another big birthday....
today is the 50th anniversary of the cassette tape. for most of us who grew up in the 1970's, this was the first method of recording one's voice and playing it back, as well as creating "playlists" (which most of us elders still call mix-tapes).
i discovered this cassette in a box behind a box behind a box... it's a tape of two songs recorded circa 1981 of our band - seditionaries. one track was called "the problem" and was one of the few songs i didn't write the lyrics (these were written by the guitar player, dave bornstein). "trigger happy" was written in response to johnny thunders heroin habit - which would eventually become a problem with our band as well, leading not only to the break up of the band, but several years later, the overdose death of one of the members.
these recordings were done during a short period where dede troit of UXA was our bass player... and you can see her on the left side of the xerox cover - and me, standing next to her.
one of the things we reveled in was the ability to customize cassettes - not only by making covers, but using with sharpies, spray paint, etc. (things you could do to a 7" or LP cover, but not the sound object.
from childhood (probably around 7 or 8 years old) to 1990 or so, my recorded life existed on cassettes. i have a tape from 2nd or 3rd grade recorded with a friend, making jokes and stupid songs. i have recordings of baseball games made while watching games on TV (with the recorded leaning up against the TV speaker. the first music i ever made on my own was with two cassette players in 1982, playing a sound on one tape and then re-recording the sound while making another - to create a kind of multi-track recordings. i also remember that every layer added created more noise and more distortion, emphasizing the tape-hiss and the fragile wobbly sound. in 1983 i used my first multi-track recorder - also run on cassettes, and i have several years of really awful awful songs. in 1990, i released my first solo recording of so-called experimental music and, yes, this first release was also done on cassette. and so, the medium was essentially the sound carrier and sound archivist for the first half of my life (so far...)
after all of this, you might think that nostalgia has come into play in relation to some recent works that have been "cassette specific". initially, last year i uncovered several boxes of unmixed tapes of those early awful songs. the 4-track ran at a faster speed than a normal cassette, so that when i placed the 4-track recordings in my regular cassette deck they were very slowed down, pitched down and some of them had tracks running both forwards and backwards at the same time. i decided, because these were my own recordings from many years ago, that i would use them as a kind of collaboration with my younger self and my self now - (you can hear some examples and read more about that here).
along with working with my own past, i became interested in using cassettes again in my work - mostly as i've started working with less gear and wanting the work to approach fidelity in different ways, as well as using sound in space... and i'm also interested in the sonic qualities that are specific to the format, as well as certain playback capabilities. last year, while working in berlin, i was invited to create a short performance honoring the sound artist rolf julius, and i decided that since he wrote and spoke a lot about "small music" that i wanted to do a performance that was not piped through the PA system, so that it, and that the sound would feel more acoustic in that the sound would be emanating from a small walkman-style recorder - similar to an acoustic sound emanating from an object. this way the sound would not have a lot of dynamics and would remain intimate... wanting the feeling that people might have to lean forward to hear it.
many of the kinds of cassette players and recorders that are still available are portable and meant to be used for recording meetings or lectures and thus, the recording and playback speeds can be manipulated, offering less sound quality and more recording time. also, depending on the recording mode, slow play and fast play can also be used to change pitch during playback or recording. for me, it is these types of buttons, and their relationship to a moving object that that feels, at least to me, somehow more human than listening to or recording music on my phone (the recording mechanism doesn't make a sound!).
for the julius performance i used 3 cassette players, each with a recording made of an electric bass, that was recorded without being plugged in. i recorded it in "fast play" mode, and then played it back in the "slow play" mode, changing a sort of high pitched brittle sound to more of a cloud. for the performance i used 3 cassette players with sound coming out of each. they were simply on a pedestal and i was able to shift their volumes up and down (or on and off), i could shift the pitch by changing speed, and i could make the sounds feel more spatial by simply moving them around the small stage. since i didn't have the sound running through a mixer, i was constantly handling these objects, improvising while moving them around the space, and moving the knobs and switches in a way that felt more physical than working with a mixer, and i was really excited about the potential of manipulating recordings simply by carrying them around the space or simply moving them from the pedestal to the floor.
5 or 6 months later i was invited to create a soundtrack for Krišs Salmanis' short film "Long Day" and i decided to use 6 cassette walkman-style decks to perform the soundtrack by placing the small cassette recorders in various locations around the room. once the room was darkened, i began moving the recorders into corners and in the center, expanding on the vocabulary learned from the earlier performance, and fascinated by how wonderful the sound sounded as it was being carried around the space, put down, and moved again. the speakers on these units are small and not meant for high fidelity. the cassette was always burdened with a lot of hiss, and these small speakers tend to emphasize the high frequencies, and hence the hiss - which is also quite wonderful. in all of this i found myself in a situation of "active-mixing" as opposed to passive mixing - which generally needs only the use of ears and hands. in this way, i was able to approach an electronic performance as if it were an acoustic performance. using small portable sound-generating objects and placing them all over the room.