The 2014 San Francisco Tape Music Festival concluded last night in the Z Below Theater with what was probably the oldest recording ever projected in the annual event’s history. There was a Volta Laboratory sound recording of the voice of Alexander Graham Bell made in 1885. These was made on a large glass photo-disc with the image of a variable density stripe, which could not easily (or, perhaps, safely) be mounted on any kind of real-time playing equipment. As a result, it has not been heard for over a century. Only recently, through a joint project involving the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the Library of Congress, has optical scanning technology been applied to capture the data on the disc. Once scanned, the strip could be decoded into an audio file, which was played last night, only 37 seconds in duration. The noise was highly pronounced, making the transcription in the program book very helpful. For all of those imperfections, however, this was an awe-inspiring reminder of just how far back the history of recorded sound reaches.
The remainder of the program presented the work of six composers. Each half consisted of two relatively short (on the order of ten minutes) compositions followed by a longer one of more than twice that duration. All pieces were performed in a totally dark room, projected in a three-dimensional space created by the distribution of 24 high-end loudspeakers. The word “tape” is now anachronistic, since all recordings were played as digital sound files on a laptop.
While there were no visual stimuli, the pieces on last night’s program could be divided into those inspired by images and those more abstract in nature. Thus, one of the most successful short pieces was Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Cricket Voice,” created in 1987 This involved the musique concrète technique of reprocessing sounds, all of which had “natural” origins. The source was the Mexican desert, and the sounds included not only the night song of the cricket but also sounds made with desert plants. The result was a highly engaging rethinking of the musical concept of a nocturne.
Elsa Justel’s 2004 “Bastet” drew upon wittier imagery. Bastet is the Ancient Egyptian goddess with the head of a cat, and Justel’s image is one of a cat caught in the interior of a piano. The sounds thus involve an amusing blend of plucked strings, percussive knocks, and indignant meows. The mind’s eye had no difficulty recreating the text description in the program book, which consisted of only two sentence.
Even wittier was the newest piece on the program, “Far Bollire piano per 8 minuti,” completed last year by Belgian composer Stijn Govaere. The title would normally be translated as “boil slowly for eight minutes.” However, Govaere chose the looser translation of “boil a piano for eight minutes.” In this case the synthesized sounds evoked a background of boiling water behind a foreground of fragmented piano sounds. Those detached bits of piano sonority then suggested that the piano itself was dissolving into equally detached bits.
Less effective were the more abstract pieces. François Bayle’s 25-minute “Morceaux de Ciels” (pieces of skies), created in 1996, seems to have been a reflection on Pierre Schaeffer’s systematic study of “sonorous objects.” (Bayle’s other achievements have included the design of graphic “scores” to represent the content of Schaeffer’s own pioneering musique concrète compositions.) Thus, the “pieces” of Bayle’s composition amounted to a catalog of sonorous objects, which was usefully enumerated in the program book. However, because the room was totally dark, the listener could not follow that enumeration while the recording was being played. Since the list was too long to memorize, my personal reaction was that lacking the content of that list detracted from the listening experience.
The other long piece was Jonty Harrison’s 1995 “Hot Air,” inspired by both toy balloons and the much larger hot air variety. In this case Harrison was honest enough to provide his own caveat:
I run the risk of becoming too pompous, too ‘inflated’ with the importance of my theme.
Over the course of slightly more than 22 minutes, the piece was definitely “inflated” and seemed to explore the full extent of its content long before coming to its conclusion.
Nevertheless, this piece that was long was still more effective than one that felt long. That was the case with Elainie Lillios’ 2007 “Listening Beyond,” the one piece that exercised the full spatial capacity of the speaker array. Only a little more than eight minutes in duration, the work came off as music that was trying to say too much at once, definitely spreading its content across the speakers but without achieving spatial orientation particularly effectively. It also put the greatest strain on the computer delivering the bits to those speakers, so to speak. The system crashed twice; and the operator’s suggestion that the piece be restarted from the beginning was met with what sounded like a collective groan from the audience.
It may be that tape music is becoming anachronistic in practice as well as in name. In that practice “making music” has been reduced to making an artifact, rather than creating a situation in which the music is “made” by performers. Indeed, it is because of the absence of performers that the sonic artifact is just as effective (if not more so) in the absence of all but auditory stimuli. However, the practice of synthesis has now become interactive to the point where, as performers like Joe Lasqo have demonstrated, a laptop can “jam” along with other members of a jazz combo. Thus, while there is definitely a place for the artifacts of tape music in our listening practices, it is unclear how much longer that place will endure as the opportunities expand for performing those sonorous objects, rather than just synthesizing them.