In a south-facing corner of a concrete live-work space in East London, a bottom-of-the-range Numark turntable struggles heroically to support a teetering tower of records, all spinning together around an improvised spindle extension, churning out some dirty, minimal four-to-the-floor.
At the foot of the pile, the Numark’s tone arm, secured in place by a loop of thread to stop it skating all over the place, rests upon an anonymous UK garage DJ promo, three-quarters covered in translucent acetate so that within each of its thirty-three-and-a-third revolutions-per-minute we hear (roughly speaking) just a half-second burst of sound.
Above that, with just an old roll of packing tape and a slightly-whittled chopstick to hoist it, another disc rotates, this one with a sizeable chunk of its vinyl brutally sliced out. Two retort stands are clamping, above and below this record, a small battery-operated torch and a home-built light sensitive synthesizer that keeps up a steady fffzzzz leaping into an ecstatic waaow each time the holes passes overhead, exposing torch light to synth sensor.
“One thing that I found really frustrating is that in a computer everything is so rigid.”
Another roll of tape up, a third record is partially coated in strips of aluminium foil which at regular intervals make contact with a wire which triggers a solenoid to flick at a broken cymbal on a stand beside the desk.
A fourth has been so modded as to resemble an evenly-space sequence of inclines and sudden cliffs which latter trigger a small rubber beater poised delicately between to pound upon an exposed speaker cone to make a steady bass drum thud.
A fifth and final vinyl is studded with safety pins regularly striking a hanging contact mic leading to a Nord drum synth to trigger snares, claps, and assorted percussive trills.
Graham Dunning’s Mechanical Techno project – of which the above describes merely one of many possible iterations and only a fraction of its various modules – is an enterprise made possible by two otherwise fairly distinct historical trajectories. On the one hand, an art world lineage of vinyl abuse: from the burnt, scraped, broken and re-glued husks of Milan Knížák’s Broken Music to the dis- and re-membered plunderphonic LP-sculptures of Christian Marclay. On the other hand, the gradual appearance, in charity shops throughout Hackney, of a vast panoply of cheap-as-chips dance music white labels.
But Dunning himself, not art school graduate nor house DJ gone feral, is descended from neither of these illustrious family trees. His experiments in turntablism began while a member of Manchester-based improvising noise duo Blood Moon. He was, ostensibly, the drummer, but much as his partner in the band, Louise Woodcock (now of 2 Koi Karp), had a penchant for playing her guitar with a drumstick, Dunning soon found himself experimenting with attachable drum synths and turntables. Before he knew it, he was onstage alone with three cheap decks, “Performing live with different textures, cutting up records and stuff.”
“I really like repetitive music, but you need to have some variation.”
“I made this one turntable which plays either really fast or really slow with variable speed so you can get different sounds out of that,” he tells me in the midst of applying a sweep of echo from an old reel-to-reel to the thunk of beater on speaker cone. “You start experimenting with different things, trying to see what sounds you can make with turntables.”
The obvious question, of course, is why bother with such a complex tangle of equipment when you could achieve much the same result with a laptop and a cracked copy of FruityLoops? “I have thought about that,” Dunning concedes. “But one thing that I found really frustrating is that in a computer everything is so rigid.”
He’s done the FruityLoops thing. Even painstakingly sampled every drum sound from old disco records to avoid the cliché of presets and cheesy VST sounds, “but you get sick of hearing the same disco sample over and over again, and it always sounds exactly the same. It’s always exactly on point in the bar. This system introduces quite a lot of unknown elements.” The needle on the partially-acetate-covered record may skip unpredictably to another groove; the thunk upon the speaker cone contains myriad tiny irregularities; there’s buzz and accumulating fur and an uneven spread of background noise; even the weight of piling so much stuff onto such a cheap deck tends to slow the thing down a bit more with each additional layer.
“It’s like a badly-oiled machine, a machine that is almost falling to pieces.”
“I really like repetitive music,” Dunning tells me, “but you need to have some variation.” It reminds me of the German pop artist Thomas Bayrle’s insistence that the brain subconsciously detects the boringness of digital repetition as opposed to the infinite – if minuscule – variation of analogue (Bayrle’s practice favours screen printing). But Dunning prefers to speak of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who referred to dub as “the ghost in me coming out”. The thing sounds and feels alive in the way a live drummer – no matter how militarily precise – feels and sounds alive.
“Ultimately,” Dunning claims, “the output, the things that I’m releasing, do sound like things that you could play in a normal DJ set.” And live audiences, whether they’re whooping, thrusting and fighting as at a recent Power Lunches show, or succumbing to the seemingly-irresistible urge to start nodding and foot-tapping when the set-up is brought into a more sedate art gallery-type context, tend to respond physically to the music much as they would to more traditionally produced techno. “It’s on that line between functional dance music and something more abstract. You get this kind of wonkiness, what they use to call blue notes. It’s like a badly-oiled machine, a machine that is almost falling to pieces.”