Like that of many minimalist composers, Dreyblatt’s music is by and large quite accessible to the post-techno, post-world music, post-post-rock music listener. Hell, if you’ve ever listened to The Velvet Underground and Nico, you’ll be all right in Dreyblatt’s sound world. The currently Berlin-based sound artist and second-wave minimalist composer’s previous albums and compositions have been characterized by majestic long strings ringing luxuriantly in fabled New York settings. His most famous compositions, such as Nodal Excitation, have consisted of a percussive, drumming “excitement” of open unwound piano wire stretched across the resonating chamber of a double bass. His newest release, however, is less “Venus in Furs” than Metal Machine Music. It is an extreme timbral departure — there are no excited strings here, there is no post-rock repetition of minimalist cells. What does unite Turntable History with Dreyblatt’s previous work and with the groundbreaking sound art of his teacher, Alvin Lucier, of “I am sitting in a room” fame, is its site-specific richness of space — this is a 40-minute recording of a 2009 art installation in Berlin, and it sounds like it was an incredible experience. On Turntable History, the album, the machine noise of everyday life is made surprisingly evocative, but this time the overtones that emerge come in no small part from my imagination of sounds whose source I cannot pinpoint.
The sound for this installation was composed out of recordings Dreyblatt made of a tweaked MRI machine. Dreyblatt was, according to the record label, “fortunate to gain rare permission to record this device in operation without patients being involved,” and he enlisted a technician to tweak the machine to make interesting sounds, rather than to scan a body. Dreyblatt then chopped up the recordings and “grouped the audio segments by pitch, rhythm, and density.” These sounds were then blasted out of five speakers into a circular brick cistern in Berlin. The record that Important has released is the sound of the altered MRI recordings careening through the space. For tones from such a prosaic mechanical source, the sound is remarkably rich, and the feeling of echoes coming unpredictably from all directions is admirably reproduced on the stereo cd. The flat tones are given pathos and subtlety through their degraded reproduction as echoes. The machine’s workmanlike whirring and buzzes becomes at times an elemental groan, a flurry of ticks, or a low-pitched, far-away whistle that I swear is the same one that forms the real hook of the chorus to Wacka Flocka Flame’s hit “No Hands.”
The turntable of the album’s title is not the all-night party machine of the postmodern sonic bricoleur, or the indeterminate neo-dada instrument of John Cage’s compositions, but instead a “media turntable” that slowly rotated in the center of Dreyblatt’s installation, projecting “archival documentation concerning the history of the site” onto the walls (and art-goers), the images moving at different rates, many scrolling backwards at the same rate that the turntable turns, creating the illusion that the text is standing still. What comes to mind in viewing the video is the lighthouse, the impassive sentinel rotating its light: not an eye or a beacon, but a piece of text broadcast out to sea, describing the border between land and water.
The visual references in Dreyblatt’s media installation to the lighthouse, and the site-specific nature of the recording’s echoes, suggest that we should travel to the beacon’s source in order to fully experience the piece. Perhaps. But the monumental blasts that emerge out of the album’s whirs and clicks also seem to reference the foghorn: the diffuse, almost subliminal noise that, for me as a San Franciscan, can weave ghostlike from out of the fog through the city streets into my dreams, even when my eyes are closed. (You can close your eyelids to block out the lighthouse, but you have no earlids to block out the foghorn.) Phenomenologically, the foghorn is almost a pure sound phenomenon, with no physical substance or origin to tie it down, not even in our imaginations. It is a sound with great cultural resonance, one we can talk about as art or part of a landscape, but if most people are like me, I doubt they can describe what a foghorn looks like, how the sound is actually produced, or even point to where it comes from when you hear it. It is a purely abstract emanation from nowhere that has its primary existence in our imaginations. The MRI machine seeks to probe this interior, and Dreyblatt gives us an experience not just of what it is like to be inside an MRI machine, but to be inside one’s head inside an MRI machine that is scanning said head. The freewheeling texts and mysterious noise music careening inside the skull-shaped space of the cistern create a chaotic jumble of shifting perspectives and throbbing echoes. Through this album, we experience a wireless imagination of FT Marinetti’s telegraphic lyricism, the futurist dream: our machines singing to us, even if this can only happen within the bone cisterns of our minds.