Inspired by a control panel in Battersea Power Station, The Ealing Feeder is a polyphonic, robotic carillon (bell player) which automically plays riffs at lighting speed. I built the first prototype of this instrument at the end of 2009. Since then, I’ve continually revamped and repaired it, turning it into a gallery exhibit then a stage instrument.
The Ealing Feeder is an essential element of my live set where I use it as a physical alternative to a loop pedal or pre-recorded backing track. You can also hear the The Ealing Feeder in some of my recorded works, including Hello Sunshine (from Down to the Silver Sea). I’m most interested in The Ealing Feeder when it performs lightning fast ostinato or music where 5 beats play against 7, or 8 play against 13 – anything a human would find impossible to play.
The earliest prototype of The Ealing Feeder was something I put together for a Christmas video. The bells came from a small robotic exhibit I’d built inside a shed – this was commissioned by the Southbank Centre to celebrate the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall. This was a lash-up – using cable ties, I strapped 28 bells, servos and sprung clappers to an old shop stand, rescued from the skip outside Moores, a haberdashers in Dunstable which had just closed down.
I revamped The Ealing Feeder extensively a few weeks later to create an exhibit for the Kinetica Art Fair, London (2010). I’d been invited to exhibit my work there by Art Hertz, a collective who were creating a series of works inspired by Battersea Power Station.
To create the MK II instrument, I studied the form of machines at the time of transition between the purely mechanical and the electromechanical age. In London, most middle-class homes were making that transition in the early 1930s, as power stations such as Battersea came on line, fuelling the ‘electric servant’ (i.e. domestic appliance) boom. Homes which used to call up their human servants with bells were switching on electrical machines instead. With this in mind, I decided to point up this carillon’s identity as a technological throwback – a mechanical device which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1930s home, were it not powered by computer algorithms.
Working with Colin Uttley and Vivien Angliss, I housed the bells in a miniature 1930s technological cathedral, a little like the power station itself. Around the edge of the case, I added extracts from an eerie poem, a lullaby I’d stumbled on in the archives of the IET. The poem was written in 1930 and published in The Electric Age, a magazine published by electrical evangelists The Electrical Association for Women. In the poem, we hear from a woman who is so intoxicated by the idea of the electric servant, she soothed her baby to sleep at night by passing an electric current through him (I doubt it worked). The poem is something I found in the archives of the IET – you can read it in full at the bottom of this page.
Here’s some fine footage of The Ealing Feeder Mk II in action, from video artist Roger Spy. It was taken on the eve of the show, just before I programmed the doll’s movements. I hope the exhibit gives people a sense of the strangeness of people’s early encounters with electrical machines.
Since Kinetica, I’ve sacrificed the outer housing of the Ealing Feeder to make an instrument that can swiftly be pulled in and out of a flight case and onto the stage. With no housing, the audience can see the workings of The Ealing Feeder in action. Here’s a new video of the Ealing Feeder as it appears in gigs. It’s playing some algorithmic music, inspired by some riffs I devised during an afternoon in the studio with musician Sxip Shirey – a superb musician and composer who shares my love of storytelling through music and the physicality of musical performance.
At our recording session, I tried out some ideas on The Ealing Feeder, while Sxip played his ‘blister accordion’ – a virtual instrument that’s a gravelly, wheezy mix of natural and heavily processed squeeze box sounds. Some sounds from these instruments may be making their way onto Sxip’s forthcoming album A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees.
Here’s The Ealing Feeder playing a simple algorithmic riff based on the patterns we devised. This is a circular, mathematical pattern programmed in MaxMSP. Halfway through the video, there’s a double, where quavers are interspersed with semiquavers playing in counterpoint with the original tune.
Here’s a demo piece Sxip constructed from some fragments of our recording session. It incorporates blister organ and Ealing Feeder and is called The Thames.
The Thames (Sxip Shirey, featuring Sxip’s blister accordion and my Ealing Feeder)
Around the outside of The Ealing Feeder Mk II were some words from the Electric Lullaby, an eerie electrical poem I found in the pages of The Electrical Age. This pioneering gadget magazine was produced from the early 1930s by the Electrical Association for Women.
Published in 1930, Electric Lullaby reveals the thoughts of a woman who is so excited by the future of domestic electricity, she passes an electric current through her baby every night to soothe him to sleep.
Hushaby! baby. Mother is near,
Don’t you cry, precious, take an ampere,
Cuddle down, sweet, near the dynamo’s brush,
The current will put you to sleep with a rush.
Hushaby! lullaby. (where is that switch?)
Sleep through till morning, you dear little witch.
Hushaby! Nursie has gone for the night,
Mother will see that the contacts are right.
The voltage is measured, the wires are clear,
So shockaby into the land of dreams, dear.
Your crib’s insulated, the current’s direct,
Shut your eyes, baby, and note the effect.
Hushaby! ‘lectridy’, isn’t this great?
Baby drops off to sleep while you wait.
‘Lectrodes clamped on to one foot and one hand;
While the light burns she sleeps.
Oh! Isn’t this grand.
No more long hours of walking the floor,
Kilowatts do what papa did before.
– From Life
First published in The Electrical Age, Volume 1, 1930