as a musician, and don't need to read music for what I do, so don't think in those terms at all really. Notated music, even graphic scores, can only get across so much information – there's an inbuilt limitation. This can be interesting in that the musician still has an interpretive (improvisatory) role in realising the song. But I'm not sure how it would relate to my recordings.

I think a lot of the stuff I make is to do with the specifics of 'sound' as opposed to 'music', as it is thought of in terms of pitch, melody, harmony and things like that. I'm interested in the textures, sonic spaces, inconsistencies and grain of sounds, more then the actual notes played.

Have you ever been a collector? Why do you collect things?

I've always collected things - interesting things found in the street like nuts and bolts, stones, bits of paper. I've never been an obsessive collector though, a completist or a purist. I think there are different kinds of collector. For some people it seems to be purely about accumulation. For others it's a sense of getting to the end of the collection, perhaps even competitive. I'm more interested in the stories behind objects, or more, guessing what the stories might be behind ambiguous objects.

One thing I collect is homemade cassette covers. Handwritten or drawn, sometimes photocopied or collaged. People spent time crafting something just for themselves, or a friend maybe. It's not the kind of thing you can really set out to go and buy, they just turn up sometimes in crates of second-hand tapes. It's a thrill to find something like this and imagine the story behind it, the person who made it.

What is your most treasured possession/tape/collected item?

I have a pair of small framed pictures that I've kept with me for about 15 years - I forget where I even got them now. They're two fairly muted watercolours of mountains in America, In battered white frames. Looking closer you can see that they're pictures carefully cut out of a magazine, with faint handwritten annotations in pencil. I really like how they look and the care that someone took to put them together. There's a real sadness to them but I can't tell where it comes from.

Graham Dunning
Graham Dunning


You are using a lot of experimentation in the process of making music. What is experimentation for you? How does leads to a final form in your work?

My process is to set some initial parameters or restrictions, initial conditions, then set about seeing what happens. There's no wrong answer, you might prove or disprove the hypothesis, the results are equally valid. With this approach, making recordings is fluid and improvisatory - new ideas can be introduced, picked up and taken forward. The end result is often very different from what I thought might have happened when I started, which is what keeps it exciting for me.

What music do you listen to?

My taste's pretty broad but I don't put as much time aside to properly listen to music as much as I'd like. If I'm out and about I often listen to techno and house mixes, there's a station called Project London, which plays lots of good stuff. I mostly buy stuff at gigs by artists whose sets I've enjoyed - and also listen to quite a lot of stuff preparing my radio show, Fractal Meat on Spongy Bone, which is focused on sound art and experimental music. Quite often I need a break from music, so listen to podcasts rather than music.
I get most out of music from watching it performed live I think. To see the interactions between the players, their instruments and the audience. I like a lot of long form music, drone, free improvised stuff, things that slowly evolve or draw you in with repetition.

What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?

I think the work I've been most pleased with has been stuff I've done with AAS, a group I'm a member of. Our work draws together lots of different strands I'm interested in: sound and affect, improvisation (in various forms), alternative ways of creating a performance, molecular collaboration. In particular, some performance-installations, such as Cult of Possible Elements and Lammas Drone Silo had lots of layers of meaning, lots of different components, tangled threads based on research into all kinds of areas. It's really exciting to work on these projects.

Can you please name some artists/musicians that made an impression upon you, musically?

I've been quite influenced by some of the maverick, diy music producers - people who've done things in their own way, and brought experimental practices into music mainly through necessity. King Tubby is an influence in many ways - modifying and adapting his equipment, using existing sound sources and remixing them to create new compositions, using the mixing desk and effects as an instrument to improvise with. Likewise Daphne Oram was really visionary in both her music making and her technological innovations, and had some really interesting ideas about education around music and sound. Joe Meek, who lived and worked not far from where I live in London, turned his whole flat into a studio, recording string quartets in the bathroom and covering the floor in tar for soundproofing.

I think the idea of the bedroom producer is really appealing to me. Arthur Russell was inspiring, both in his disco productions and his cello works. There's a great album of early acid house jams A Guy Called Gerald recorded to tape, apparently recorded in his attic studio.

More recently Karen Gwyer has been a big influence - her take on deconstructed dance music is really interesting, flowing thick melody lines, unusual use of percussion and a general maximal sound. I really like Aine O'Dwyer, an improvising musician and performance artist based in London - she's probably my favorite live performer at the moment. Known as an experimental harp player, she also plays sets using pipe organ. Her sets are always refreshing, often very melancholy but often with deliberately jarring sections or silly interludes.

Graham Dunning
Graham Dunning


What were the circumstances of you becoming a tutor? How do you connect with your pupils and what do you find is hardest to teach them?

I've given workshops in different aspects of my practice since 2010, at galleries or sometimes colleges and universities. I saw a role advertised for someone to teach Experimental Sound Art in 2013, just as I'd been made redundant from another teaching job because of government funding cuts. There was a brief course description but apart from that I was left to design and plan the course myself.

Over the year I teach three terms, focusing on performance, composition and installation. Some of the sessions include vinyl manipulation, tape loops, free improvisation, sound poetry, field recording, audio editing and lots more. It's great fun to teach, to get people trying new things and exploring the world of sound.

I keep the sessions very open and properly experimental – there's no wrong way to do things, and the students constantly surprise me with their imaginative ideas.
The course is for adults, it's an evening course and people give up their time to attend – so everyone's enthusiastic and keen to learn. I try and harness that enthusiasm and give people space to play and test things out.

Disintegration is one of the main aspects of your work. What are some of the artists that inspire you most?

I think of disintegration in terms of decay or more specifically entropy. As a process which is inevitable and also points to the arrow of time. Embracing record crackle and tape hiss, these textures which are a byproduct of consumer products decaying, is to embrace entropy.

Things are constantly recycled, breaking down and reconstituting. Everything is fuzzy at the edges, so this chaos allows things to change form, slide around and regrow. I really like Maria Chavez' work, she's very thorough in breaking down preconceived ideas of music making. She's literally written the book on destructive turntable techniques, with chance operations through playing broken record shards as part of that. Her concepts and practice go really deep.

Justin Wiggan's dead-songs project is really interesting - burying records until their sleeves have decayed and stuck to the surface, then exhuming them and using them as the basis of compositions.

I've also been collaborating with Andrew Leslie Hooker on a new project called Dirt & Space, in which we both experimenting with analogue tape, dub effects and malfunctioning mixing desks. Based partly on some of the myths of Lee Scratch Perry - burying master tapes, and encouraging smoke and dirt to settle on his console, to improve the sound.

A nice piece made by Michael Ridge recently was a cassette with in-built blade which would destroy the tape the first time it played.

Do you ever completely destroy material you create?

I made an installation in 2010, which invited people to smash up unsold copies of my old band's self-released record. I also submitted something to the Manchester Artists' Bonfire. Generally though, destruction isn't a big part of my work - I think more in terms of recycling, breaking things down to rebuild them into something new.

About the Author

Beatrice Sommer

Beatrice is an Anthropology student and everyday life enthusiast. She has an affinity for avant-garde music and is involved in the alternative underground scene of Bucharest.

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