Cassette Reviews

Wednesday 19th October

October 19, 2011

So, a quintet of reviews of cassette tapes then. The revival of the tape format, which I had assumed might have been a brief fad, doesn’t seem to be going away, if anything getting steadily stronger. I’ll be upfront right away, I don’t really understand why tapes are popular again. To my ears, they don’t sound anywhere as good as digital media, have a greater potential for fatal malfunction, and I believe cost more to manufacture, simply because so few people make the physical objects any longer. However, I bought a tape deck this last week, having given mine away years back because I just didn’t ever use it. I managed to pick up a decent Marantz deck for under a tenner via eBay, and having plugged it all in it (much to my surprise) doesn’t sound that bad at all. There is all the whirring and clanking of tape reels turning of course, but the deck doesn’t seem to add any hiss or additional noise of its own, with the only degradation of the sound down to the choice of media itself. I’m quite sure that now I have a tape deck again, people will stop sending me cassettes, but for now I am able to listen to them, and that makes me happy, if only so that I can catch up with the Windsmeasure label.

Windsmeasure, based in New York and run my Ben Owen, is one of my favourite labels right now. Producing some consistently fine music in a variety of formats, with a recent flurry of cassette releases, the label easily stands out as the most attractively packaged label around right now, as Ben’s access to and experience with letterpress leads to some wonderfully understated, tactile as well as visually attractive design. I have kept up to date with most of what the label releases, including the recent tapes, and I think it is safe to say that without the Windsmeasure output I wouldn’t have bothered rebuying a tape deck, so as my audio rack groans under the weight of another slab of kit we know who to blame.

So, as when this should appear online I will, all being well, be enroute to Ireland, I am writing in advance a short series of brief reviews of cassettes I have been sent that until now I couldn’t play. The first of these is one of three on Windsmeasure, a short cassette, the like of which used to be known as a C15 though I don’t know if that’s still the case, though tucked inside the slipcase is a card containing a link through which to download a short film that accompanies the work. The release is named Weekend and is by Andrew Hayleck. As a free to download, rather beautiful pdf file explains, Hayleck made two twenty-four hour audio recordings of an empty room  at his studio in Baltimore. He then sped these recordings up to 128 times their original speed, so we are left with a couple of recordings that fit neatly onto either side of the cassette. The recordings were made evening to evening, so we get all of the sounds of an empty space in a large city condensed into a small passage of time. Irrelevant of how the actual pieces turned out once compressed, this is all an interesting idea in itself.

The sound itself is quite a surprise to me. I am guessing that the room chosen by Hayleck was quite well insulated to external sounds as although the resulting recordings are a hive of activity the overall volume level isn’t very high. Judging from the photos and film, the room was empty, and so what we hear is the sounds of the streets outside amplified gently around the space. The end result then is a series of tiny squelches and longer sinewave-type sounds, all tumbled together in a repetitive but not rhythmic manner. There is something thoroughly insect-like about the music, all chirruping, fluttering and whistling piercing tones. I am reminded of Lee Patterson’s recordings of stagnant pond life chattering to each other, his egg bubbling and popping in a pan, or Patrick Farmer’s recordings of bee hives, a mass of activity uncovered, clearly not something that could be reproduced in real time by a musician. As Hayleck notes, the high pitched tones are possibly the heavily compressed sounds of cars waiting outside the studio with engines running for a long time. What is audible here is probably only those sounds that were continuous in the room for a while. In theory for something to be heard for one second on this tape it would have had to have existed for more than two minutes in real time. So when sounds last much longer, like the almost perfectly smooth tone that lasts three or four seconds and finishes side one, the sound in real time must have been there for quite a while.

Hayleck talks in his notes of using this work to consider how we might hear things if we were indeed an insect. By dividing his height by 128 he would then be about half an inch tall, and so, in theory he would hear things in a similar way to this recording. I’m not entirely sure how that might work, and my head aches trying to sort the physics involved out, but to me it is at least very interesting to consider how much on this tape would go unnoticed in real time. We are able to compare the length of one sound to another in a manner that we wouldn’t if the recording wasn’t sped up. A tiny blip here sounds nothing compared to a six or second long tone, but in real life it would probably all just sound like a stream of inseparable traffic noise.

This is a fascinating recording then. The end result as a piece of music is surprisingly listenable, and while I don’t think I would ever have mistaken it for a piece of intentionally made, instrumental or otherwise, composition in real time, it is very interesting to listen as if this was just another piece of abstract music, and listen for the similarities with what we might hear say in an improvised music performance. The accompanying film lasts a little more than five minutes and shows the studio space empty over a period of two days, the sun rising and falling, shadows and sunlight moving gradually across the room in time-lapse style. The film is obviously even quicker still than the audio recording, but is accompanied by an excerpt from one of the sides of the tape. Its a beautiful image, and lovely to watch, but I actually would have preferred to have viewed the room at the same speed as the recording, in sync, so sounds could, or maybe could not, be linked to what we see in the room. I suspect the download of such a longer film would have proved more difficult however. Still, all in all, a fascinating, and very beautifully presented project. If it suffers from being on a tape I really don’t know. Would we hear more, more clearly if we heard a digital edition? No idea, but as it is this works well enough for me.

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