Review of The Machine Stops as experienced at The Point in Eastleigh
June 9th, 2016
Thanks to fortuitous connections between theatre companies and the alignment of geographical circumstances en route to Budapest, Pilot Theatre were able to stage their new interpretation of The Machine Stops at The Point in Eastleigh last week. Four miles from home. Which gave me an unmissable opportunity to experience E.M.Forster’s short story and John Foxx soundtrack up close and personal from a front row seat with which to see how all the elements I have heard so much about work together.
I’ve read the story, but many years ago, and I’ve heard the soundtrack from recordings made in York. I’ve followed John Foxx retrospectively for 40 years now and have a pretty good understanding of the philosophy and context of his music. I’ve seen the posters and read reviews online of the week long run at the Theatre Royal up there – and yet I still didn’t know quite what to expect.
Most of the reviews I have read pass over the soundtrack altogether, and those that do mention it pay homage to Foxx with a couple of sentences about atmospheric soundscapes. Chilling, unerving, dark and effective. Ged Babey describes the use of the music as ‘stunning’, and he is not wrong. Ben Pugh and his colleague mix the soundtrack pieces perfectly to the minimalist action on stage, cutting, looping and timing all exquisitely mastered to bring a vital element to the drama that it simply would not have been the same without.
I’m not a theatre crtic (or even a music crtitic, I’m well aware…) but I do get Foxx, and I have been blessed with opportunitites to talk to people and get inside his work that have not fallen to many others. As such, I wonder if I have a relatively unique perspective on this?
There’s no real need to outline the plot – you can read that here – but suffice to summarise that Forster’s story is probably one of the greatest and most powerful prophecies on the internet and the dehumanisation of society ever written. Vashti and her dissonant citizens have become slaves to The Machine, worshipping its book of rules as if it were the Holy Bible. With technology at hand to provide all the communication with others that anyone could ever need, and all the world’s knowledge aand research at the touch of a button (which also provides cold bath and hot bath experiences, night, day,music and food) we have all become distant and more disconnected from other and ourselves than ever before.
John Foxx and Benge have composed the music on analogue synths, ancient Moogs and Arps, in an underground studio; on machines patched to each other and synchronised by means of coloured cables. These are clipped, twiddled and otherwise connected during performance to create the trademark bleeps, melodies, rhythms and crashing notes that characterise their brand of formative electronica. I say formative because Foxx was there at the beginning of the UK electronic movement in 1978 and that’s how they did it then.
That’s how they do it now, and we are only just beginning to understand how they actually sound.
And that’s how The Machine works. The Committee Of the Mending Apparatus (COMA) is played by two people in a wonderful example of very physical theatre. They climb, swing and move effortlessly over the frame at first synchronised perfectly with each other and later breaking out in disfunctional fragments as The Machine breaks down. But in the meantieme, they repair The Machine and deliver Vashti’s demands for food, music and ideas by connecting and disconnecting coloured cables to the metal frame. With magnets. I thought they were clips, but learned after they were magnets, that provided the crew with the same temperamental challenges as Benge faces trying to keep his synthesizers in check. It is the unreliability of these machines that makes them so appealing, so ironically human.
Forster’s script talks of imperfect music, of the value and significance of second hand ideas. All very Foxxian – capturing mistakes and repurposing fragments of sound have been his preferred modus operandii since the earliest of days.
So Juliet Forster’s decision to invite Foxx to write the soundtrack to her play could not really have been extended to anyone else, and shows how acutely she to understands his work.
And the key to this is not the dystopian, futuristic metal beat minimalist electronica that characterises John Foxx high profile work. It lies in the way this material and image sits so comfortably alongside the seemingly opposite nature of his choral ‘ambient’ harmonic work. His pastoral atmospheres, whispers, echoes and reverberating loops of richly textured sweeps and washes – the material that makes up Cathedral Oceans, Codex, London Overgrown and the Harold Budd collaborations.
We first hear this when Kuno breaks out from the tunnel into a shaft that connects with the Earth’s surface, and it is a sequence of breathtaking tension and beauty. For the first time, we see one of the cast in a non-mechanical world, determinedly ascending the shaft with enormous physical effort:
“I hung tranced over the darkness and heard the hum of these workings as the last whisper in a dying dream. All the things I had cared about and all the people I had spoken to through tubes appeared infinitely little. I heard voices in the silence, and they strengthened me…”
The voices are provided by Foxx and Gazelle Twin, beautifully gentle, whispering, ghost harmonics, switching channels and filling the space as Kuno makes his way towards the light. And as he emerges, into a fern-filled hollow and a hazy blue sky we are reminded of The Garden and his vision of the Entire City…
There’s a synchronicity to the timing of this production as well that adds to its overall splendour. In recent years, Foxx has written and recorded less original music than we have been getting used to and that which he has released (the aforementioned Codex and especially 2014’s Ballardian B-Movie) bring together many of the elements he has developed separatley throughout his career. The music for The Machine Stops further solidifies these particles, providing a panoramic whole that soundtracks Kuno’s journey from underground provocateur to surface-breathing rebel. It could only be Foxx, as prescient as Forster, and it can only work in this situation.
I found elements of everything Foxx has ever done in the 80-minute sequence – the set, the script, the story and the music merge inextricably and provide one of the most engaging and affecting experiences I can remember. From the COMA patching cables to the half-finished, blurred image of Kuno on his mother’s computer screen. From the crashing breakdown of the machine to the splendid beams of light on the surface.
I saw my map, A New Kind Of Map. I saw Kuno as the missing engineer who found the overgrown Old Street station. I see where this music fits into that network. Both above and below it all.
Yes of course us Foxxheads will want the soundtrack on CD (all 25 minutes of it) but I would advocate more strongly for a DVD release that puts it into the engineer’s context, leitmotifs, loops, fades and all.
In 1909, E.M.Forstor foretold The Machine Stops.
In 1977, John Foxx declared I Want To Be A Machine.
In 2016, through a disastrous series of gemetric collisions and coincidence, everything is illuminated and humanity has learned its lesson.
Century after century he has toiled, and here is his reward.