Cassette Reviews

Mark So / Patrick Farmer – Split cassette

February 14, 2013


I’ve written before more than once, and most recently in the latest issue of The Wire, about my admiration for Ben Owen’s packaging for his Windsmeasure label. The job he has done for the little cassette tape I am writing about tonight is as nice as ever. Really beautiful use of letterpress, quite unlike anything I have seen before. The tape in question then is a split release, with one side each taken by Mark So and Patrick Farmer.

Mark So’s side of the tape consists of a twenty minute realisation by the composer himself of a score named Sitting and listening. The entire score for the work consists of just the following two lines of text;

any number of field recordings, each ca. 4′-5′ in duration

each a fixed location where one enjoys sitting and listening

The resulting work here then is mostly silent or at least, it consists of blank tape filled with the inevitable hiss, with the exception of two bursts of field recordings, each, as the score supposes, around four minutes or so in length, and here  the two sets of sounds separated by a further space of around the same length. The two field recordings were recorded in Redwoods, California and Ucross, Wyoming, in 2008 and 2009. When the tape begins, we hear maybe five minutes of the nearest a cassette tape can get to silence, before suddenly out of nowhere an outdoor recording of what sounds like rain falling in a forest, or something similar suddenly appears, though it could just as easily be the sound of twigs cracking and popping on a fire. After a few minutes the recording cuts out as abruptly as it had arrived, and we wait a further few minutes before the second recording appears. The second burst of sound isn’t so dissimilar, this time with what sounds like water dribbling by mixing with nearby buzzing insects and a denser background of activity. The problem with anything recorded to cassette tape of course is that some clarity is lost, but otherwise the two recordings are just about interesting enough. So’s response to his own score then, seems to be to place these two blocks of sound neatly, in a minimalistic manner into two blank spaces neatly separated by a further space. As white spaces sit before and after the sounds, it would be fair to say that if you divided the twenty minute tape up into five equal(ish) parts, then the second and fourth would contain sound, the rest silence. That’s about it here. Its hard to fathom what more, beside this really simple use of symmetry and minimalism to create a work of very basic, simple beauty. It kind of works that way for me. There is nothing at all to dislike about the recordings though they are also not remarkable in any way, and I do like the way we sit and listen to the tape’s cogs turning in the player as we await the next burst of sound, but beyond such simplicity there isn’t much more to take from this. I don’t think we are meant to however, and as the title of the work suggests, responding to the tape is merely a case of sitting and listening. Given the erratic sound quality of cassettes, even listening to the silences here reveals a world of detail however, and while I think I would probably have preferred to have heard the field recordings with better fidelity, the particular foibles of the medium add their own slant on things.

Regular readers will note that Patrick Farmer is a friend of mine, and so such allegiances should be declared when reviewing his work, though I hadn’t heard this recording at all until quite recently. His let’s grasp it, naked as it is… under a storm of stones audible excretion is a curious affair. On pressing play on the tape we soon hear some kind of loud, upfront gurgling type of sound. I will guess that this brutally in your face sound, which only lasts a second or two is a recording of some kind of insect or pond life, communicating across, or through water, but quite frankly I don’t know what it is. The guttural feel of the sounds lead you to think of all kinds of things, but I won’t go there.  The sound then appears a few times throughout the cassette, always sudden and loud, even aggressively so. Between each little outburst we hear a kind of murky, pregnant space, with little bubbles of watery clicking every so often as if to remind us we are listening to one recording rather than artificial silences. So its sort of a field recording of sounds that we probably cannot hear with the naked ear, but the amount of greyish space here, vastly outweighing the areas of significant activity, makes this a peculiarly interesting work. The way the sounds seem to construct something throughout the space makes the work feel like something more than a clever field recording. Perhaps it was stumbled across by accident with a microphone, but certainly the placement of this recording here as a finished work, albeit one of audible excretion rather than polished article is cleverly thought through. Its a peculiar one then, and I’m not sure if my enjoyment of the piece would be enhanced or not with a greater understanding of the source of the sounds or not. As it is, this is another fine example of how windsmeasure present the art of field recording differently to just about everyone out there right now.

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