by Tom Djll
(to be published in The Wire but "got defeated by lack of space")
The experience of listening to tape music is unique. One sits in darkness, surrounded by loudspeakers, and just listens. Pure audio input, with no distractions like performers or flickering images. But, seeing as how humans are also visually-oriented creatures, the brain fires up its visual center and tries to sketch in the missing information. Depending on the programming content, the images that come to mind may be very specifically recognizable, or fleetingly suggestive, or wholly abstract. This has the paradoxical effect of making the music seem that much more vivid. Just as dance music is best in a dance-hall, symphonic music is best in the symphony hall, gamelan is best heard in the Javanese courtyard, and improvised music is best heard in the moment it occurs, tape music is best heard in this kind of exquisitely tuned, sensory-skewed environment. Thus does tape music (or "fixed-media music," as it is now called) fix itself on the spectrum of music functionality: Unsightly Sounds for the Audio-Suggestible. Music For People Who Like To Sit In Darkness. Obscured Music.
The 'New' San Francisco Tape Music Center is doing just that. This band of young, enterprising composers have launched what they call a "grassroots" approach to presenting fixed-media works, outside of the walls of academia. Over three nights--August 16 through 18--their group presented something like ten hours of clanging, banging, whispering, whizzing-around-the head sounds, by twenty-eight composers whose works span the years 1948 to 2002. Using a cd player, computers, a multichannel mixer and programmable matrix box, sixteen begged-and-borrowed speakers (of studio quality) and a seismic subwoofer under the risers, the presenters grabbed the audiences' ears from the first moment, and shook, rattled and rolled 'em until the very last byte. "We kind of stole the name from the original San Francisco Tape Music collective--with their blessing," says organizer Matt Ingalls, "But we actually play more tape music than they did." The original group, founded by Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and others, indeed included free improvisation and multimedia 'happenings' as well as tape music in their shows; what's more, the collective associated itself first with the San Francisco Conservatory and, later, Mills College. The post-millennial Tape Music Center is located well outside any academic framework (or funding). Many in the audience were youngish refugees from the artrock and improv-noise worlds, although official imprimatur was in evidence all three nights too, in the personage the venerable Max V. Mathews himself (much-decorated acoustical scientist, teacher, programmer, instrument inventor, and composer), for whom the object-oriented computer-music program MAX is named. It must be noted, too, that a good number of the composers represented reside more or less fully within academic tenures of one sort or another, so the "grassroots" claim may be stretching things just a bit. Still, the 'New' Tape Music Center is providing a valuable artistic service: to democratize this often arcane and ivory-towered style of music. It was a rare treat to be subjected to three successive nights of surround-sound mayhem, without the attendant desiccated lectures and presentations.
Ingalls and his cohorts organized the three nights around some specific themes. A desire to pay tribute to rarely-heard experiments from the dawn of computer music was one theme. So it happened that humble, quaint artifacts like Mathews' and Newman Guttman's The Silver Scale and John R. Pierce's Stochatta, miniature demonstration pieces from the late 1950's, were given the honor of opening each concert. Following in the footsteps of concrete warhorses like Cage's Williams Mix (1951-3) and Pierre Schaeffer's Quatre Etudes De Bruit (1948), most of the younger composers submitted works sculpted from the sounds of everyday life. Pieces in direct homage to Schaeffer's etudes were offered by Barry Truax, Francis Dhomont, Alicyn Warren, and, indirectly, by American-gone-U-of-Wales Rick Nance, whose Transatlantic Half-Pipe was rudely driven by the sounds of rolling wheels hitting hard steel--only this time, it was skateboards on handrails, not trains.
Schaeffer's now-canonized Etudes have all the composerly hallmarks of nineteenth century music, but using twentieth century sounds of train stations, kitchens, and pianos. Alone among the submissions, Francis Dhomont's and Jonty Harrison's works attempted a similar kind of theme-variation-capitulation structure, and largely because of this, their pieces lingered in the mind long after the lights went up. Dhomont characterizes his Objets retrouves as a polyphonic "lamento and a funeral march," (and a chorale, to boot), in honor of Schaeffer. Stately and clear-headed, the piece announced itself with hugely reverberating tonal exclamation points among a screaming chorus of metal angels. Harrison's Klang is a nine-minute poem on earthenware bowls (shades of Schaeffer), scraping, bonging, swishing around; a leviathan temporal/spatial expansion then dunks the listener awash in a sea of swirling casseroles. Curtis Roads' Sculptor suspended hordes of percussion granules in the air, somehow creating the impression of a seamless continuum, using the tiniest of sound particles. Maggi Payne assigned a gently persuasive, long-form arc to breaks/motors, which used mind-bending panning and snail-time transformations to make its point.
Ryoji Ikeda illuminated the other end of the spectrum, going at sound-editing as if wielding jackhammers 'n' piledrivers. Ikeda's C, billed as "a departure from the driven-snow, sine tone minimalism that is often associated with Ikeda," peppered the ears with surging volleys of black-noise spasms. The composer's raw materials--audio detritus of pops and static, fax-machine chatterings, and hyperventilating drum machines--were made even rawer and damn near bloody by all the mosh-pit montaging. Due to a technical glitch, the two-channel piece was live-diffused to all seventeen speakers twice in succession, much to the audience's delight. John Cage was represented by archivist/composer Larry Austin, whose Williams [re]Mix[er] is a complete restoration of Cage's original Williams Mix, accompanied by seven computer-generated variations. Cage's 1953 presentation was the first-ever octophonic concert, utilizing eight individual tape recorders surrounding the audience. Austin's eight-channel excavation positions the original 4'15" Williams Mix as the first movement of a suite. The remainder was composed via a computer algorithm of Austin's devising, following Cage's 192-page 'dress-pattern' score and the requisite chance operations. Austin notes that what took Cage and Earle Brown a year and a half to edit by splicing together millimetres of tape can today be compiled by his code in a few minutes. Be that as it may, one suspects the design of the program itself contains more wit and elegance than its products. Does the "real" Cage really sound well in a program of composers? (He's a law--or is it lawlessness?--unto himself.) Assembled according to throws of the I Ching coin, Williams Mix eludes questions of intent and taste and "just is." But the digital variations didn't sound like Cage at all, they sounded more like--well, music. Just not great music, let alone a great and memorable provocation like Williams Mix. An emergent theme of the Tape Music Festival 2, probably unintended, was the audio-biographical nature of many of the works. Thus were the audience treated to a series of pieces which seemed to be little more than scrapbooks of childhood memories, travelogues, sporting pursuits, stuff lying around the home, and, in one case, the composer's pet cat. Over the course of three nights this trend became a cliche, right before our very ears. Better than most was the cutely-titled Things Frankie Heard, by Thom Blum, a sound-analogue of what a cat might hear over the course of a typical feline day. A thicket of crisp, dramatic urgings leapt from the speaker-array, booming and crackling like a Hollywood soundtrack in its oversize dimensions. But by the end the acousmatic kitty got lost in its own sonic virtuosity, leaving no memory of its path through the jungle.
Ven Voisey contributed something he called Feel something. Despite the composer's new-agey invitation to share hugs and kisses with the world, the music had some backbone, sustained by a quiet stream of mysterious, dark rumbles running underneath. The opening was Bohor-like, with flying razors zizzing around, big dramatic turnabouts, then sudden stops, hot blasts, and distant voices enjoying a windy day at the beach. Eventually a sruti box barged in and took over the sound-space, attempting to enforce some universal harmony. A lovely sound-poem by Kent Jolly, Holding Pattern, was built on just two sounds: two bells, and a saxophone sample. It featured subtle interplay using backwards-recorded bell sounds and then a warbling carillon which languidly melted into a brass choir, and finally a miles-high chord which painstakingly de-tuned itself, leaving behind dying wisps. Pacific Slope (Joseph Anderson, former student of Jonty Harrison) based itself on the popular bell-sound format, mixing in for good measure ocean waves and drumming on forest logs. Not bad but clocking nearly a half hour kind of...long. After thunderous rollers and loud hollow polyrhythms in an echoing wood, Anderson turned the singing bowl-bells into huge waves cresting over one's head, retreating from the shore in descending organ chords. Thunder, nature's original electronic music, turned a potential ambient washout into high-voltage drama in Michael Thompson's And Rain Falls Like Tears. (Where do they get these titles--Aquarian Times?)
Jonathan Segel's (Camper Van Beethoven, Sparklehorse, Crackle) Breadth was one of only two works to utilize full computer-driven seventeen-track diffusion. This rich multilayered surround-sound environment was really like being in a jungle! The precise spatialization created a bewitching sequence of distinct audio 'hallucinations' not only of location but of distance. Though it's supposed to be a piece about travelling all around the world, most of the sounds in the first minutes aren't locale-specific; only after full sonic eclipse are we plumped down into a swarming Saigon market. From then on, the tour dispenses with an itinerary and traverses a sort of non-linear ether of street calls, splattering firecrackers, moaning motorboats, and roosters on tin roofs.
Tape music has the happy effect of making applause--that fossilized ritual--seem hopelessly absurd, in context. (Yo, people! Git ya hands togetha for--the seventeen-speaker array!) The 'New' San Francisco Tape Music Center deserves applause from every corner, though. They promise more festivals in the coming months. Inquiries should be emailed to email@example.com.