My friend Mark Dixon is a genius. For every genius you have heard about, there are a dozen geniuses hidden away in a quiet North Carolina town somewhere, and Mark Dixon is one of those.
Mark Dixon built a drum machine. For years, Mark Dixon built a drum machine. Months, decades, centuries passed, and the drum machine grew and grew. And by “drum machine”, I mean “robots”. Many, many robots, robots made of wooden clappers and dixie cups and recycled car parts and steel trash cans and, even, a typewriter, each robot built or hinged or nailed to a square of wood in a way that it could crack or ping or bong one part against the other and make a sort of percussion noise. There was not a thing, to Mark, that could not become a robot capable of making a sort of percussion noise. Even an old clothes dryer, with the right sort of wooden ball inside, became a sure and steady drum. And each robot; small, large, on its own special stand or suspended from the ceiling; each robot is connected with a long thin wire to the Great Turning Wheel, which is a name I have given it, for the sake of visualization.
The Great Turning Wheel, is, as you would imagine, a sort of disk- a great, flat, wooden disk, shot through with tiny-peg holes, into each one of which fits one small wooden peg. And through the center of the disk is a metal rod (I think), and on this metal rod (I think) the Great Turning Wheel does its sure turning, by way of small motor, slowly or fastly, depending on which way your flick the simple silver switches, which also dictate what robots react to the position of the pegs- if the high-sounding robots ping and tinkle, for example, or if the deep-sounding robots boom and fwap, or if all of the robots go, one after the other, in their places, which are set with the placing of the pegs. And Mark, meanwhile, is sitting, straight, on a stool, a white stool, in front of the Great Turning Wheel that surely turns, and from a small cup of wooden pegs in one hand, he is pulling with his other hand, and pushing pegs into position, quickly, making rhythms both complex and visual, like the sharp metal dots on the small metal wheel of the old ballerina music-box you had as a kid, which you used to open, and the tiny plastic girl in her rain-drop of tulle would leap up on a bronze spring and spin around, in front of a mirror the size of a teaspoon. Except Mark’s drum machine is large, and it fills a whole room.
When I first came to North Carolina a few years ago, Mark showed me this drum machine, in a cold warehouse- he brought it to life for me, and then turned it off, and it sat, silent, seemingly forever, at least to me. And Mark went about his business, this business of thinking, of creation, of being busy with bits of wood and saws and scraps of metal in his cold, cluttered warehouse. And I thought nothing of it, until last night.
Last night I saw a show. And Mark’s drum machine was in the show. It was a band, a band called INVISIBLE. And my friend Jonathan Henderson is in the band, Jonathan who is a steadfast and musical friend, and also another fellow that I haven’t yet met, named Bart Trotman.
It took Mark six hours to set up his drum machine. It took Jonathan five hours to set up everything else. It took the other fellow some unknown amount of time to set up, because I haven’t yet made his acquaintance, and so haven’t had the chance to ask him. Mark wore a red helmet and a red sweater and red pants. Jonathan wore a black shirt and a black tie and a black jacket and black pants. The other fellow wore all white, with old phone chargers wrapped around his arms and legs.
First, Mark placed the pegs. Then, he turned on the machine.
The wooden clapper clapped. The plastic tube drum boomed. The mallet hit the dixie cup. Something jingled, something crashed. A loud, deep, catchy rhythm rose from the pegs in Mark’s fingertips. Countless robots spread out before me, in a maze of wire and lights, as far as I could see. And adrift among the robots were the other band members, with keyboards and other things I don’t understand because I don’t play music that sort of music, using these things I don’t understand to make even more strange noises and sounds. And on four tall TV monitors played footage from two tiny cameras placed on the Great Turning Wheel, and on the typewriter- footage of pegs turning smoothly in space, and footage of words being typed on the typewriter, by Jonathan.
I don’t usually like experimental music. Not that I even listen to it live ever, but I feel like when I do, it is to me just a bunch of random sounds, that maybe shouldn’t even go together. But this, this was something else. I can’t even explain it in words. The human language fails me. Excuse me, as I defer to visual media for this one.
The band Invisible has another member, The Typist, who did not perform last night, but who you can see in this video. The typist is my friend Jodi, another steadfast piedmontan, (that’s a word I just made up that means living in the piedmont of North Carolina.) who plays, in the band, a typewriter- whose keys play the keys of a piano- aka Selectric Piano. Mark’s drum machine, unfortunately, is not present in this video, but Jodi’s instrument, which Mark invented, is. And also, some of the collective genius of the band shines through. And if you go to the band’s myspace page, you can see a trailer for a documentary someone is actually making, about the incredible, INVISIBLE drum machine.