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The whole album was composed and realised on the Roland R8 drum machine. It followed the same process as the Elastic Variations pieces, with the major addition of many, many hours of editing.
Each piece was composed as a series of patterns, of varying lengths (5,6,7 bars long). The stock R8 sounds were embellished with one of several ROM sound library cards (mostly the Dance card, number 10).
These patterns were created by tapping out a rhythm, then, in real time, using the Pitch slider as the pattern looped, to create improvised melodies for each of the pattern's voices.
The rough version of each piece was built by stitching the patterns together as a song, listening to each addition over and over, to make sure the melodies flowed into each other in a vaguely coherent manner.
Once this initial rough structure was in place I set about fine tuning every single note.
The R8 doesn't allow you to assign a pitch to a note in the conventional sense. It's not possible to assign a pitch of Middle C to the first note of the first bar. Instead, it assigns a numerical value to a note's pitch, between -4800 and +4800 (I think those numbers are correct - that little screen is seared into my memory).
If you restrict all notes within a piece to a mulitple of, say, 400, you therefore create the possibility of a sort of scale. For multiples of 400, you have a total number of 24 permissable notes. However, most of the percussive sounds, when pitch shifted, only sounded 'good' over a reduced range.
The first editing step was to go through the entire piece, and change every note's pitch to its nearest multiple of 400.
The second step was to draw out the entire piece on graph paper, the Y axis being pitch, X being time. This drawing gave me a visual sense of a melody's flow. It was easy to see too many notes clustering around too tight a pitch range for instance, or a single note straying way down into the lower register while all others at that point in the melody were in the upper.
Once these first 'clearing-up' edits were complete I could set about re-writing elements that didn't sound right melodically. Often this meant stripping out whole chunks of superfluous notes, to reveal a cleaner melody line, then shifting its shape slightly. If the flow of the line of dots on the graph 'looked' balanced and sweetly sinuous, then often it sounded so.
This entire process took many weeks per piece. Weeks of doing almost nothing else. Listening. Re-drawing. Re-writing. Listening. Round and round and round. When I could hear the whole thing in my head, from beginning to end, and nothing seemed to jar (too excessively), I knew it was done, time to move on.
I imagine it's very similar to the process of stop frame animation. Your days are filled with painfully tiny incremental changes that seem to be getting nowhere. Then, slowly, a shape, narrative, starts to appear. Then, all of a sudden, somehow, it's done.
When all the pieces were complete the R8 was taken into Irdial's studio where some simple effects were added, each voice recorded individually for clarity onto 8-track tape and mastered onto an ex-BBC half-inch tape deck.
Then I slept. And vowed never to do it again.
And the title ?
Soon after finishing the pieces I happened to read a magazine article about Christo's "Surrounded Islands" installation with the music playing in the background.
There was something about a particular cluster of words within a random sentence that seemed pleasing and somehow appropriate.
"Islets in Pink Polypropylene" seemed to make as much sense as anything else.
released December 1, 1994
Published by Pi34 1994
Copyright Irdial Discs 1994
“ This is astonishing music, a liquidy headbox of aural shapes, whose forms hardly change yet seem to encompass infinite viscosity within them, like rainbow pools of oil on water. ”
“ Unapologetically minimalist in its beatlessness and atonal splutter, this LP adheres to the Songs Have Been Done school by being one continuous piece divided into five nameless movements. Bang up the Ikea-fitted street of Michael Nyman and Phillip Glass, only rougher, less cyclical and cramming in more ideas. It's also far too engaging to be ambient. Put it on while ironing and you risk burning your prize garments.
The sharp, crystal melodies suck you in and the whole thing appears to grow and evolve like some continuously spiralling fractal. Flag-wavingly obscure and esoteric it may be, but 'Islets' is easier listening than you'd imagine. ”
“ This isn't simply ambient, and it is not ambient dub. Anthony Manning puts together synth sounds with eccentric modifications for an ambient plink sound. Take two tabs, don your snorkel gear and swim with reef fish as they come into and out of focus, and the drugs move you back and forth with the ocean, and as the bubbles sparkle all around you as they head for the surface, you will understand the structure of the sounds. Bassy motions are the swells, and lighter synth sounds are the bubbles. Even the cover can convey the music. If you are a hopelessly religious conservative, stare at the cover while listening to the music at loud volume. ”
“ Manning is a key figure in early 90's abstract electronic music. I cannot quite get a handle on what he is up to here. Islets is oft-considered his greatest work, but I can't really measure it against anything else from the man. On it's own terms, it's an exquisite esoteric listen. I wonder what would've happened had he made himself into a brand name rather than say, Aphex Twin. The software is not quite there for him in '93 or '94 it seems, but he gets great effect from how he runs his tapes backwards, simultaneously letting lines bubble up and get sucked back down to the river bed.. ”
“ What seems like an eon ago, well 1994 to be exact, the classic "Islets in Pink Polypropylene" first shot into the public's gaze. The material still sounds light years away in terms of electronic composition, structure and instrumentation, feeling all the more astounding when you realise that all the material originates from the editing sections of the Roland R8 drum machine.
Anthony Manning's music has more in common with the great electronic composers like Steve Reich and Morton Feldman than many of his contemporaries. 'Islets' creates deeply moving tones that blend into vibrating percussion sections, like witnessing a sythesised Indian tabla player master at work. Purest moments of grace and poise. Along with "Chromium Nebulae" on the shortlist for the Baked Goods desert island list. Timeless and indispensible. ”
“ Before you enter the maze, know where you will be exiting. Take note of any tall objects such as trees, buildings, or roads, which will produce noise. While you walk through, be sure to carefully note where you are. Remember intersections, turns, and checkpoints in the maze so you do not walk down the same path twice. Scored graphically then composed from the depths of a Roland R8 drum machine. Unsurpassed & totally unique.. ”
“ Light years ahead of the game, this CD will be the best thing you hear all millennium - if you know not, you really should. Enough. ”
“ Calmer and more evenly paced than elastic variations e.p. which preceeded it, though follows up on some similar melodic pattern work, though with much more space in the compositions. ”
“ A lo-fi abuser of the latest tech, this spaced cadet uses a solitary drum machine to create a unique calm from errant harmony. Deep stuff. ”
“ Marks a milestone in electronic music, nothing less. Flowing spheres of music, there gos on and on. This was original made on a Roland R-8 drum machine and I’m not kidding but listening too this beatless music, it makes it very hard to believe. ”
“ This cover meant so much to me at the birth of the 'electronica' era. The sleeve is no classic, but caught Mannings' renaissance man ideal - creating everything himself. The imagery is part of the music, sounding way ahead of its time, using mathmatical structures, and huge hand drawn graphic notation. Aesthetically distant from the hard-edged techno design of the time, Anthony being in a isolated world of his own, backed by the intelligence of Irdial Discs. ”
“ Amazing and legendary album from Anthony Manning on the equally legendary Irdial label, from 1994. This album is a perfect summation of the term abstract electronica. Playing out like one long track, this music is beatless, and has a shifting, open structure. Oddly morphing keyboards wobble around some strange and disconcerting background textures in a most unique and strange way. If you work anywhere that requires you to wear a lab coat, this should be playing in the background at all times. ”
“ Before IDM became a nation of Aphex and Autechre cosplayers, the genre was less defined by aesthetics than by a shared ideology. Here was a loosely connected axis of post-rave kids, united by little more than a shared willingness to subvert the tools of their techno idols and create sounds that hadn't previously been imagined.
No record of the era better embodies this find-a-machine-and-freak-it ethos than Islets in Pink Polypropylene, the otherworldly debut by British producer Anthony Manning. Built entirely on a Roland R-8, a chunky digital drum machine then celebrated for its realism, Islets is a meticulously crafted, multitracked flurry of kicks and hi-hats pitch-shifted into unrecognizable bubbles and squelches. For Manning, it was as if rhythm and melody had never been distinct elements to begin with, and his fusion of the two set an early precedent for the digital signal processing abuse that would come to define IDM at the turn of the century. ”
“ Anthony Manning’s debut album Islets in Pink Polypropylene was his 2nd release, preceded only by his debut 12” Elastic Variations in 1994. Painstakingly crafted exclusively using the malleable palette of a Roland R-8 drum machine - as used by 808 State, Orbital, Autechre before him - and landing just as the UK scene’s come-down from the halcyon daze really started to kick in, the album was effectively one of the UK’s first post-rave ambient records proper; sharing much more in common with Æ’s Amber or AFX’s SAW Vol. II - which were both released in that same year - than anything else before or around it.
Presenting five exquisitely efficient and detailed tracks that perhaps suggest what Satie and Paremgiani might have done with access to an R-8, Islets in Pink Polypropylene is future-proofed by the nature of its reductionist principles, rendering captivating glimpses into a machine-mind of sparkling neurones and tingling nerves that reveal a world of possibilities from the same equipment that almost everyone else is using, but to much more skewed, esoteric and coolly cerebral ends.
And in contrast to the vast fields of pastoral, drifty ambience and the way techno was bifurcating into nuttier, harder, complex arrangements, this record is a real sore thumb, preferring a modest pointillist efficiency and a relatively cold sense of space over broad strokes and fluffy intimacy. Yet that said, it is a friendly, memorably involving listen; you might just have to work around its more autistic elements to find a way in.
Whether directly or indirectly, there are swathes of minimalist electronic records released since (in fact there’s probably whole genres) which owe this one a debt of gratitude ”