Vol. 1 of a new edutainment experience promises unimpeded learning of both the abstract and the actual, but the listener may quickly find themselves at the back of the class
An ominous piano sequence finally touches down onto safer ground to then nervously make its way into an exploratory tune. Before long we hear a voice, fizzling through like a shallow hologram it harmonises with itself, almost singing in a round at one point. The lyrics communicate the subject for the day: Course Management System Optimization. Before we can get lost in the strange melody for too long, another voice takes over. Taking the welcoming tone of a teacher beginning a lesson, it begins to explain the course. Everything gives an air of guidance, as if it really could be a helpful audio lesson. But things seem slightly off. The voice for one, ratchets up and down in pitch and speed almost as if it is trying to throw the listener off. As it continues, the listener’s eager smile wavers a little. What is it talking about? Yes, the lesson is on Course Management System Optimization, that much we know. But with swift-moving talk of statistical research, staff reduction and harder punitive action, it is as though we have stumbled into the wrong seminar. It feels detached from our understanding, like we would look around and see everyone nodding along in agreement as we sat still and gormless. The melodies spin off into resonant chords and tunes, still harbouring this slight uncanniness. Overall, the beginning of our lesson does not feel like it went to plan.
Sharp string work flits about a cold percussive environment, notes flying out sporadically. A voice begins by stating the subject once again, but it comes through in this tinny, robotic tone that is lost on the ears almost as soon as it graces them. Rapid-fire percussion lets off salvos of polite but relentless snares and drums in the background. Our teacher, metallic and almost completely inhuman, disappears into the peripheries without warning as their voice blends into the instrumentation. Notes bubble up as if we were excavating some submerged cavern in a deep body of water. The odd word leaks out, ‘established’ and ‘determinations’ but it is safe to say the introduction to the subject has sailed by us without giving a chance for a full understanding.
A tubular voice glides past us into an uncertain aether that is quickly filled by the whirring of machines and more robotic voices. The tune is confident and playful as it unwinds, unpredictable in its dips and dives. Our notebook we brought to the lesson has long since been vaporised by the algorithmic cogs and bumps. That male voice that sounded almost natural at the start now comes through in glitched squeaks and strange modulations. The lesson subsides, going into a short intermission of jazzy off-the-cuff piano as Orca, Attack! mix robotic instrumentation with organic sound.
An almost intimidating sequence signals the start of the Conclusion. Our panic at not really absorbing any of the lessons so far is placated as warm waves of pad swim toward us over an aqueous soundscape. The texture of the track, though still fairly glitch-ridden is noticeably smoother. As the melody parts, the title of our course is sung again, sounding a lot more haggard than it did at the start. The lesson almost resets, the male voice once again telling us the main principles of Course Management System Optimization. We begin to nod along again, the warmth of the track and the cooing of the titular hook helping us to relax and look like we are learning.
Limitations keeps the lesson at a slow-moving calmness. The nature of the melodies is sparsely placed and with voices falling off the edge of great canyons, it does feel as though we stand at the very precipice of what the C.M.S.O program is capable of. We look over the edge as the babbling voice runs us through the inevitable shortcomings of the program. Percussive clicks trade ears as Orca, Attack! create a disorientating soundscape. A clear voice finds its way through towards the end, our tutor phase-shifting from a gurgling cyborg into a real human.
An overdriven bell fizzles out with an icy reverb in tow. A more organic bass note follows along, giving the scene a little bit of warmth. A singing voice rides the slow pulses of rhythm, delivering commanding notes on the subject of Ethical Approval. Reaching an ecclesiastical euphoria of harmonies and echoes, the voice doles out thank you’s from the creators of the course. After which things descend into instrumental chaos with glissando notes filling the soundscape, ending the course on an emphatic and almost ornate note tied off with a twinkling swish of pixellated bells at the very end.
The structured style of an educational cassette tape blends seamlessly with modern classical instrumentation. C.M.S.O. (Learning by Listening Vol. 1) is set out like a friendly and welcoming learning experience, but moves and turns in a kafka-esque manner sending the listener down strange virtual dead-ends and delighting in being purposely obtuse. As you exit from the listening experience, you may even find that you come away with a subconscious understanding of Course Management System Optimization from the confident and entertaining nature the project is delivered in.