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The User: Symphony No. 2 For Dot Matrix Printers

Mark Sabbatini By

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Every now and then an album awes me with its artistry, even though I can't bear to listen to it in more than small doses. This might be the pinnacle of that group.

The title says it all. Two Canadians, Emmanuel Madan and Thomas McIntosh, composed Symphony No. 2 For Dot Matrix Printers"? on a dozen machines including two Epson LQ 1050s, a Citizen Swift and a Juki (whatever that is). The 12-part, 41-minute composition ranges from low-pitched ambient chorals to frenzied percussion-like overtures (or Debussy to Stravinsky, for classical-minded types). Those hearing any given 10 seconds would associate it as nothing more than office noise, but a few minutes' exposure reveals amazing achievements of rhythm, harmony and composition.

Keep listening to it, however, and it can drive you nuts.

This really isn't a fault of the album - it's hard to imagine any collection of printers that sounds good for 40 minutes straight. The smart thing is to listen to a few compositions at a time, play a soothing interlude, then return to the chatter.

Madan and Thomas, whose debut album consisted of capturing noises made in an abandoned grain silo, make a very smart decision with the printer symphony: The machines provide all the sound without "enhancements"? such as effects processing and/or conventional background instruments. Hear emulations of strings, woodwinds, percussion and other orchestral elements demands appreciation as a result, and there's a strong lure to figure out how sounds are triggered.

The symphony opens on a low-key note with "."? (warning: nearly all of the songs have similarly weird punctuation-only titles), almost silent at the beginning before evolving into a slow, lurking march with a heavy bottom end. It gradually speeds up, but remans sparse, as though it's printing something with only a few characters per line. Perhaps it's sort of a "booting up"? concept, but something more attention-getting might make a better opening on a concept album like this.

Things get snappy on fourth track as a complex set of rapid percussive patterns start and stop abruptly, with a counterrhythm working its way in and providing a modern electronica feel. The sixth track is highlighted by a series of high-pitch crescendos emulating passages a violin or piccolo might provide in a regular orchestra. Track eight is the kind that would delight a "pops"? audience, starting with a march and building up to a freight train pace - the sense of an imminent collision of enormous proportions is utterly captivating.

The final two tracks may be the most harmonically complex and musical. The song "}.}@}.@.}@}.@.}@}.@.}@}.@.}@}.@.}"? opens with a strings-like prelude, punctuated by rapid, subtle, percussion-like "printings."? The simulated strings evolve in intensity, and the percussion gets more dominant and regular until an abrupt final cutoff. It's one of the few compositions that might be more musical than mechanical.

The closing 10-minute "Untitled Track"? has an ambient theme, with a much lower-pitched mechanism - it sounds like power line hum from a group of industrial machines on standby - providing the build- up to a pulsing beat (power overload?). It concludes appropriately with what sounds like each machine being switched off. The concept is commendable but, like the opening, giving the audience something with more impact might satisfy better.

Surfing the Net for opinions about this album reveals almost no middle ground. People either hail its genius or wonder what kind of morons pay money for a bunch of noise masquerading as an album (which makes me wonder if they've actually heard it, or are just criticizing the concept). It's available through online stores such as iTunes and eMusic (the latter is much cheaper, costing about $3 if you're a member). Those who are hesitant are advised to audition three free tracks at The User's web site . It's also a worthwhile visit for those who enjoy the album, since the online tracks are different songs and there's other material such as a four-minute movie of Madan and McIntosh "performing."?

Symphony No. 2 For Dot Matrix Printers is obviously something of potential appeal to computer geeks, especially those familiar with "classic"? machines of the '60s, '70s and '80s, but fans of experimental and electronica are likely to find portions interesting as well. If all else fails, imagine what The User might do next - envisioning an opera featuring home appliances or car engines is almost a certain source of amusement.

Track listing: There are 12 tracks, with most titles consisting solely of puncutation that may not appear properly in some Web browsers.

Personnel: Emmanuel Madan and Thomas McIntosh "perform" on the following printers: Juki; Epson FX 286e; Epson TX-80B "Essna"; Panasonic KX-P1124i; two Raven PR-2417s); Star Micronics Gemini-10x; two Epson LQ 1050s; Fujitsu DL 3400; Epson "Dr. Who"; Citizen "Swift"

Visit The User on the web.


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