How to Listen to Machines
Exploring the music of machine sounds
How to Listen to Machines is an interactive composition project that makes music out of machine sounds recorded and submitted by people who work with machinery. Designed to help us hear 'noise pollution' with new ears, this project reconstructs our everyday electric soundscape melodically, illuminating the richness of sounds we tune out.
The project began as my search to capture the strange and beautiful noise of machines. The current phase of this project is what interests me most: turning to other listeners for inspiration. Explore the featured collaborator profiles below to learn more.
If you enjoy the music and the project, please share it with others. And if you work with machines, I invite you to contact me if you are interested in sending me field recordings for me to compose music to.
Tune In to what you're tuning out
How to Listen to Machines: Songs for Violin and Noise emerged out of my everyday experience of sound. I have always had an intense sensory response to the sounds of machines. My ear organizes their tonalities and textures into musical qualities, often leaving me moved by sounds many consider noise pollution. The growling bass of an approaching train can make me tremble. Chills crawl down my arms at the sound of overtones in a generator. The drumming of an idling engine can quicken my pulse. These encounters became a daily occurrence after I moved to New York City in 2006, its every space infiltrated by mechanical sounds. Street corners became concert halls.
In the summer of 2016, I began experimenting with recording these sounds at every turn. Any machine whose voice I heard, I recorded. These recordings, made on the spot with an iPhone, are featured on the EP How to Listen to Machines: Songs for Violin and Noise, and serve as the basis and inspiration for each song I composed. All songs on the EP are performed entirely on violin, accompanied only by recordings of machinery.
TRACK 1: STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS IN A MAJOR
This track features tones and rhythms of the doors to an MTA Brooklyn-bound L Train. MTA trains have a distinct two-note alert when doors close, but the notes can differ depending on the train line. On the L line, the notes are C# and A and the latching of the doors produces a triplet rhythm. These combined elements inspired the chordal structure and syncopated rhythms of this track.
TRACK 2: REFRIGERATION FAN IN E FLAT MAJOR
Extraordinary sounds can be found in the most mundane places. I was stopped in my tracks when I entered a drugstore and heard the rumbling resonance of this fan. Its pulsing 16th-note rhythm inspired the opening violin line in this song. At the 3:41 and 3:58 mark in the track, I allow the sound of this fan to swell in the background, to emulate orchestral timpani.
TRACK 3: JAY STREET-METROTECH STATION IN E MAJOR
This breezy song is composed around a mysterious humming that wafts through a Brooklyn metro station called Jay Street-MetroTech. If you visit the station, stand on the A/C/F train platform, and you'll probably hear it too. Listen for it at the 1:11 mark in this track.
TRACK 4: FILM SET GENERATOR IN D MINOR
While passing a film shoot near the Flatiron building in Manhattan, I stopped to record the sound of a power generator on the set. Its visceral growl inspired me to trade acoustic violin sounds for something more electric. I introduce the generator sound at the 0:24 mark in the track and allow it to grow until it roars at the 0:38 mark.
building an electrifying soundscape
The current phase of this project is what interests me most: collaborating with individuals who are recording and sending me the sounds of machines that they work with.
Their recorded sounds are being featured on a multi-volume album collection I am releasing over time. Each volume will feature a distinct collection of machine sounds, and the album will culminate with a musical composition that brings together the many different machine sounds on the album — a tapestry of electric and acoustic rhythms, harmonies, and melodies.
I invite you to listen to Volume One, which is now underway, and I encourage you to meet my collaborators spotlighted below, whose sounds are building the electrifying soundscape of this project.
A tailor from Syria, Abdulkader escaped the war that destroyed his home and fled to the United States with his family. I am indebted to translator Stephanie Juma and The Boston Globe's Jenna Russell for facilitating this collaboration.