I first came across Phil Maguire’s reduced electronic soundscapes on last year’s this this, a series of compositions created using the Raspberry Pi computer as their primary sound source. Although created to teach coding and computer science to school children, the Pi’s no-frills hardware – a single board supplied without screen, mouse or keyboard – is tailor-made for circuit benders and chip hackers of all stripes to fiddle with. As you’d expect there are plenty of tech heads out there rigging the Raspberry Pi for noisemaking, but far too many spend their time and dough on emulating pricier synths and sequencers. Maguire, on the other hand, is one of the only artists I’ve come across who makes the Pi’s limitations into a virtue.
Across the two extended suites that make up this this, he coaxes cascades of cicada-like chirrups, blistered voltage burps and tectonic low-end throbs from his modest setup. On the first suite, whose five parts share the album’s title, things are nervy and skittish, the surging pulsations and electrical whistles coming on like Christian Fennesz getting heavy with a ZX Spectrum, frenetically churning out lines of code in a deserted branch of Radio Shack.
Heard at low volume, these jabbering tones sound merely like malfunctioning white goods (your fridge after too many hot summers and too much sweaty cheese) but a twist of the dial brings these detailed micro-worlds into teeming life. The second suite, th at ti me wh en, is more sombre, with background drizzles of grey noise providing an unsettling backdrop for tentative outcroppings of airy whirr and whistle. Dead space and desolate air. Soundtracks for empty rooms and deserted hallways.
Maguire calls his style of composition ‘lowercase drone’, although for me the chilly jitter of this this prods him closer towards the microscopic intensity of noise manipulators like Phil Julian or Louie Rice. But listening to Art With A Goat, a recent live set recorded in London, the description makes a little more sense. Over 15 or so minutes, Maguire lays out a seething bed of monochrome vibrations, with ironclad low-end abstraction giving way to Geiger counter rattle and fuse wire gurgle, before bursting into fiery spurts of jagged white noise. It’s still closer to the noise gang than the drone squad if you ask me, despite its pleasingly linear sonic arrangement, but this is a minor quibble. This is good, tasty stuff.
solo computer music is, on the other hand, is about as lowercase as you can get. These fumbling crackles and shapeless tones waft across each other in slow-mo digital drift, motherboard reveries transmitted deep from a hard disk on standby. There’s a satisfying sense of algorithmic self-determination at times here, yet the fact that these two pieces are actually edits of live, human performances in no way detracts from their terse machine anomie. Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2016 – a triumph of public service broadcasting! – the first cut, there will be no miracles here, sees Maguire alternating the scuffle and buzz of his software with abrupt snatches of found sound. The disjunction between the two is deliberate, the disembodied voices of Maguire’s samples, possibly clips of old adverts and public information films, bursting out from the dusty blur as if trying to escape from an archive prison.
The companion piece, probst I, takes inspiration from paintings by Franz Kline and Clyfford Still, and the rugged jitters of its textures have a gestural, tactile quality that on some level establishes a commonality with the ruptures and hefty strokes of those abstract expressionists. It gets pretty feisty at around the halfway mark, to be honest, flurries of stony splatters and gouged clicks alternating with caustic shock-treatment fizz and hyperactive metronome tocks. It’s probably one of the most empathic tracks Maguire’s produced, the unprogrammatic shifts reminding us that, like the best of those paintings, there is a fleshy brain and body responsible behind all of that abstraction. Human after all? Maybe.