Tears of a Robot
by Fiddlebox and Nick Swannell
Fiddlebox’s fourth album, ‘Tears of a Robot’ is a collaboration with electronic musician Nick Swannell. It is an album of fiddle-led, synth-heavy, evocative tunes featuring field recordings of wind turbines, waterwheels, and nineteenth century industrial machinery.
Deliberately cinematic in style, and with dystopian film classics in mind, this album gives the listener space to create their own images inspired by wide soundscapes. The music evokes the sounds of industries gone by, and is filled with steampunk as well as ‘music concrete’ sensibility. The dramatic and atmospheric sound of a 100-metre tall wind turbine is fused with the emotive and lyrical melodies of Klezmer (Eastern European Jewish) music, Sephardic songs from Renaissance Spain and new writing. The violin melody leads us on an emotional journey throughout the album, as the mood moves through lyrical sweetness, industrial grunge, and the sounds of windswept space.
Helen says “my obsession with the cranky, intricate and funky sounds of mid 19th century industrial machinery has led to field recordings of wool carders and a spinning mule becoming the rhythmic driver behind these tunes”. Waterwheels and the machinery they drove have the beat and pulse of living beasts. They are contrasted here with the synthetic smoothness of both analogue and digital synthesisers; historical instruments from the 70s synth revolution, as well as their digitised contemporaries.
By blending live, pre-recorded, and programmed sounds together a distinctive and unique sound palette and rhythmic sensibility have been created. The music explores the contrast between live performances, flawed, imperfect yet constantly intriguing, versus the perfect but blander regularity of electronically generated grooves and tones, and the ear catching irregularity and unexpected musicality of engineered machinery. These three elements are woven together in this album.
‘Tears of a Robot’ is also exploring a line between human and artificial emotion. By combining freely expressed violin melodies with recorded samples and programmed electronica the music plays around this line. The creators were inspired by ideas such as the possibility of ‘bringing up’ a robot (Turing’s child machine), to learn to imitate human behaviour and interactions. Conversely the violin track at times is treated to become more robotic so the line between human and machine is blurred. The tears of a robot can be seen as both synthetically generated displays of emotion by automata and as the leaking out of the real feelings of a human hiding inside a ‘robotic’ mask.
Helen Adam: professional fiddle player, composer and arranger, and half of duo Fiddlebox.
George Whitfield: full time accordionist, keyboard player and accordion fixer, and other half of Fiddlebox
Nick Swannell: sound engineer, musician and filmmaker.
Helen: Stockhausen, Boulez, Vangelis, Kraftwerk, 1900’s lo fi recordings of solo Klezmer musicians
George: Jean Michel Jarre, Pink Floyd, and Hawkwind
Nick: Gary Numan, Ultravox, Depeche Mode
Most of the melodies we use are Klezmer tunes -Eastern European Jewish music often associated with weddings, worship and rites of passage. ‘Half Moon in the Devonian Forest’ is an original composition, and the melody in ‘Sea of Serenity’ is from the Sephardic Jewish tradition whose roots were in mediaeval Spain and Portugal.
Wind turbine turbine owned by Awel Aman Community wind farm on Mynydd y Gwrhyd, West Wales.
Waterwheel, Spinning mule and wool carder all recorded on location at Cambria Woollen Mills, Drefach Felindre, Ceredigion.
George says “I love using my Juno 106 that I bought 2nd hand in the late 80’s – It has a really full soft sound on the patches I’ve programmed and it’s great for programming sounds that change as they decay, like bubbly rising sounds. The Minimoog is my favourite device for white and pink noise because it has a great analogue filter. Although I could theoretically sync it to the DAW I actually played the noise sweeps ‘live’ in the studio.”
Nick says, “My own early musical fumblings made use of the Korg Delta, an analogue synth/string machine I bought circa 1988. It languished in a friend’s shed for much of the intervening 30 years but I recently retrieved it, cleaned it up and found it capable of some rather lovely synth sounds’. It features on several tracks including its own interlude in Track 5. I’ll use software synths as happily as ‘real’ ones, and two of my favourites are freeware: BassLine and U-No-62, both by Swiss developer TAL. They emulate Roland analogue synths, and do a damn fine job of it.”
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