We last encountered Perth composer Sam Gillies on the Music for Computers EP and Cycle~ 440 album, but this new work goes far beyond those in ambition, scope and execution. The concept is simple: to create a sonic document of human reactions to natural disaster. Such events seem to have become commonplace in recent years, the latest an earthquake in China; but by default, Warning Tones also addresses acts of terrorism, in fact, any event marked by vast human suffering. People are desperate for information; they seek loved ones; they struggle for meaning; they ask why; they grieve; they go on. Sam Gillies combines interviews, field recordings and computerized manipulations to form a sombre soundscape of destruction and its aftermath. As the first work of a series, it’s an amazing launch.
Much of Warning Tones unfolds less as music than as a looped documentary, with words and sound samples repeating and doubling back on themselves. In “Overtones”, a voice speaks in measured tones while static bursts interrupt and a truck travels round and round. The intimation is that the shock of disaster can trump any human response. What is one to do in the face of overwhelming tragedy? How can reason prevail? Few answers are forthcoming.
One of Gillies’ primary tools, the drone, is as unnerving as a chirping Geiger counter, especially when set against a benign backgound such as the carnival noises of “Sliding Planes”. In one of the album’s most effective tracks, “Phases”, multiple warning tones accumulate – beeps, whirrs, rustles – falling momentarily into silence before returning with a vengeance. It’s as if all one’s alarms, from carbon monoxide detectors to car horns to home intruder alerts, started sounding at once. While purposely unpleasant, these sounds are dramatic and exciting; this is not an album of rest.
Warning Tones also serves as a rebuttal to those who believe that field recordings are all about rivers and birds. When Simon Whetham travels to Kazimierz, or Peter Cusack to Chernobyl, the recordings are no less valid; they convey a different message, and carry a different weight. Gilles’ sources may startle, but they also bear witness to the rubble and regret. Sometimes there are no answers to be found, and the most that one can hope for is a shared sorrow. (Richard Allen)