Posted on July 7th, 2010 by Nate
Every once in a while a project comes along that has enormous potential. Potential that demands that you follow through at a level that in most circumstances would be ridiculous. Recently we have been working on one such project, and we have embarked on a spectacular journey. A journey that as the project has evolved and progressed has presented new layers of depth and meaning, and presented more and more paths that need to be explored to truly bring it to its ultimate fruition.
The project is the album packaging and digital presentation of “MODULAR” a collection of instrumental recordings made by Dan Phelps, Matt Chamberlain, and Viktor Krauss. The project encompasses a few different media channels, the album is to be released as a double LP with a custom package and booklet, a digital download with a PDF supplement, and a website that will act as its keystone and base of operations. A decent chunk of work by any standards, but then it happened.
Things started innocently enough, we met with Dan, looked over a few different reference points, discussed different art installations and technological fetishes and niches … then we put all that aside and started talking nonsense.
“Did you see this thing? Some guy is recording the sounds of water dripping into a 200ft deep well.”
“That reminds me of this thing, look at this, there’s yarn pinned from the wall to the floor making a shape.”
“The music is inspired by different aspects of nature … it’s about the earth, like you are hearing it as a sound, there’s gravity, weight, and nothingness … ”
“What if gravity was more intense … if it was heavier in one corner of the room, what would that look like?”
“What would it look like if a guy made a machine to make music in ‘The Road?’”
“What if you could stick a gramophone horn into a tree, what would that sound like? What would it look like?”
Then, like a cartoon depiction of inspiration, the whole thing came in a flash. I had an intense and clear vision of a contraption, in the woods, hooked up to trees with different listening devices, tapping into the earth and recording sound. The meeting came to an end and I told Dan I had some ideas that I’d put together over the next couple of days. There was no doubt about it, I had to build this thing.
I put together a couple of quick concept sketches and sent it over to Dan to see what he thought about the whole thing … The initial sketches were quick and crude.
Then a quick photoshop mockup of the device in a setting as I was picturing it …
Dan responded, “I love this. Particularly the EKG monitor type bands that go around the trees. Maybe there is a similar extension, like a copper rod that sticks into the ground? Or a glass something that floats in water?”
Of course! There would have to be different devices and ways to capture the different kinds of natural surroundings for each track. “Everest”, “Creeper Vine”, “Hollow Earth”, “Cumulonimbus”, “Constellation” and “Ocean Shelf” all have distinct tones and qualities, and as natural environments they would require different solutions for tapping into their sources. What started as a concept for one image grew in scope and demanded a different setting for each track. The concept for the album artwork was defined; build the master contraption, a series of supplemental devices, then take it all to six different locations to represent each of the six different tracks, photograph it all, and there you have it, MODULAR.
Easier said than done. What followed has been almost an obsessive compulsive drive to build and photograph this thing. I couldn’t sleep, I could envision each step of what needed to happen, all laid out before me … Find the components, build the box, find the tripod, find the horn, find the sheet metal, design the interface, screen print the panel, drill all the holes, set the components … etc, it went on and on, and I couldn’t do it fast enough.
We began by scouring the local area for electronic components. Unfortunately, as luck would have it the internet has completely destroyed mom and pop electronics components stores, leaving only places like Fryes to get things like knobs, LEDs and switches. Not the greatest solution if you’re looking for interesting and unique pieces, not to mention it doesn’t take much to clean out a place like that of good stuff. Then, when you inquire about different parts, they inevitably ask, “What’s it for?” or “What are you building?” … needless to say when I started to describe this project they would just look at me like I was a total idiot.
The upside to all this folly is that also because of the internet, there is a whole community of crazy hobbyists out there that have huge troves of vintage electronics components. Ham Radio enthusiasts, tinkerers, terrorists … the objects are out there, but the path that leads you to them can be dark and ugly …
The downside to this upside is that these enthusiasts have been left to their own devices and are building their own websites. As a result they have created some of the worst sites I have ever seen. Ever. They are intensely cryptic, nothing works, and there are no images … so when you get to an all text website, set entirely in Courier, with an 800 item list of things with names like “CX400-2.5 Inch Diameter Red Bakelite Knob” it can get a little confusing … but you also know you are on to something. A lot of the parts were a crap shoot, and we were ordering crazy things from huge surplus warehouses in Nebraska, (they have some amazing stuff by the way) but it all worked out and the search led to some incredible components, things you just can’t find in big box stores. Real old world stuff.
eBay was an obvious choice for the Gramophone horn. After a few lost auctions, we got ours for only nine bucks. Pretty lucky. – Side note – The horn we got was actually a Magnavox speaker horn. In way back times radio speakers were ornate table top wooden bases with giant horns sticking out of the top of them. This is one of those.
Down the street from our office is a used music gear shop, and one day while driving home, we saw a couple of old vintage studio tape machines out on the street. We’ll take those, thanks. How about that old movie projector tube amp, you’ll never fix it, we’ll take that too … thanks.
Then there was dealing with sheet metal wholesalers … I think it would be easier to get information from a Freemason in the 30′s about their secret rituals than to get information about where to buy perforated sheet metal. Seriously people, do you hate making money? It’s 2010! Let’s work together here. Thanks.
Once all the pieces were on hand, it was time to build the main housing. Luckily, this was something I could do on my own. A nice day in the woodshop for a change of pace.
Then it was time to layout the main panel and components …
After that, design the interface and screen print the aluminum, drill all the holes and set the pieces.
And then I could put everything together and see it as a whole …
After that I worked on the different recording devices, and then at long last, I have my kit of components ready to take out into the wild to begin photographing the actual images for the project.
In the following weeks we went out looking for locations that could work as representations of the different album tracks. Luckily, Seattle is remarkably close to several vastly different landscapes that worked well for our cause. Not to say that there wasn’t travel time involved, but travel time also means weird pancake houses and obscure burger joints, so it was worth it on several fronts.
Here are a few of the different settings we’ve got so far. There are a couple more to go, but we’re honing in on the end game here.
Next up is Ocean Shelf and Constellation. The package design is under way as I write this, and soon we’ll be able to post progress on that front. Until then, wish us luck!Posted in Everyday | 6 Comments »
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