Sunday, 23 June 2013


The Canadian composer conducts his "sewing machine orchestra" as part of the Music City celebrations in Derry-Londonderry

The very first sight that greets my eyes inside the old City Factory in Derry-Londonderry's Patrick Street is a singer. But this is no ordinary singer – it's one of eight Singer sewing machines, lined up side by side and connected to a Macbook. It's an extremely clear hint of what's to come.

As composer Martin Messier starts the machines, one by one, the sewing noise sounds more like a very old tin drum kit, while the turning mechanism at the back of each machine rumbles like an electric guitar being prepped for a very long night on the stage. Even though we have come to hear music, the mood is not that of a music factory, nor a shirt factory; rather, a famous chocolate factory, where something weird and potentially wonderful awaits our as yet unopened eyes and ears.

For Messier, this is the end result of years of consistent experimentation. The Canadian artist-cum-musician had previously worked with many objects over time, including an alarm clock, and had recently wondered what object he could next manipulate to create sound. He happened upon the sewing machine – a timely instrument for Derry, in the midst of the fascination surrounding the history of the city's own shirt factories. 

At the beginning, lighting is sparse and infrequent, creating an eerie atmosphere. Then, one of the "singers" kicks off into a sewing rhythm that gradually escalates in tempo before the other machines follow suit. The sewing beats vary in speed and sound amongst a cascade of flickering sewing machine lights; were you to shut your eyes, you would think that you were travelling on the London Underground in the nineteenth century. A composition with vitality worthy of Political Mother, the small crowd are quietly entranced by Messier's "music".

The "music" is structured in such a way as to create a pseudo retro sound, a modern techno beat – not enough to make one groove, mind, but enough for a nightclub vibe, with prominent clicking, excessive throbbing and eminent mini-strobe lighting.  As the band of machines play on, our fascination with the patterns of light never ceases. Even when a phone goes off, it only adds to the naturalism of the sound, rather than detracting from it.

If the act does reek a little of repetition near its end – once the novelty wears off, its appeal isn't quite as sustainable – it is still a good, and possibly the only proper, soundtrack to the surroundings of this theatre. By both looking back and looking forward, Messier has created an admirable composition, an extremely novel and hugely appropriate backdrop to shirt factory history.