New Interfaces #3: Faces of the Modern Cassette Underground

Posted by on December 5, 2013

Bryon Hayes New Interfaces 3

So far, we’ve been focusing primarily on electroacoustic music from Western European countries, created during the decades immediately after World War II. It was during this period that early electronic and magnetic tape technology began to reach a broader audience: clusters of talented individuals invested in experimenting with this technology for the purpose of crafting works of sound. We’ve only just grazed the surface of what was created during that time frame, but it feels right to jump ahead in time to see what has become of this important work.

If we fast forward to today, it’s immediately evident that a lot has changed. Technologies have turned over: vacuum tubes gave way to transistors which were then combined into integrated circuits on microchips. The computer arrived and has taken over the day-to-day lives of many of us, constantly shrinking in size. Whole electronic sound laboratories were encapsulated into modular synthesizers, which were then miniaturized to enable portability; these have since been isolated from hardware altogether, becoming pieces of software. What took a group of engineers days in a laboratory can now be done in minutes with a sampler, sequencer or laptop.

In spite of the rapid turnover in technology that has occurred in the decades following those nascent experiments with early electronics and bands of magnetic tape, some artists today choose to work with these anachronistic media for manufacturing works of sound. And, whether they all realize it or not, a great number of today’s sonic craftspeople are deeply indebted to those early engineers who built custom circuitry and spliced sections of tape. Computers, samplers, synthesizers, looping pedals – the technological basis for a broad swathe of modern experimental sound – can all trace their lineage back to the laboratories of the post-war era. The world we live in now is a technological polyglot, the old mingling with the new, and it’s fantastic!

The phenomenon I just described can be evinced within the modern cassette underground. Individuals or groups are experimenting with sound synthesis technology (whether it be modern or near-ancient), recording their sounds on a laptop or personal computer, and dubbing the results to a reel of magnetic tape encased in a plastic shell. There have been an inordinate number of cassettes that have been released this decade, on a plethora of usually artist-run micro-imprints, that can be offered up as proof. What follows is just a tiny sampling of relatively recent artifacts that I chose to demonstrate this idea.

Trained electronics technician Guenter Schlienz has been building analog synthesizers and other music-making creations for about a decade. Previously a guitarist, Schlienz became interested in synths later in his career and began building up his arsenal with the help of DIY websites such as Ray Wilson’s Music From Outer Space and Ken Stone’s Cat Girl Synth project.  He’s got a handful of releases under his belt, some of which appear to be recorded during his travels around Europe (The Dalmation Tapes, The Sardinian Tapes, etc.). His Organ Studies cassette was released by Constellation Tatsu earlier this year, and features six “presentations” of various length.  Constructed primarily using an electronic organ, one of his modular synth creations, and some effects, the music incorporates a number of modern synth tropes. The brooding spaced-out drones of “Presentation One” are backed by cosmic effects, eventually dissolving to allow the intrepid melodies of “Presentation Two” to take hold.  “Presentation Three” and “Presentation Four” are foggy clouds of meandering tonality, while “Presentation Five” plays electronic ping pong over crashing waves of static.  The tape ends as it began, the shrieking alien cries of “Presentation Six” hovering in a near-vacuum.

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The somewhat mysterious RM Francis employs his computer to unleash a barrage of hyper-kinetic sound fragments on his Attributed Agency tape, released on Jason Anderson’s Draft Records imprint. Utilizing the Max/MSP programming language, Francis developed a pair of complex programs (called “patches” in the Max universe) that are highly (yet not completely) automated, such that his own input collides with events in the software to produce highly dynamic sequences of sonic events. Francis guides the software as it synthesizes and manipulates pure sound into four incredibly interesting constructions, with titles as obtuse as the procedures from which they were generated (my favourite being the almost 15 minute long “Y€;OS!”). The music is essentially purely abstract, yet it is highly engaging and detailed – certainly worth investigating if you’re interest has been piqued by my hyperbolic verbosity.

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Even relatively large-scale operations like the Thrill Jockey label are getting in on the cassette-releasing action. The second installment of the label’s Fiepblatter series, which continues to focus on the solo work of Mouse on Mars member Jan St. Werner, was released on tape just a few weeks ago (we reviewed the series’ inaugural release over here). Transcendental Animal Numbers was approached by St. Werner in a manner similar to that of RM Francis, in that the base material was derived strictly from computer algorithms. The producer then carefully edited the software output in an attempt to mimic field recordings (which to these ears must be from a decidedly unnatural environment, like the surface of the sun). At times the resultant sonic material is much harsher than that found on the Francis release – there are moments that evoke a digital missile strike, along with vast periods of calm, like the eye of a hurricane. This back-and-forth or catch-and-release methodology stirs up a number of conflicting emotions, and certainly keeps me returning for further listening.

Thrill Jockey were kind enough to set us up with a video premiere for the Transcendental Animal Numbers tape. Check out the sick visuals that accompany this short snippet of brain-bombing sound from mad professor Jan St. Werner.

Drifting into near-ambient mode, Smokey Emery’s amazing cassette for the equally amazing Holodeck imprint, Soundtracks for Invisibility Vol. 2: You Take the High Road finds Daniel Hipolito wrestling with loops of magnetic tape. Snippets of what appears to be drugged-out classical music, field recordings, short bursts of noise, and perhaps some recorded instrumentation all factor into the primordial ooze that Hipolito conjures forth from his array of loops. Suspenseful and subtle, the nine compositions unfold in a lumbering pace, like shifting tectonic plates. This is an epic cassette that showcases the incredible skill of this young American producer.

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Another impressive American artist – one whose release count must have hit the triple digits by now – is Headboggle. Derek Gedalecia was born in Ohio but currently calls San Francisco home. Shortly after his relocation, he shifted his focus away from a more traditional indie rock format and began delving into the experimental underground, hanging out with the likes of Caroliner. Dude’s a wizard with a modular synth, but takes a sort of kitchen sink approach to his music. If there is anyone who can come close to synthesizing the sounds playing out in my brain, it’s him. The DBA Head-Boggle Int’l tape comes courtesy of the Victoriaville, Quebec-based La Cohu imprint, and features two extended, brain-scrambling pieces of sonic mayhem. The A side is a recording of Gedalecia’s rehearsal for this year’s International Noise Conference.  On it, he fires off blasts of squelch from a Moog synth while a scattershot drum machine beat prances around drunkenly. A Blippoo Box is employed to drop a hint of randomness to the proceedings, and there appears to be a harmonica buried somewhere in there. The flip was recorded in 2011 and finds Gedalecia molesting a Serge modular synth augmented with a touch-activated keyboard sequencer, stepping into a parallel universe in the process.

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Also on La Cohu is Système A from Montreal-based musician Jean-Sébastien Truchy (formerly of Fly Pan Am and Set Fire to Flames), a decidedly inter-galactic exercise in multi-dimentional sound. He doesn’t reveal the implements used to craft these enigmatic, entrancing soundscapes but he is known to dabble in electronic instrumentation and treated vocals, so it’s a safe bet he concocted a unique rig in which to unravel his thoughts.

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The final release I wish to feature is also the newest, having just been pulled from the womb over at SicSic Tapes. Belgian artist Jürgen De Blonde has been recording electronic music for 25 years, but his first release under the Köhn moniker was issued in 1998 by the inimitable KRAAK label. Since then, he’s unleashed a torrent of albums in a variety of formats. A Forest of Drones and Pulses sounds just what the title makes it out to be. The title track was created using only a Doepfer Dark Energy synthesizer and features a carpet of bliss overtop of which synthetic birds chirp pleasantly. The remaining three pieces were captured live from various concerts performed by De Blonde, during which he employed a variety of synths and effects. “A Secret Show” starts off in a mellow synth drone mode before cascading waves of static assault the senses, only to recede prior to the song’s end. The pulses referred to in the title of this cassette really spring to the foreground on both “Audioplant” and “Free State O.” The former is a rhythm-heavy piece that tugs the listener in multiple directions, while the latter flies straight to the centre of the brain on wings of cosmic glee. The whole tape is an adventure that I recommend you don’t pass up.

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There are countless tapes in this vein that I wish I could have included, as the global underground is chock full of amazing artists working in this general sphere of influence.  Specifically, I would immediately like to point you to the labels who released the cassettes I’ve already discussed, along with Further Records, Jeunesse Cosmique, Digitalis, Ginjoha, Jehu and Chinaman, Los Discos Enfantasmes, and the list goes on and on and on…