It is not difficult to imagine machines making music. From percussive rhythmic patterns to a gentle hum, raucous noise to light buzzing, machines throughout history have made sound as a byproduct of their primary function. Nevertheless, we don’t often think of machines as musical instruments, especially not those that were designed in the early 20th century for the mundane household task of washing clothes.
In the fall of 2006, American composer Nicholas Drake was walking up the street to his house, shared with friend and gas engine aficionado Brad Mallory. He could hear the strange percussive sound of a motor cycling too slow to be a lawn mower or tractor. Rounding the corner of the house, Nicholas found a miniature red machine with a flywheel and an exhaust pipe. Brad and his long-time friend, Charlie Good, had found the 1916 1/2 HP Maytag washing machine engine at the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. show in Portland, Ind., and they had just finished restoring it to working condition.
The Maytag’s noise is what inspired Nicholas to make music with one of these antique machines. At the time, he was experimenting with techniques in digital music, and he knew instantly that he had a gem of a sound source to record for use in one of his pieces. The sound of the hit-and-miss engine was an exciting, rich texture of multiple noises.
With a hand held Edirol R-09 recording device, Nicholas made a six-minute recording of Brad starting the engine, letting it run uninterrupted, and then manipulating the flywheel with his hands to adjust the engine’s speed. Brad was essentially musically improvising with the antique engine. This made for a rich recording that Nicholas then took into a studio. Using the machine’s actual sound as a starting point, he set out to create a piece that would stay true to the noise the machine made while amplifying and distorting certain musical characteristics inherent to that raw sound.
“The sound was so interesting and just naturally rhythmic and musical. I wanted to highlight it,” Nicholas said.
The end result of that experimentation was Improvisation No. 1: Agitation, a 5-minute, 20-second piece of electroacoustic concert music that is making the rounds at new music festivals and concerts throughout the United States. The recording was edited and manipulated with a software program called Pro Tools. The piece was then mixed in surround sound to give the audience the impression that the machine is cycling around the concert hall in various ways.
“When I first heard Agitation at an electronic music concert in Louisville, Ky., I was impressed that I could almost always hear the raw sound of my engine no matter how wildly it was distorted,” Brad said.
Nicholas continues to pursue creating music based on the sounds of antique machines, and he is currently seeking other engines to record for future projects. Though he did not see himself as a gas engine enthusiast like Brad or Charlie, Nicholas has a newfound respect for the process of engine restoration and sees a role he may have in preserving the sounds of these engines.
Charlie passed away earlier this year and this article is dedicated in loving memory of him by Brad and Nicholas.
Contact composer Nicholas Drake at email@example.com