Imagine coming home tired from a long day’s work and discovering that someone had written a song for you. After such a gift, the turmoil of the day melts away. I paid nearly a day’s salary for the limited edition of Collected Machine Music, but it was well worth it. (For those who are wondering, I did not spend the week’s salary necessary to procure the tuning fork edition of Björk’s Biophilia.) The limited edition is a uniquely designed chocolate box, wrapped in a bow, with a CD attached. Inside the chocolate box: a music box and a punch strip. (Someone has eaten the chocolates!) The strip plays a beautiful little Plinth song, written just for the recipient; each strip is unique to its owner. A blank strip, hole punch and instructions for creating one’s own music box melody are also enclosed. This box will have a special place in my collection, alongside the music box that accompanied Rhian Sheehan’s Standing in Silence, the waterlogged journal of Plinth’s Music for Smalls Lighthouse, and all the other limited editions from Time Released Sound.
For those on a limited budget, the disc is also available separately, and the music has its own incredible appeal. To these ears, Collected Machine Music is the best music box album ever made. Eight of the tracks first appeared six years ago as Victorian Machine Music 1-8, but the CD3″ swiftly sold out. These tracks now have new titles and appear on Collected Machine Music as tracks 2, 7, 3, 5, 14, 9, 11 and 13. The other seven selections are new, and mix perfectly with their predecessors.
This sort of music is timeless: a reclaimed relic that travels across the centuries with nary a dent. But Plinth (Michael Tanner, reviewed previously at A Closer Listen under his Cloisters guise) is not trying to fool the ear. His compositions sound simultaneously contemporary and historical. As the liner notes declare, “All music within is sourced and reconstructed from the creaking, winding, piping, chiming and wood-knocking of several Victorian parlour music machines, wax cylinder recordings, a French carillon and a seafront calliope”. While the melodies could have been recorded a hundred years ago, their scratched patina marks them as memories of events that never occurred. The whistle that introduces the album could have come from a British soldier making his way across a centuries-old battlefield; the wind of the same piece could have been recorded in the early days of phonography. But neither is true. Throughout the album, the sounds of static and pre-recorded speech provide a layer of detritus that enhances, rather than abrades the melodies within. The entire album sounds like a transmission played after hours on a four-foot-wide cedar radio.
Crickets and clocks, buoys and bells abound, never more so than on the album’s standout cut, “14 Bathwick Hill”. Hints of music box melodies filter through by association: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “Away in a Manger”. Such connections occur because the average person encounters music box sounds primarily through snow globes. But these songs are much more complex: multi-melodic, seldom following a single thread. Tanner is playing with texture more than scale, which means that there’s little material here to inspire an earworm. If anything, it is the added effects that provoke familiarity on repeated listens: the waves and amusement park sounds of “Lullworth Calliope”, the crackly question of “The Musgrave Ritual” . (My friends, what would you do if you were sure you were going to die tomorrow?) Such enhancements provide variety and depth as well as context.
Collected Machine Music is the latest in a long line of pleasingly diverse recordings from Michael Tanner. The packaging is stunning, but the music is the reason to buy this release. Hats off to Tanner and to Time Released Sound for a remarkable accomplishment. (Richard Allen)
Music Box Preparations
14 Bathwick Hill