Michael Lightborne ~ Sounds of the Projection Box

What a great record.  And thank God it’s vinyl, because this is the only way to hear Sounds of the Projection Box, which is at once an homage to antiquated technology, a requiem for days gone by and a reflection of supposed progress.  We’ve gained something in the switch to the digital format ~ clarity, seamlessness, an ability to show a film without any humans being present.  But we’ve lost something as well ~ a tactile nature, a feeling of community, the contract between projectionist and audience.  Earlier this year, I was at a film that “broke.” The older attendees kept turning back, looking up and yelling, “fix the screen!”  But there was no one there; they were screaming into a void.

Michael Lightborne captures sounds that might soon become extinct, in the same manner as certain physical environments ~ rain forests, barrier reefs ~ might disappear as well.  As aural habitats become extinct, so does a way of life.  The charm of the moviegoing experience, perfectly captured in Cinema Paradiso, is now muted.  No longer can a child stumble up to a projectionist’s booth and see the magic in motion; no longer can a snippet of celluloid be given as a gift to a wide-eyed attendee.  The art of switching between reels has all but disappeared.  The spooling, the whirring, the flickering into life, all gone.

In preparing this work, Lightborne traveled across the U.K., visiting the few remaining theaters that still use 35mm.  The above photo portrays Peter Howden at the Rio, where two tracks were recorded.  In his articulate, heartfelt essay, Lightborne calls the projection box “a workshop, an engine room and an artist’s studio.”  The album is part of the larger Projection Project, which is sponsored by the Film and Television Studies Department of the University of Warwick.

As the album unfolds, Lightborne tells a beautiful story in chapter order.  First there are the audible sounds of the projectionist at work (screening Carpenter’s The Thing).  At times, one can hear the foreboding music, a fine score brought to life.  In the second track, one hears what sounds like duct tape ~ someone had to MacGyver the movie.  The sounds are incredibly crisp, taking full advantage of the stereo field.  Eventually they discover their own sort of rhythm.

The next track features the amplification of contact and coil mics ~ sounds the projectionist might not otherwise hear.  Then words about the craft, paired with the work, a segment that is particularly welcome as it highlights the human element.  A transition piece introduces the Electric Cinema’s “tower,” a device that did away with the two-reel switchover system before it was itself surpassed by newer technology.  The closing track showcases the sound of the modern digital box, which Lightborne notes “reveals myriad polyphonic tones, textures and rhythms.”  The marvelous thing about Lightborne’s description is that he treats these sounds not as concession but as wonder; below the audible surface, there is still life.

For some, Sounds of the Projection Box will be a trip to the past, a nostalgic keepsake.  For others the album will be a curiosity, a historical artifact.  DJs may find the record an invaluable tool for adding texture to mixes.  Fans of the unusual will find its grooves unpredictable and enthralling.  The release has the potential to build bridges across generations by starting conversations that begin with “Tell me how it was,” and continue with “Is it better now?”  Lightborne seems to conclude that the new era is neither better nor worse; it simply contains its own type of beauty.  (Richard Allen)

Reviewer’s note:  A Richard Allen is thanked in the liner notes, but it’s not me.  I’d love to think that it was me, and that the sound artist was thanking me in advance for a nice review.  But it’s not!  Shout-out to the other Richard Allen for representing our name so well.

Available here

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