There was a time in humanity’s not-so ancient past when progress wasn’t so fraught with self-doubt – conjuring up the naive optimism of the Space Race, computer evolution and civil rights rather than global warming, digital isolation and collective online psychosis.
Dominick Gray is an electronic producer, film editor and drummer (too modest to describe himself as a jazz drummer) who’s behind the retrofuturist music and film project Telesonic 9000 that taps into that post-war American comfort blanket that had frayed around the edges by the end of the 1960s.
Berlin-based Ohio native Gray is the drummer of indie/dreampop band Alright Gandhi, but Telesonic 9000 lets him indulge in a fully solo venture, with his new album and film concept called Progress – an hour-long production edited from over 300 movies, public information films and TV ads, all from the mid-century post-war era.
The music on Progress fizzes with optimism, with krautrock-fuelled grooves, YMO-style electronic twinkles and, most notably on ‘Build Today For a Better Tomorrow’, electro-funk workouts – all tied together by his hypnotic jazzy live drumming.
I caught a Telesonic 9000 show in Laska Bar in Riga a few weeks ago, when Songkick.com only suggested one gig for me that evening. Not only did the presentation transport me back to being a kid and watching B-movies and sci-fi classics with my da, but it was also a nice reminder of the joy of randomly stumbling on good music and sound heads. See, the positive, optimistic vibes are rubbing off on me too.
A few pints and a bowl of ramen later, Dominick agreed to tell me a bit more about Telesonic…
How did you come up with the Telesonic project, and had you always conceptualised it as an audio-visual presentation?
It came about when trying to satisfy an impulse to perform original work – there were a few songs, I had interest in these archive films, and I’m a drummer, so it all just clicked.
The visual element was the ingredient that tied everything together when first trying to work out a functioning one-man show. A presentation that could be both entertaining and conceptually engaging made the most sense with a mix of concrete (filmic) and abstract (musical) qualities. The idea really solidified with the integration of spoken word samples from the films, and intricate musical/drumming connections between the images and sounds.
How the music is written? For this project did you write a ‘soundtrack’ to the images, or does the music and archive curation work in tandem?
The writing, research, and editing process is fluid. Sometimes the song conjures a strong thematic or visual connection, while sometimes the footage screams, “put music to me!”.
Other times song and film ideas simply work together without any forethought. I do all of the archive research, collecting, and editing; but I should note that a specific musical passages in “Vol. I: Progress” were composed by Julian Rockwood and Ryan Wagner, then re-adapted to the fit the show.
Progress is a 21st century update of silent film presentation, but it’s still rooted in a specific post-war era. Why did you choose this period?
Since all of the footage is in the public domain, films from the post-war era are simply what’s available to me. The archives which I source from specialise in early and mid-century films, so there was little question about what to use.
There’s an interesting sample about the advent of the laser, “This narrow pathway of light leads surely to tomorrow”. Did you want to capture that sense of naive optimism? By the 80s, lasers had been weaponised…
While there is a naivete in the sample (and many other parts of Progress), that optimism often yielded concrete results; the space race, advances in civil rights, and the then-thriving middle class are obvious examples of the positive effects of optimism which occurred in 20th century America.
And I think there’s much to learn from that style of American optimism, especially when cynicism feels like the only way to make sense of today’s world… most of that technology — vocoders, optic masers, radar, etc — was funded by the government and developed in tandem for industrial and civilian use. Seeing the history of weaponisation and the destructive use of technology by the military industrial complex, now more than ever we have to make serious ethical considerations while advancing technologically.
Have you any plans for project that uses film from a different era? How would the music composition change?
There’s a few other collections that strike my interest, so I may seek out archives from other parts of the world. But so far there’s still plenty to mine from in the mid-century era. I would have to experiment to see what musical compliments/counterpoints the images.
If you were to start a new Telesonic project based around images from the last two decades, what films would you automatically include?
If the images were from turn-of-the-century to present, I’d likely base it around news footage, educational materials, and adverts. These are about the only visual media that are not too self-aware in our era. The charm stops working when self-awareness kicks in and someone goes, “Hey, look at how retro I am.”
You’ve used over 300 archive movies in Progress. Are there any films in here that resonate personally?
Absolutely! The process of collecting these films has been extremely educational in terms of recent history and its relationship to American idealism. It’s helped me understand my American identity, surely. The Bell Telephone Labs series (with ominous scoring by Bernardo Segall), the films of Charles and Ray Eames, and a series called Social Seminar have struck a chord with me.
Whats’s your favourite sci-fi or B-movie?
Great question – 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favourite film of all time. As for B-movies — would Lloyd Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) count?
Telesonic 9000 is a split man-machine affair, with the electronics and live drums. Had you considered an all-electronic composition or presentation?
Many of the songs in Progress were originally all-electronic demos, and only later were modified to include live drums and instrument playing. Progress is probably about 50/50 between live and programmed parts. An exclusively electronic presentation could work and is something I’m open to, but moreover, playing the music allows for a fuller sense of life on stage.
Telesonic is very much a solo venture which offers a lot more freedom and spontaneity when playing live shows or even just recording. But what do you miss about the live band set-up when you’re engrossed in the solo project?
Well, the live band arrangement gives everyone more life-force to work with to make a musical moment. Like making something out of nothing. In some ways it’s more freeing because one is not limited to their own ideas.
The musicians can play off one another, like in a conversation. A solo performance feels more like a stand up comedy show, exclusively between performer and audience. Since Telesonic has been a one-person event, I now look forward to having it “come alive” with other players.
Can we expect another Telesonic solo project or band releases in the future?
Yes – I won’t say exactly what that will be, but in just about every conceivable way the project will evolve into something greater.