Concrete Mixer Drum Solo

CORY LUND (MFA SCULPTURE 2018)

One summer day, the kind where music joyously blares from every open car window, I was riding my bike down the length of a street cutting straight through the University of Toronto campus. Cruising past the students and landscaped planters that lined the sidewalks, I began hearing a repetitive thump ... thump ... thump-ing sound in the distance ahead of me. This rhythmic noise was likely coming from the Bahen Centre construction site, where all manner of loud and abrasive sounds could be heard between sunrise and sunset that year. While clangy and metallic sounding, there was something intriguingly human about its rhythm, differentiating it from anything produced by machine alone. As I drew closer to the construction site, the thumping grew louder and I finally saw its source: a construction worker repeatedly heaving a sledgehammer against the hollow steel barrel of a portable concrete mixer: thump ... thump ... thump ...

The sound, sight, and movement of the worker’s drumming felt replete with musical significance. Steady, deep, and primal, each thump was like the bass drum that drives rock and techno music alike. Though as basic as a metronome, there was an inexplicable musicality to the rhythm, eliciting a deep empathy within my body. Though spare and unrelenting, it was tolerable, even catchy, to my ears. Ultimately, what made this rhythm so captivating was the measure of the negative space between each thump. These charged pauses were a precise function of the man’s body retracting, reloading, and redelivering the next blow of the sledgehammer against the concrete mixer drum. A perfect expression of ergonomics and human scale, the rhythm generated by this labor was the only possible outcome of this particular man’s physical measurements and motor capabilities. Thump ... (reload) … thump … (reload) … thump …

The rhythm evoked similar exertions made vocal and overtly musical in Sam Cooke’s 1960 Working on a Chain Gang, a quaint rendition of the singin’/moanin’ of incarceration and forced labor. Recall the song’s guttural “Hooh … aah … Hooh … aah …” introduction and chorus, interspliced with percussive metal-on-metal clanks. The Pretenders would later ape this motif as backing vocals on 1984’s Back on the Chain Gang: Hooh … (clank) … aah … (clank) … Hooh … (clank) … aah …(clank) …

Was the streetscape’s backbeat rhythm a Maximum Rock ‘n’ Rollresponse to the cry for “More cowbell!” made famous in the SNLsketch? (Or rather, “More concrete mixer drum!”) No, this incidental music’s affinities were with minimal techno, with its pared down repetition of percussive elements. Interviewed in Danceflorensics, seminal German techno producer Wolfgang Voight declares, “I believe in the signal of the bass drum. It is the heartbeat of my life.” Ultimately, life is meted out as an ongoing thump … thump … thump. The simplicity also recalled German producer and artist Thomas Brinkmann’s altered vinyl records. Using a knife, Brinkmann incised lines directly into vinyl records, perpendicular to the orientation of their grooves. Light scratches emulated a high-hat, while deeper cuts produced a bass drum, augmenting the compositions he had had pressed into vinyl. At regular intervals, in a multiplication factor of 33⅓ revolutions per minute, the needle would thump …… thump …… thump over these incisions.

What separates good techno from bad techno is incremental change across the duration of a repetitive track, preventing listening fatigue. As Brinkmann’s incised records spin, the needle moves slowly closer to the center of the disc’s tightening spiral of near-concentric circles, incrementally increasing the tempo of the percussive incisions. The result is a geometric rather than arithmetic progression, whose complexity is greater than the sum of its few parts. Similarly, as my bicycle continued rolling toward then past the concrete mixer thumping, its volume peaked while its sound waves shifted in frequency and wavelength in accord with the Doppler effect. This is the sound commonly heard on city streets as the uncanny change in the pitch of a song heard playing in a passing car—like music smeared along linear streets: thump ......... thump …... thump … thhhhhhuuuuuummmppp ...

Alongside the musicality of the worker’s unintentional performance, his figure and movement suggested art-historical references. Standing apart from its surrounds like concrete statuary, the whole scene was a matte monochrome grey as everything was dusted with concrete powder, from the worker’s skin and clothing to the tools and ground beneath him. His total concentration on the task at hand illustrated the ideals of absorption that art critic Michael Fried noted in 18th-century French painting. In Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, Fried cites Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners as exemplary in its depiction of agricultural workers tending their crops. The Toronto construction worker’s economy of movement belied countless hours perfecting this basic chore, evoking the task-oriented, Minimalist, and process-based choreography developed at the Judson Church in the 1960s. This same New York milieu gave rise to the first Minimalist sculptures, created by Robert Morris in 1961 as props for a Judson Church performance.

But the intimate relationship between body, labor, and Minimalist aesthetics evident in this construction worker’s gesture most closely recalled the German sculptor Ulrich Rückriem’s 1971 Steel Plate Center. Unceremoniously installed on the floor, where it could easily have been made, this three-foot square steel plate has been struck hundreds of times with a ballpeen hammer across a 20-inch diameter circular area at its center. The action has caused the square plate to assume a slight concavity, lifting its perimeter a few inches up off the floor—an indexical record of Rückriem’s body circling around the steel plate, repeatedly slamming a hammer down at the limits of his reach. In Rückriem’s sculpture, labor and the sound of its making are palpable even in the maker’s absence. Thud … thud … thud ...

The city is a cacophony of sound and movement that produces complex spatial and temporal relationships between bodies in motion and/or at rest. For the short duration of my engagement with the sound and sight of the Toronto construction worker, probably less than two minutes, this thump … thump … thumping on the concrete drum continually alerted me to the present moment, awakening a hyper vigilance of sense perception. Time was elongated by the tension and anticipation that the system of body, hammer, and steel concrete drum generated, and was further conflated by my own movement through the scene. The incident continues to replay in my mind, like a dream sequence set in slow motion, a 45 rpm single played at 33⅓: thhhhhhuuuuuummmppp … thhhhhhuuuuuummmppp … thhhhhhuuuuuummmppp …


My trusty bike with me at Documenta ... standing over Walter De Maria's "Vertical Earth Kilometer."
Mark