Out of my headphones comes a flow of odd, weirdly tactile sound: what could be an army of ants marching across a plain of contact mics, a landslide of scree recorded from a mile away, or perhaps the first field recording taken from Ingenuity, the tiny robotic helicopter currently flying sorties above the Martian landscape. Delicate clicks, burring friction and the waterfall-like spatiality of granular flow all galvanise my ears.
It’s the sort of thing that may interest subscribers to The Wire magazine, or that an underground musician usually seen sweating over a badly soldered modular synth could make in a moment of calm. This is Lego White Noise, and while it definitely sounds like experimental music, the name makes it clear that this is the work of the world’s most “reputable brand”.
The project was devised by Lego’s “head of creative” Primus Manokaran, who describes the streaming-only album as “a collection of soundscapes” designed to promote relaxation and mindfulness. Although the seven tracks, which each run to half an hour in length, are different in their granular details, essentially they were made by Lego pieces being poured out of tubs, sifted through and clicked together.
Manokaran’s team began thinking about why people love Lego during lockdown, and realised that a big hook was how it sounds. Inspired by the online craze for white noise as an aid to relaxation and focus, they began recording. “The acoustic properties of each brick was slightly different,” he says. “It was like composing with 10,000 tiny instruments.”
They used as many different Lego elements as possible – from outsized toddler-friendly Duplo bricks to tiny minifigure heads – to create a wide range of raw sound, without using much in the way of audio processing bar some EQing, and reverb to create ambience.
The album covers more ground than you might imagine. Built For Two is the classic sound of a Lego build: the painstaking search for the right piece typified by bricks being scraped across baseplates and the swish of elements being brushed left and right, but it is essentially abstract noise. Searching For the One (Brick), on the other hand, has a tangible structure. A hand rustles through a chaos of elements and then plinks a single piece on to a separate pile at distinct intervals (a process definitely enhanced by sequencing and looping). So there are two unique “song” styles on this album – that’s the same number as Oasis featured on their debut and one more than the Libertines achieved in their entire career, so who are we to say this isn’t music?
Manokaran says each track “has a ‘formula’ and utilises a family of bricks that have similar audio qualities” but stops short of describing them as actual music, preferring the comparison to nature sounds – a wildly popular YouTube phenomenon for recordings of rivers, gentle breezes and rainfall, valued for their relaxing and often sleep-promoting properties.
The “but is it music?” question that can be levelled at Lego White Noise is at least a century old itself. Italian futurist Luigi Russolo published The Art of Noise in 1913, claiming that in the age of industrialisation and modern warfare the orchestra was redundant and should be replaced with an “infinite variety of noise sounds”. Erik Satie coined the term Furniture Music the following year, an early precursor to what Brian Eno termed ambient in 1978, a liminal music intended for ignoring as much as enjoying. When Edgard Varèse described his own work as “organised sound” in 1966, he was only giving elegant echo to the ideas first dreamed up by French composer Pierre Schaeffer and his GRMC unit 25 years earlier when they first conceived of musique concrète – the practice of assembling recorded sounds as a form of composition.
The affordable sampler has since created a handful of notable noise maestros including Matmos, who have created work by recording such varied sound sources as a washing machine and silicone breast implants; and Katie Gately who has used an MRI scanner as an instrument. Even the idea of making music using children’s toys is not unique, as they have long featured in the kit of veteran improvisers such as David Toop and Steve Beresford, not to mention Rie Nakajima, a favourite at east London experimental haunt Cafe Oto who, if memory serves correctly, I once saw playing a solo on a set of wind-up teeth at a Norwegian arts festival.
There are many parallels between Lego White Noise and music I genuinely love. The track The Waterfall, created by thousands of elements being poured out of a huge tub reminds me of one of my favourite ever gig moments: watching Einstürzende Neubauten perform the song Unvollständigkeit and at the climax, spill a seemingly never ending stream of glittering metal rods out of a hopper on to a microphone, creating a delightful shiver of sound. In this sense, the Lego music has definite ASMR properties, the pleasant tingling sensation and euphoria triggered by specific visual and sonic triggers.
I enjoy listening to Lego White Noise for much more fundamental reasons, though. My son turned 10 last week and this milestone birthday arrived with a dawning, bittersweet realisation. Over the last decade I had been blithely convinced I was helping him cement permanent joyful memories when we played together, whereas I was probably just creating Proustian triggers for myself, which will only become fully activated after he leaves home. I tried to engage him in a conversation about Thomas the Tank Engine yesterday only to discover that his memory of the show, despite an overwhelmingly intense four-year obsession with it, is now cursory at best.
I feel that there is a greater chance of him clearly remembering the happiness Lego brought him, however, because of how it appeals directly to the senses, from its bright colours to its sharp-edged utilitarian design (those who have trodden on it while barefoot might disagree with this point).
And most of all, because Lego sounds unique. This peculiar audio signature is due to the material it is made from: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS. It has to be light enough to facilitate the building of complex towering structures, resilient enough to withstand constant reuse, and easy enough to mould to great degrees of accuracy. The resulting sonic properties are closer to glass or porcelain than most common plastics.
But plastic it is, and the knowledge that 600 billion Lego pieces have been produced to date, comes with a significant sense of disquiet. Lego has given itself a deadline of 2030 to devise a more eco-friendly alternative to ABS. When the new Lego turns up in eight years’ time will it sound the same? I suspect this probably isn’t a priority for the company and that, unfortunately, it won’t. Perhaps Lego White Noise will ultimately end up a work of hauntology, a valuable sonic document evoking happy cultural memories of childhoods, and parenthoods, via sounds now in danger of being altered for good.