Grey Goo: Graham Dunning Talks
Graham Dunning’s recent tune, ‘Floating Worlds’, provided the soundtrack to the drizzly, post-BBC-Bake-Off Friday morning as I made my way towards Russell Square to meet him for a coffee. My anxieties over whether or not Mary Berry would remain at the helm of the cherished prime-time, cake-oriented reality-TV show soon disappeared, as I remembered what I was doing on Southampton Row. “Ever since the Mechanical Techno video went viral," Dunning told me, "I’ve had a lot more magazines approaching me for interviews.” Sounds about right. It's a cool video, almost as good as that one where the person tries to do that thing and injures themselves.
Dunning’s interest in music and art (his work lies somewhere between the two) started in the same way as many others, “I borrowed a 4-track cassette and was in some bands at school”. After telling me about his stint at Salford Uni studying a Humanities degree, I asked Dunning how he made the leap from that world to the obscure and mystified art world he’s in now – “I looked around and more of my friends were artists than not," he told me, "the bands I was in became more Noise oriented and more expressive, so it just happened.”
We then got on to talking about his work. Music By The Metre is an ongoing project, started in 2012, in which Dunning creates abstract music using automated machines. The work is inspired by Italian painter Giuseppe Pinot Gallizio's 'Industrial Painting'. Gallizio’s idea was to take a shot at the 1950s art industry, using machines to create paintings. He wanted to “flood the market with mass produced, unique works of art and sell them, literally by the metre, on canvas."
Dunning told me that Music By The Metre isn’t intended as a soundtrack to seizing the means of production. Just a fun idea. Dunning ran with this idea, creating an sprawling automated set-up of looping turntables, looping tapes, outdoor microphones, and guitar pedals which were recorded together onto tape reels and then divided into metres (pictured below). The man himself talks you through Music by the Metre in this video.
Dunning's next project Mechanical Techno emerged from the techniques and methods experimented with while producing Music By The Metre. After seeing Vinyl Terror & Horror’s stacked turntables, Dunning thought “I could do that.” Mechanical Techno plays with one of electronic music's core values: sampling, reusing, and recycling. "Sounds and styles go in and out of fashion quickly in dance music," Dunning explained, "like the way 808s are still used in house and techno today.”
By literally building the machine in new ways and configurations, Dunning was able to record the different tracks for his album Auxon – which came out in May. “'Auxon' means 'self replicating machine',” Dunning told me. “Have you heard of the 'Grey Goo scenario'?” he asked, as things took a turn. I didn’t know anything about the 'Grey Goo scenario', but did recognise the phrase from the one of the songs from Auxon's tracklist. “The 'Grey Goo scenario' is a doomsday scenario where the world becomes overrun by nanobots, you know nanotechnology? The world is overrun by these nanobots as they search for the materials they need to create more of themselves,” Dunning explained, “I wanted to call the track ‘Clanking Replicator’, [which is another phrase used to describe the Grey Goo nanobots], but I think it was a bit too clumsy.” This Grey Goo Graham spoke of… What did it mean? Was Dunning’s machine a Clanking Replicator..? Here's a handy diagram explaining how the world might end, and why Dunning's 'Mechanical Techno' might be the fitting soundtrack to the apocalypse! 😀
Though machine-like, Dunning's sound has another quality which is hard to identify… “People have spoken about the machine sounding almost organic." Dunning said. "That idea has led me to explore a new technique which draws on natural organisms, viruses, and cells to choose what parts of a record to loop." He said, before showing me the photo (below) on his phone. The whole appeal of the Dunning’s project is the experimenting with the autonomous and the analogue, whether through dropping ping pong balls onto the turntable to create a less regimented sound, or through the use of using the cowbell seen in the video at the top of this page.
Initially intended solely for recording purposes, Mechanical Techno now forms the centrepiece of Dunning’s live performances, constructing, deconstructing and tweaking the configuration of the machine in front of an audience. His work appeals to a wide spectrum, from art galleries to idyllic open air festivals, to South German squat raves where the bill is decided by the BPM played by each artist.
Dunning also holds a regular slot on NTS on Tuesdays 1AM-3AM. His show started out in the morning slot, but was moved to a later time. “I don’t think people were expecting loud noises so early in the morning.” Me? I can’t think of much better to go with my cornflakes. Carly Rae Jepsen? I asked Dunning what sort of stuff he likes to listen to at home, when he’s not surrounding himself with old white labels, dusty tapes, and broken tonearms. “I listen to a lot of stuff really,” he said, “I recently went on a trip to Wales and the car I hired had a tape player. I listened to some tapes I’d received from a friend in Ireland. He runs a cassette label called Fort Evil Fruit. I also like just listening to pirate stations and hearing some old UKG all day. There’s also House and Techno station called Project London I like.”
Here’s a little trio of tunes Graham Dunning’s been listening to at home recently:
Check out Graham's website to stay up to date with his doomsday tunes, and to find out when/where he'll be playing next.
The photo of Graham at the top of the page is by Elyssa Iona, check out her work here.