Len Lye
Composing Motion
Atoll
2006
B+



vibration is the source of sound. Brass, string, and woodwind instruments are all powered by humans pushing air (or bows) to produce moments where pockets of compressed air push and pull, creating sound waves. Most listeners are too often by music’s poetry to acknowledge that reality—and with good reason. Man has been domesticating these vibrations for centuries into melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Composing Motion posits an alternate reality, where such domestication never happened. Vibration is the beginning—and the end.

The album is a collection of recordings of Len Lye's "kinetic sculptures." These structures, mainly built during the 1950s and 60s, took advantage of metal vibrations to produce sounds both natural and faintly extraterrestrial. Some use thin, freestanding metal rods to naturally produce noise when disturbed by wind, while others vibrate via the help of electric motors. By the time of these sculptures, Lye had a long history in experimental film. 1935’s A Color Box, an animated "direct film" (a genre he created), found him painting on the celluloid, making lines, dots, and smudges shimmy to Latin Jazz.

Much like Lye’s films, the recordings of his sculptures need context: they need to be seen and read about, just as much as they need to be heard. The CD helpfully includes motion-capture photographs of his vibrating creations and their specs. “Grass” is a garden of thin, steel rods planted on a wooden plank; the five-meter high metal rods of “Fountain” resembles a blooming, fiber optic desk ornament; and then there is the 14-foot high metal strip of “(Big) Blade.” For all their grandeur, these visual marvels don’t always produce equally as striking sounds—both “Grass” and “Fountain” create light, drizzling clangs. However, the recording of “(Big) Blade” in New Zealand’s Pukekura Park is startling for its clash of cicada and bird noises against the deep, pounding vibrations of the metal. Elsewhere, there are several sculptures better heard than seen, such as the blood-drawing whip slashes of the strip piece, “Sea Serpent.”

As innovative and atavistic Lye’s sculptures are, I’m curious about their effect on listeners who don’t have the back-story. When metal strips are used as noisemakers in modern American culture, it’s typically used for comedy or cheerleading. There is the tacky, cartoon noise of the bowed saw and the thunderous rumbles of metal sheets that fans shake at football games. If some of Lye’s sculptures may remind uninformed listeners of such sounds, I wouldn’t be surprised. However, those in the know will appreciate the refreshing attributes of what Lye’s pieces do, at a time when the most radical experimental records are produced by computer files. By letting the sculptures and vibrations do the work, Composing Motion is the sort of record that leaves nearly everything to chance.


Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2006-05-04
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