Practical Mechanics (album review)
Practical Mechanics was a British hobbyist magazine that ran from 1933 to 1963, providing instructions on how to build anything from a bathtub to an airplane alongside articles on the emerging technologies of the space age. Composer Chris Perren has marvellously painted the magazine’s techno-utopianism in a five-movement composition for his Nonsemble, drawing on the machinic rhythms and open harmonies of post-rock and minimalism.
Thanks to a beautifully-typeset score, the album can be performed by anyone with ready access to junk percussion, a sampler, a piano and a string quartet. Perren ingeniously overcomes the notational clutter of long, syncopated “simile” passages by giving each instrument’s cell, number of repetitions and cues in relation to the other instruments. The score is also a great pleasure to read alongside the album, with the notation realising the love of mysterious technical geometry proper to the period.
The first movement The Great Awakening opens with a piano thumping underneath a vintage vocal sample. The piano sounds like the mechanical heartbeat of the watch listed in the sample alongside the elevator, airplane and other modern inventions. Swelling strings punctuate the anxious piano before launching into multi-geared polyrhythms that reach their climax in a magnificent breakdown of harmonic and metrical modulations. This thrilling opening to an album suffused with cold-war nostalgia benefits from comparison with Kinetic Work, the opening of the Montreal viola and percussion grindcore duo Hanged Up’s album Kicker in Tow. While Perren’s polyrhythms provide a greater sense of tumbling, racing freefall than Hanged Up’s energetic changes, Hanged Up use rusty, grimy production values to cast a more cynical pallor over the era’s myth of progress. Like the chrome space-phalli adorning the covers of Practical Mechanics, Nonsemble’s album is impossibly shiny and almost saccharine in its major-mode tonality. It is itself a testament to the spread of affordable technology.
With all my love of technology (more! Better! Faster!) I cannot help thinking that the period in question—with its proliferation of nuclear armaments—and the myth of technological progress in general deserves a healthy dose of morose musical criticism, if only for the gothic-horror kicks. But this would be selfishly steering Perren and Nonsemble towards an entirely different set of musical reference-points, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Lutoslawski rather than Mogwai and Glass.