Nimble Rhythms: Beatrice Dillon’s Workaround

Beatrice Dillon weaves disparate threads into a masterwork with her debut LP Workaround, says Kristen Gallerneaux

Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski

Weave warp across the weft, angle around and through. With thin copper wire and threaded needle, stop to pierce a miniscule ferrite bead – called a “core” – at each intersection. A mesh square becomes dense on the PCB frame as the wire doubles back to create a diagonal bias first in one direction and then the other, passing through that tiny core again at each point where the threads meet. Repeat this process 1,024 times to create a palm-sized web of information that represents a whopping eight bytes of computer memory. Send a regimented zap of electricity through the diagonal “sensing” wires to change the behaviour of each core. Polarities shift to positive or negative – the binary code of machine language, rendered half-way visible.

This was the process of weaving and programming on core memory – a type of physical computer memory used in large-scale computers, primarily in the 1960s. You would assume the core planes were machine-woven (as I did until recently), but in reality, they were created by patient ladies with "nimble fingers" labouring anonymously in electronics factories. Small planes could be created solo while others were woven by two women sitting at a workbench, passing a needle back and forth through a matrix in careful, choreographed movements. In the United States, many of these “space age weavers” were former textile mill workers, whose ancestors had grown up darting their hands in and out of dangerous, industrial Jacquard looms. To keep their minds as nimble as their hands, these women studied maths problems pinned on their looms. Weaving and its shadow movements are the basis for the modern computing age. This is the hidden backstory of the distant ancestors to our modern-day DAWs.

Whether weaving on industrial machines or creating electronic components by hand, each process takes a huge amount of human-to-human choreography and man-machine cooperation. The spirit of this kind of embodied assembly infects the sounds that evolve on Beatrice Dillon’s debut solo LP, Workaround, released via PAN. A delicate balance of analogue instrumentation working alongside crisp electronic beats reigns throughout, while confident rhythms are pushed to the foreground. The album’s nuanced sense of ultra-clean space – its utter, unabashed lack of grit – initially feels wilful and even jarring in our current age of hyper-saturated and effects-laden production. And then it becomes infectious.

In a smart but not obtuse way, Dillon’s tracks are woven through with the musical genres in which she has found inspiration, along with nods to the grid-like abstractions of visual art and the scored frameworks of Labanian dance. Locked in at 150bpm, swipes reminiscent of micro house are meshed with Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms and the tresillo beat of Latin America. Carefully placed (but not constant) gut-rattling deep bass dips in and out unexpectedly. There is dub without echo and there are grooves without things getting too wiggly. There are hints of jungle’s micro-engineered fragments being torn down and rebuilt – but with more space to catch your breath. Workaround’s assemblies have a human scale too, as Dillon leaves ample room for her impressive roster of collaborators (too many to list but Laurel Halo, Batu, Jonny Lam, Lucy Railton are among them) to resound warmly between her computational rhythms.

On ‘Workaround Five’, a bowed creaking cello plays against the whisper of a clipped 808 cowbell. The loose strings of a double bass are whacked into contrapuntal jazz submission on ‘Workaround Six’. ‘Workaround Four’ and ‘Clouds Strum’ find the woody tabla drum played by Kuljit Bhamra volleying phrases back and forth with Berlin-ish resonators and clubby synth stabs. Trance frequency modulators run out of breath, somewhere in the middle ground. ‘Workaround Seven’ isn’t echoed as much as it is a mirror of itself, doubling up in the gaps at the precise moments where echo is anticipated.

Since 2013, Dillon has acted as a master weaver of the mix, the edit, the collage – emerging from time to time with a DJ mix or twelve-inch, or a split with Karen Gwyer, or through her work with Rupert Clervaux. Her mixtape for RVNG Intl., RVNG Intl. at 15: Beatrice Dillon Selects / Dissects, is a masterwork in restraint, proving she knows when to layer and manipulate loops and when to let a track ride out unaltered. There’s a very special moment about midway through the first side of the tape where Dillon drops the Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras, and The Congos track ‘Invocation’ – all tabla drums and celestial chimes – against the free jazz weirdness of Hieroglyphic Being and J.I.T.U Ahn-Sahm Buhl’s ‘Brain Damage’ straight on to the stomp and clap of Kassem Mosse’s remix of Stellar OM Source’s ‘Elite Excel’. This kernel – exposing the ley lines between contemporary Rasta rhythms, experimental jazz, and club-based polyrhythms – could be a perfect mood board foreshadowing the distillation of influence-not-mimicry that forms the backbone of Workaround.

Perhaps one last textile-based analogy before the close. The practice of playing cat’s cradle is at once a game, a non-verbal language, and a way to create abstractions of animals or meaningful patterns. In some cultures, these string networks have a place in magical rituals. A single loop of twine becomes a mutable, shared instrument for storytelling. Workaround features a heady combination of interlocking collaborators playing out alongside the genres that have become embedded in Dillon’s internal library through years working as an “intuitive DJ”. As the tracks fold and unfold upon themselves, it is a little like experiencing the magical progression of string figures blooming into new arrangements as the loop passes between hands of other players. One thing leads to another – these tracks feel like questions wrapped within answers, pegged from one finger to the next. It’s a bit heartbreaking when the game collapses in on itself at the end, leaving you wanting more. But that last track, ‘Workaround 10’, ends a record fully itself, fully alive. A deep bass heartbeat with a prescient murmur fades out, implying much more to come.

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