In prior centuries, composers heard music in the sounds of nature: birds, water, wind. Modern composers hear music in machines. New York City’s Jordan Hall finds inspiration in subways, generators and refrigeration fans, and composes violin pieces that integrate these sounds. How to Listen to Machines is an invitation to hear the world as he does.
The EP was launched with a colorful website and an enticing teaser video (seen below). New York City comes to life in the compositions, some of which will later be available in longer versions. The public is invited to share field recordings that may be used in an upcoming album. Hall’s only misstep is the bland cover art; we recommend instead a scene of the city.
The experience of listening is the project’s main selling point. Those who have walked through Manhattan with an iPod on low volume or stopped to appreciate a subway performer in the midst of mechanical cacophony will nod in recognition. In fact, the most distinctive, location-specific sound comes first: an announcer’s congenial voice, warning, “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” But while the city is filled with such recognizable sounds, it also teems with more ubiquitous hums and whirrs, which Hall honors in other pieces. He receives the mechanical noises as gifts, and returns the gifts with his bow. One wonders if he might promote the upcoming album with a self-imposed challenge: to travel throughout Manhattan above and below, performing spontaneous duets.
Although billed as pure violin, the album seems to be a combination of the violin and banjo, as first heard on “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors in A Major”. This sprightly tune imitates a carefree day, riding the rails and departing wherever whim and whimsy lead. One imagines the head bobbing in the car, followed by dancing in the streets: New York’s version of “Another Day of Sun”. The violin pauses reveal the sound of the subway beneath the bustle. The other subway piece, “Jay Street-MetroTech in E Minor”, stops to allow a Brooklyn hum to permeate the sound field, and grants it the final word. Many hear this sound daily, but Hall calls it to the fore, the minor note becoming the major. Midway through the piece, he quickens the pace, as if in celebration, before circling back to earlier themes.
The best is saved for last, as “Film Set Generator in D Minor” is close to the sound to which many city dwellers wake. The generator sounds like construction, albeit kinder and gentler than the type cursed by local residents. In this piece, Hall comes closest to exploring the nature of the EP’s subtitle: Songs for Violin and Noise. His violin balances the generator like white noise offsetting tinnitus, implying that what many consider noise can still invoke harmony. One wonders if the full album will toy with the sonic field as Björk did in “There’s More to Life Than This”, underlining the “noise” impression by sublimating the sound of the violin, taming the man rather than the machine. There’s great potential in this project, and we’re looking forward to hearing where it heads next. (Richard Allen)