Senator Ted Stevens may have accomplished a lot as a politician, but he is best remembered for calling the internet “a series of tubes.” Fast-forward to 2017, and our digital storage is now in “the cloud,” which has certainly caused some spatial misunderstandings among Luddites. It’s actually a fun fantasy to have, thinking of our music stored in a fluffy little cloud overhead. Our phones may break, but when they do, musical notes will descend from on high, tags and playlists attached.
The People’s Cloud is an upcoming documentary film that traces the physical presence of our digital lives through international data centers, power stations and computers. During their travels, Matt Parker and crew filmed and recorded the sounds of these often massive structures, a throwback to an earlier time in which a single computer could fill a room. The score is a reflection of these sessions, with field recordings turned into soundscapes, augmented by loops and amplifications. The end result is an album that sounds like drone, as well it is ~ although this is real drone, the underlying hum and churn of our technological lives.
The music is sometimes eerie, sometimes foreboding, sometimes comforting, sometimes beautiful, a reflection of the subject matter. Parker’s film explores both sides of the Internet: the promise and the peril. In like fashion, his soundscape seems to intimate something cold and foreign, seeping into our consciousness as we click and save and connect. It’s no coincidence that the overture track is called “WITCH”. But will we burn this witch or learn from it? Low rumbles are melded to foreground creaks; we remember that there are humans behind these machines, at least for now. The score unfolds as a suite, a nearly romantic overture from machine to man: let us in, we love you. The appeal is downright alluring. While listening, we may even wonder, “why are these not the sounds we hear when we are on hold?” In an effort to quiet the physical sounds of technology, designers have obscured the deux ex machina, which Parker recaptures and re-presents as siren call.
One of the most fascinating effects, first underlined in “Icelandic Church Tower/Underground Kompressor”, is that of repetition ~ the compressor as pulse, contrasted by the sound of water as womb. It’s not too far a stretch to say that the rhythms of the internet imitate those of flesh and blood. The challenge, however, is to resist anthropomorphizing, as Joachin Phoenix’s character does with an operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her. Those who shun human connection can find a substitute in the Cloud, but only one akin to the squeeze machine made famous by one of Oliver Sacks’ patients. And as Parker points out in the film, the human presence may be invisible, but it is still a presence. One hopes that the album’s warmest moment (“Quantum Leaps”) is more Parker than program, but if not, the track passes the Turing Test. Either way, this is a discussion well worth having, and we’re hoping that the film ~ scheduled for release in early 2017 ~ will see wide distribution, because after this soundtrack, it’s already on our must-see list. (Richard Allen)