Throbbing Gristle’s music box is possessed of the magical and the disturbing, and a step forward in its industrial mission.
When Throbbing Gristle first arose from the ashes of the radical art troupe COUM Transmissions, it was to expose audiences to “music from the death factory”. Everything negative about industry could be found in the group’s music -- repetitive, shrill sounds and horrific vocals. Even when TG abandoned straight clanging horror to embrace parts of disco and gentler cosmic synths, their music could still oppress the listener. The din of suffering -- and everyone seemed to be suffering in TG’s music -- was only trumped by feelings of loneliness, crushing boredom, and then panic.
Somehow, after the close of the death factory came survivor projects that flipped TG’s “industrial music for industrial people” credo on its head. Where TG had exposed the gritty realities of human loneliness and unending suffering, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, having actually found love (corny as that may sound), chronicled it in their own sublime way as Chris & Cosey (later Carter Tutti). Genesis P-Orridge and Peter “Sleazy” Chrisopherson, meanwhile, abandoned the obsession with reality for forays into unreality, in the magick musings and beats of Psychic TV, and, later for Christopherson, the left-hand path spirituality of Coil.
On the surface, this is a little electronic music box, in the style of the FM3 Buddha Machine (and made with help from FM3’s Christian Viraant), featuring 13 brief loops of TG’s music. There are wheels to control volume and bend pitch, in addition to a cheap little built-in speaker. Beyond immediate impressions, however, the Gristleism is representative of the paradoxical mundane-magickal practices of its creators: an industrial object with magical fetishistic potential. Mass-produced from molds of plastic, silicon, and metal, the whole is more than the sum of its physical parts. A stylized drawing of the inside of the Gristleism looks at the inside of the box and depicts monolithic electronic instruments, gritty artifacts, and even potions -- the reality is a tiny PC Board with a little chip storing the loops that sits attached to the side.
User modification of the Gristleism has been both featured and encouraged on TG’s official site; no less could be expected from pioneers in DIY electronics and circuit bending. The Gristleism blog hosts schematic instructions for mods as basic as the addition of a 1/8” (headphone) jack, to more advanced projects like a dedicated LFO to modulate the pitch. At a reasonable price of around $23, the Gristleism also makes an encouraging tool for circuit-bending enthusiasts -- I worked with a friend of mine to insert a light-sensitive photocell as a pitch controller. The end result of such modding is a kind of collaboration between TG and their fans -- or, if you will, a kind of industrial remix, reducing the physical object to its parts and editing to taste.
In recent interviews, Genesis P-Orridge has suggested that time off from Throbbing Gristle gave the group a more positive and inclusive perspective on life. Indeed, inclusiveness is one of the more unexpected attributes of the Gristleism. The TG of the '70s and '80s, one suspects, would not have been so open to share secrets of Gristleism modifications; Chris Carter famously published an incorrect schematic for the Gristleizer (TG’s personalized effects unit) in a British popular electronics magazine. Carter’s willingness to share his electronics with others this time around (Gristleizer kits are also currently available for purchase) is the closest TG have inched to softening with age.
Drew Daniel’s 33 1/3 series entry on Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats broke with the myth-filled tradition of literature about TG to focus on the mundane -- which effects were used where, who played what, etc. Commenting on a tape of a child laughing featured in “Persuasion” (a loop of which is present on the Gristleism), Peter “Sleazy” Chrisopherson revealed that said tape, despite containing nothing inherently sinister, had been recorded by a friend who was a pedophile. Sleazy’s summation of the inclusion of the tape, that “everything’s to do with context”, has been a kind of mantra for TG. Industry is just building materials and utilities, until you make something out of it.
Like J.G. Ballard, who never met a machine he couldn’t sexualize, or the “new flesh” human-object hybrids of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, TG have taken plastic, paper, and circuitry, and, through re-contextualization, possessed it of something seemingly alive. The sound of the music is almost a moot point -- TG are an acquired taste, still -- but the interactivity makes this into something else: something shared, and almost seemingly illicit. At times, playing with the Gristleism feels like playing with a sentient counterpart -- the machine is sublimely connected to its human host. As P-Orridge explains in “Persuasion” -- “there’s a certain way, and a certain touch”.