Preston Field Audio Conductor

[Set Foot Press; 2019]

Styles: public performance, concrète, concrete
Others: Brian Eno, Celer, Kate Carr, Nate Scheible

The blinkered history of British brutalism is one that could perhaps be reduced to a central contradiction: New horizons and brighter futures found themselves materialized in stark, imposing structures, replete with rough edges and muted colors. Of course, the modernist architecture of post-war Britain, from social housing to public spaces, now largely stands as a testament to its own failure; that is, if it even stands at all. Some buildings, like the Central Library in Birmingham, have been demolished to make way for “development” (read: the creeping destruction of social history, to be swiftly replaced by the tendrils of capital), whereas others stand for the utter ruination of families and communities in the form of a scorched apparition that dangles in the sky, a direct and deliberate result of government malpractice.

Even the brutalist buildings that do remain seem to be at best imbued with an overbearing melancholy, their unambiguous béton brut stylings increasingly out of step with the corporate sheen that characterizes the urban landscape of Britain today. At worst, they are being turned into fucking luxury apartments. The postmodernist in me wants to say that brutalism’s failure is an inevitable consequence of its ambitious sweep or that it could never outrun the rampancy of capital. Still, the brutalist legacy is not some philosophical abstraction, nor is it a mere matter of aesthetics; materially, it’s surviving, still kicking against the (largely-the-same) pricks. Preston’s bus station is one of the foremost examples of actually-existing brutalism: completed in 1969 and earmarked for demolition in 2012, it’s now protected by English Heritage and most importantly retains its function as the city’s main station, that transactional space through which life and lives are mediated, hour by hour, day after day.

It is against this highly-localized terrain that we find Preston Field Audio a.k.a. Carl Brown and Conductor, a tape that documents a recent public performance within Preston Bus Station itself. The performance, involving 32 buses and a number of volunteers within the station concourse, marked 50 years of the station’s existence, which has also recently seen its original rubber flooring, white tiling, and Helvetica signage restored. Preston Field Audio’s concrète soundtrack, apropos of the venue, is inculcated with physical and social history, and as such there is a lovingly-captured specificity — one that can’t be mistaken for insularity — to the reverberations and movements of the performance.

Conductor begins with the chimes and announcements that so typically mark public transit; gradually, these sounds are warped, drawn out, and set atop one another, to disorientating effect. The normalcy of travelling by bus is disrupted, perhaps mirroring the unequivocal trappings of the site, the extremity of a structure more akin to an airport than a bus station. Roving words and mangled chimes are then lost in sheaves of distortion, before the piece begins its dérive into more glacial territory, mirroring the gentle movement of the buses outside. In a nod to historical tradition, the chaotic denouement sees the sounding of the horns of all 32 buses, as was customary for the last buses to leave the station at night during the 1970s and 80s.

This is an enrapturing recording, so bound up as it is with local history — the sounds of the station and its patrons, all echoing between its vast uprights and walkways, makes for an intriguing listen. Side B contains the studio recording of the performance, which more closely appreciates the minute details and subtle shifts of the piece. Nevertheless, the live recording seems indispensable as a slice of lived, and still-living, history. The sounds of children screaming and punters shuffling along the concourse serve as poignant reminders of the continuing utility of this equally loved and reviled public space, saved from destruction due in no small part to the collective will of the local community.

Carl Brown has described the Preston Field Audio project as the “riverside reverb, the café cacophony and high street hum.” Ever-mutative, in constant flux, but always steeped in Preston itself, Conductor, in its particularity, gestures beyond its locale, toward the more universal implications of community-building and the protection of social history. It’s easy to get caught in the ephemera and transience of, say, travel, but these places contain multitudes. These trace elements, so fondly embodied by Conductor, constitute the forging of something like a future out of the utter excess of the past; Brown casts his eye upon the Station not with melancholy or longing, but with quiet reverie.

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