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Acid Seven: 2020, Onward! / Magnetic Tape

The above is a set on Escape Pod I was lucky to get a chance to do -- which I'm hoping to do every month from now on. They must have made some sort of resolution over there, because I'm seeing all sorts of new stuff crop up every day. I'll drop the set list here, and if available a link to the music itself.

Social Ecology Project - "National Anthem"

Tim J Harte and Seth Davis - Untitled bootleg recording
COMING SOON to the bootleg series...with other fun things.

Decorpsinator - clip from bootleg live set

Stem Cell Uterus - "Sonata for Feminine Solidarity"

HANNAH - "Blind"

Floraviolet - "Nowhere"

Hadiza - "Sleep Paralysis"

Bath Consolidated - "Narryer Gneiss Terrane"

Killus - "Clot"

WHORXATA - "Yummy Mix"

Plastic Electronics - "Lov2" (Sister Zo Remix)

Rosé Perez - "Placenta" (clip from bootleg live set)

Thomas Kinkade - "Winter Landscape"

CXPA / remst8 - "Subconsciousness"


As I mentioned in the admittedly sentimental ending of the Escape Pod set, I wanted to write a short piece on the music of and around Robert Ashley. I ended the set with "She Was a Visitor" from 1967. The idea that I wanted to write about him was largely just me writing out a personal obsession. I was turned on to Ashley by Jack Yarbrough around the same time I began Acid Seven, and I haven't been able to 'turn off' the influence he has left with me. I do not think this will be that piece. As I was doing research, I saw that Ashley's point of departure in experimental music was one that he shared with many of his contemporaries: magnetic tape.

So we'll save the in-depth treatment of Ashley for later. This one's about tape.

Most of the information here was found in the following sources:
Robert Ashley's Outside of Time: Ideas about Music,
Thom Holmes's Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture,
& various interviews / Wikipedia scrawls

Magnetic Tape
I. The Barrons
The vein of experimentation here is rooted in magnetic tape, a then-novel (post WWII) recording technology. Two pioneers in tape recording were Bebe and Louis Barron, a conservatory-educated couple who by 1950 had both purchased and built their own equipment. They decided to open their own recording studio dedicated to the avant-garde. They had virtually no competition at this time, as most of their equipment wasn't commercially available, and they were the first ever electronic recording studio in America.

Their very first tape recorder was given to them as a wedding gift in 1947, and in three years time they would be using it to record all sorts of artists -- even writers. Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley, and Tennessee Williams all recorded readings of their work at the studio, and Anaïs Nin recorded an entire record in 1949. The latter has been digitally reissued, and is available online.

During this time, Bebe and Louis recorded also recorded their own experiments; Louis worked on designing circuits, while Bebe focused on composition and production. The first piece that they composed together, entitled Heavenly Menagerie, was dated from 1950, but no recording exists. There are pieces of recordings from this time period, however, since they recorded the score for Fred Wilcox's 1956 "Forbidden Planet":

Notably, this was the first entirely electronic film score. Their otherworldly, makeshift instruments won favor with critics, but weren't so popular with the Musician's Union. They objected to the couple's non-membership in the union, so a contract lawyer insisted that their credit in the film be changed from "Electronic Music" to "Electronic Tonalities." Though this meant they were snubbed from receiving an Oscar for their work as soundtrack composers, they did attract the attention of John Cage, who at the time had an interest in composing work for magnetic tape. He procured a $5,000 grant so that he could pay the Barrons.

Note: In 2000, Bebe was invited for a composition residency at UC Santa Barbara. Here, she produced "Mixed Emotions," which is one of my favorite pieces of recorded music. It shows the potential of digital technology in creating sounds indistinguishable from analog sources. Pirate Obtain a DAW, pirate obtain some VST synthesizers, and get out there!


II. Cage's Music for Magnetic Tape
While Cage's contemporaries were concerned with removing the human instinct of music through serialist composition, Cage was attuned to something much more radical: 'chance operations.' With this method, the outcome was never predetermined. Where serialism still relied upon composition of notes in an accepted musical scale, chance operations relied on rules derived from the I Ching, the book of changes. With this method, and the help of David Tudor and the Barrons, he produced Imaginary Landscape No. 5.


This piece is a bit difficult to place. The tape experimentation and sound-collage nature of the record suggests an affinity with Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète, save that the sources Cage uses here are all musical records. The effect of each seems to be radically opposed. Where concrète takes non-musical sources to compose musically (or to show the inherent musicality of 'non-music'), Landscape takes musical sources to compose a piece of indeterminate musicality. The sounds of the Barrons' electronic music are eschewed here; Cage uses the magnetic tape only as a medium onto which the contents of the records can be deposited. Where with the Barrons the experimentation was directly, audibly presented, with Cage most of the experimental 'work' was in the method of composition itself.

Cage changed course soon after, as he realized that the grant money would soon dry up. For his next piece, Cage would call upon the Barrons to provide him with a massive set of field recordings. He decided that this, along with using tape splicing intentionally -- as a compositional tool -- would yield better results. The score itself was a sort of graphical instruction manual for making different kinds of tape splices:

The result was a piece that more closely resembled the warbly tape sounds of the Barrons's electronic experiments, complete with a coda of 1:20 of escalating applause:

Other notable tape pieces: Brown's "Octet 1" (1953), Feldman's "Intersection" (1953), and Wolff's "For Magnetic Tape (1953).

In his chance operations, Cage had found a method that he would develop over the course of a lifetime. The fascination with tape, however, would run its course almost as soon as his collaboration with the Barrons ended. Returning to traditional instruments, he would record one more tape piece, Fontana Mix. It was scored for any number of tracks of magnetic tape, any number of players, or any number of any instrument. Everything was left to chance -- there was no indication of the duration of the piece, meaning that each performance would be indeterminate. Even the score was an experiment. Quoting from Holmes:

"It consisted of several transparent plastic sheets that were imprinted with geometric images. One sheet included a grid upon whch the other transparencies were laid according to Cage's instructions. There were ten transparencies with points, ten with curves (six each), and a transparency with an even line. The parameters of the sound events were determined by laying these sheets on top of one another and interpreting the intersection of the graphic elements."

A sound duration was denoted by the movement of a curve on the grid. The spaces in between these intersections denoted silence. Here is one recording of this perplexing piece:

Much like No. 5, Cage is dealing here in the organization of sound. Another iteration of his I Ching method is used, and, at least in the above recording, there is a synthesis between the previous two pieces. Here again, the sources -- both musical and non-musical -- are not subordinated to placements or notes on a musical staff, but instead to a meticulously compiled graphical score.

III. The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center
Contemporary with the Barrons and Cage, two composer-instructors at Columbia University, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, were armed with two tape recorders, a microphone, and a reverb circuit. Their clandestine efforts were similar to the Barrons; after a few years without a permanent studio space (where Luening finished Invention in Twelve Notes (1952), they established a Tape Center at the Columbia music department. Since they had no oscillators, or anything that could generate an electronic signal, they worked with recorded sounds. Their first collaborative pieces were generated entirely from tape manipulation and reverb. In May 1952, they held their first recital of this music, premiering Ussachevsky's Sonic Contours.

In this piece, the sounds generated by a piano are manipulated by speed changes, sound reversals, and splicing. There also seems to be a tape delay alongside the reverb circuit. Like Cage, Ussachevsky here relies upon pre-recorded material to produce the bulk of the score, placing great importance on post-production manipulation using their tape equipment. It seems that they may have been limited to two simultaneous tape tracks at this point.

As a result of their recital, Leuning and Ussachevsky were invited to present their music at the MoMA. The above piece was featured, along with Invention, Fantasy in Space, and Low Speed -- the latter of which utilizes multitracking to synthesize the overtones of two flutes, producing something strikingly similar to a sine wave oscillator. This performance would cement them, at the time, as "America's spokesmen for electronic music," according to Holmes. Their fame meant a necessity to travel -- on the road they met Pierre Schaeffer (musique concrète pioneer), Herbert Eimert (German twelve-tone composer), and Karlheinz Stockhausen (serial electronic composer). They found themselves in disagreement with each.

Upon their return to the U.S., Leuning and Ussachevsky were delighted by a new instrument: the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer. This delight was held in common with Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions, two composers at Princeton. They would regularly take trips to compose music together on the new machine. Leuning and Ussachevsky produced a report on their findings in electronic music to fulfill a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and lobbied for a joint electronic music center between Princeton and Columbia. They were granted $175,000, and the new Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was christened with an RCA synthesizer. Above is one early experimentation of these developments.

IV. The Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music
Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma came together as artists from their shared interest in recording technology. Mumma was a lifelong tinkerer -- disassembling and reassembling music equipment since he was just twelve -- while Ashley was an academic in speech research whose head was turned by the musical possibilities of the equipment around him. They began working together when Milton Cohen, a sculptor, constructed the "Space Theater" in Ann Arbor, MI.

The Space Theater, of whose existence there is next door to zero documentation. I was lucky to find this picture!
This was a space for multimedia performance: projections, music, and theatre productions. Ashley and Mumma were asked to produce music for the events. Their collaboration birthed the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music, founded in 1958. The name was more of a formality than anything, as the "studio" consisted of whatever space wasn't being occupied in either member's house at the time. They shared resources, collectively using six tape recorders, and several oscillators, filters, mixers, and other audio processing circuits.

They performed here twice a week for seven years, from 1957 to 1964. The audience space was always at-capacity, as there was only room for about 40 people. In the performances, lights were projected and reflected from mirrors, Ashley and Mumma fiddled with oscillators and tape machines, and performers acted out "simple, but dramatic" surrealistic scenes. Each performance was live, but Ashley and Mumma often brought pre-composed tapes for playback.

Finally, in 1964, Luigi Nono invited the Space Theater group to perform in a loft above an opera house in Venice. It was here that they would complete their final performance over five days, and here that the only existing recording of a Space Theater production was taken: Gordon Mumma's Music from the Venezia Space Theater (1964). I was going to link this piece here, but Spotify is the only source for streaming this recording on the internet, and they have it region-blocked. I will probably put it on YouTube later.

Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month (give or take) for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter.

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