Steve Messam: Drum Machine
Blue Sky Idea
Kelham Island is a fascinating collection exploring the industrial and social past of Sheffield though the microcosm of the small corner of the city. My overriding memories of visits to the museum are of the cutlery making processes and the mighty Don engine.
As an artist I frequently work with master craftsmen, engineers and fabricators to create large-scale works and am fascinated with the skills and processes of well engineered pieces. Kelham Island satisfies my curiosity with the intricate crafting of what are sometimes seen as mass-production. I am also interested in the link between the history of heavy industry and the landscape of Sheffield in the unique cultural identity of the city.
A vast steam or compressed air-powered mechanical beat engine which links the manufacturing heart of Sheffield to the post-punk pop sounds of ‘Human League’, ‘Pulp’ and the ‘Thompson Twins’.
At the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, Sheffield went through an important post-punk music renaissance. Facilitated by new technology – notably the Linn Drum machine – Sheffield spawned a new and distinctive sound epitomised by ‘Human League’, ‘Heaven-17’, ‘Thompson Twins’ and ‘Danse Society’. The sound of industrial decay and crumbling society within the city to a pounding beat of machines. A product of two universities, art schools, a disillusioned youth combined with cheap recording studios and accessible technology – a post-punk cohort forging a vision for a future where there wasn’t much of one.
The anthology – “Dreams to Fill the Vacuum – The Sound of Sheffield 1977-1988” on Cherry Red Records gives an oversight to that moment in time and place.
Drawing on the floor-thumping beat of the Don Engine comes the ‘Drum Machine’ – a behemoth of valves and pistons that takes the versatility and tactility of the Linn Drum machine to Sheffield’s industrial roots.
‘Drum Machine’ is designed and built by local engineers, drawing on generations of knowledge in large scale industrial machines. An elegantly designed and precision-engineered testament to the legacy skills in the city. The rhythms, pitches and tempo of cylinder beats, exhausts and valve clicks uncover the manufacturing sounds that influenced those early Sheffield sound musicians.
The gigantic size of ‘Drum Machine’ reveals the power and scale of the vast industrial machines of the Steel City and has a visual presence of awe and wonder. The physical pounding of cylinders, presses and hammers is felt throughout the site as a living heartbeat.
The core of the beats are provided by the pistons and exhaust valves that drive the main flywheel. Additional percussive sounds are created from steel boxes, press hammers, whistles etc. triggered through selectable cams driven from the flywheel. A series of steel springs and audio dampeners provide reverb and acoustic control.
‘Drum Machine’ is programmable, in much the same way as the Linn Drum. Set patterns can be pre-programmed to for particular tracks from ‘Human League’ or ‘Pulp’ to tell the historic narrative of that moment in time. As a resource the ‘Drum Machine’ is available as a working instrument to be used for community performances or hired for recording purposes as a unique rhythm section.
Most of all, ‘Drum Machine’ serves to tell the story of how the ghosts of lost industry spawned a renaissance among a population faced with an uncertain future. A sound that resonated with its past and reclaimed as a new identity. ‘Drum Machine’ tells the story of the city, its people and how that continues to shape its own cultural identity.”
Steve Messam is an environmental artist based in County Durham, UK and working internationally. His ephemeral site-specific installations re-imagine the everyday, interrupting historical landscapes and vacant architecture to help us perceive the familiar environment in a new way.
Messam’s works seek to explore and uncover the layers of narrative within the environment, frequently drawing on existing uses of the land and reflecting an understanding of the geological, cultural, industrial and agricultural practices already being used to shape the landscape. From working with farmers to re-imagining vernacular architecture, his ephemeral, site-specific art installations uncover hidden stories and help a deeper understanding of place.
Working on a scale that is typically ‘bigger than a house’, his works explore the colour, sound and scale of place. His sound installations include a mechanical curlew call filling the Bowes Museum (‘Curlew Machine’ – 2014) and a 2 mile installation of steam loco whistles around the line of the Town Wall in Newcastle (‘Whistle’ – 2018).
Other works include ‘PaperBridge’ (2015) – a functioning packhorse bridge made from 22,000 sheets of paper in the Lake District; and ‘Hush’ (2019) – a lead-mining scar in the North Pennines landscape filled with over five kilometres of saffron-yellow fabric. He created the first off-site installation at the 2006 Shanghai Biennial and created a number of site specific installations across the Venetian Lagoon during the 2009 Venice Biennale.