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Ben Singer


The Age of Machines

Show 12: The Age of Machines

“This is the keyboard of modern shorthand machinery. The operator strikes a key on the keyboard as if playing a chord on a piano.”

Recorded November 9, 2010

Download from bandcamp

It’s a cliché for an instrumental band, but Modern Robot has always been about experiments. Maybe what isn’t said as much is that sometimes these experiments work, and sometimes they don’t.

We’ve done shows as a duo, trio, and quartet — one time even a guitar/drums duo. We’ve shown old westerns, animated movies, silent movies, horror flicks, movies with nothing but fractals, movies with nothing but flying, car commercials, appliance commercials, and documentaries. Really, our first show played to a movie was entirely an experiment itself.

So once in a while, we’d have a show came together in some remarkable way, where the experiment and the new movie pushed the music to something new too. This show, “The Age of Machines”, was one of those.

The idea was machines. I loved the thought of whirling piece of metal, pistons moving in rhythm, continuous motion. What we showed on the screen were three movies played back-to-back, a pattern that came back for several of our later shows. How these vaguely related and largly plotless films would create a show, I didn’t know, but it worked. First up, office machinery.

The show started with “Modern Business Machines for Writing, Duplicating, and Recording”, a documentary from 1947. Shorthand machines, special typewriters, and stuff with wonderful names like the Fileomatic Desk, the Varityper, and Autotypist Perforator. We accompany the film playing tight patterns and themes that move quickly. To begin track 3, “The Dictator”, Kyle plays especially typewriter-like. Sound clips from the documentary punctuate the music and have an eerie way of belonging where they land — not something that we pre-arranged.

All fun and good, but to me, the heart of the show starts at track 7, “This is Stella Pajunas”, a dancy number that breaks down into the R&B-like “Learn to Relax”. And halfway through “Relax”, a piece of music from the documentary fits the key and mood of what we are playing spectacularly, something that brings us right into our second movie — the sad movement.

Track 9, “It’s Quiet” starts with the narration from “Valley Town”, a film from 1940. It’s a documentary of a Pennsylvania steel town with a story that still hasn’t changed much: workers being replaced by technology. Track 10, “The Men and Women of This Town” is fast and light, but with a slow undertone of where this going to go. The town is booming, the steel mills are rolling, and the people are doing well. A train whistle makes a pefect entrance — a C right on a C in the keyboard melody.

Things are looking up, and track 11 is a proud and happy theme. “The machines needed skilled men, almost as many as before, and this work was easier on the back … times were good, men had a chance to look around, move to another state, move into our town because they heard about our new luck … the machines brought life to our town!”

But what do you do when machines can do the work that people used to do? When it’s cheaper and faster? Track 13, “And Then the Wheels Stopped”, blends several parts of the the film’s soundtrack in with the narration and ends with the rumble and crash of the smokestacks of the obsolete steel mills being destroyed, and a clarinet solo brings us into track 14, “If Only We Had Known”, the end of “Valley Town”.

This show ends with one more look at machines, a hypnotic animated movie from 2000 called “Moving Illustrations of Machines”. Where have the machines brought us now? Now that we can create and alter life, what is a machine, and what is life?

“We are going to have almost as much knowledge and almost as much power as God. Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first serious step in becoming one with God.”

Listen to and buy: album on bandcamp

Watch the show as performed here: Age of Machines on Vimeo

And the original films here:
Modern Business Machines for Writing, Duplicating, and Recording (1947)
Valley Town (1940)
Moving Illustrations of Machines (2000)

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