All three of us in Good Willsmith have a sizable rig of electronics, noisemakers and pedals to use in our live sessions. With all of this gear at our disposal (and through the magic of multi-track looping) we can develop dense, layered live performances – but by the end of our first tour to the West Coast this past summer, we found ourselves falling into similar patterns each night performing with the same the equipment. We needed to get creative with our gear to evolve musically – and we’ve been using HCL as a workshop to get to know some new sound sources.
As our music has been entirely improvised up to this point, we’ve only existed as a band within the context of live performance. All of our recorded material documents spontaneous live sessions with minimal planning by the three of us – concerning, at most, the length of our set and/or the number of climaxes to build across the span of the session. Now, for the first time, I’m incorporating a sound source into my rig that requires some preparation to use in performance: the playback of cassette tapes on a 4-track recorder.
I admit that this decision isn’t original. As this band’s listening practices deviate more and more into modern “noise” and its permutations, we’ve come to love many artists who spectacularly exploit the cassette format. Aaron Dilloway’s “The Modern Jester”, along with his overt noise output in Wolf Eyes and dozens of other projects, demonstrates the monolithic, maniacal capabilities of the manipulation of magnetic tape. Gregg Kowalsky of Date Palms layers relatively short tape loops to keep gorgeous textures and melodic phrases hanging in the mix in performance, and composes entire sampled soundscapes from the ground up with tape playback. Though the practice of tape manipulation dates back decades to the experiments of avant-garde / minimalist composers like Reich and Stockhausen, we’ve come to regard the hypnotic 70’s-era pre-cassette tape loops of Brian Eno and Terry Riley as benchmarks of the practice – along with the tape-based sonic terrorism of the Ralph Records catalog.
I’m not so much manipulating tape directly in a physical sense a la Dilloway in my live performance as I am treating the output of a cassette tape like an instrument to feed through other processes. In my rig, the output of the tape player feeds into a mixer – along with a bass guitar, a contact microphone, and a small 4-oscillator synth called the Drone Lab. I can process all these sounds together or separately – sustaining them with delay, aggravating them with distortion, bringing them up or down octaves, and looping phrases into a constant, droning presence. My input with tapes in performance is only partially “live.” Instead of fretting the bass or turning the knob of an oscillator, I’m processing the content of an artifact that I curated in the past. It’s a piece of gear at once entrenched in and one step removed from the “liveness” that our band has emphasized since its inception – and I plan on investigating (and exploiting) this dichotomy to the best of my abilities.
Early in my tape lust, I found some old cassettes at thrift stores that I thought begged for some recontextualization via long-form improvisatory drone:
A tape of Bach’s music for children, prefaced by a short dialogue between a little girl playing the piano and an outrageously accented apparition of JSB himself.
“A Child’s Look at… What It Means To Be Jewish” – featuring a cartoonish discussion between two worried kids and their grandfather about their faith.
A “trade secret/confidential” tape produced in 1996 by a company called Informix Solutions Alliance (?), intended to inform businessmen about “a new fad” (“or paradigm shift”) called the Internet.
I used the first two tapes I list here in a show in September – looping decontextualized phrases like “I thought there were ten plagues!” or “Relax ze fingahs and ze shouldahs” into our drones and layering them into oblivion. Though the dialogues contrasted with our music strikingly, I retired them after one performance – their novelty wore out after one live play-through.
But the third tape – The Internet Tape – was a watershed. Its introductory muzak fanfares, its commentary on the internet’s formation (“we’re getting literally tens of thousands of new websites every few months”), its misty-eyed tech predictions (“we’ll have three dimensional worlds for navigating through information”), its attempts at prophetic analogies (“maybe it turns out like New York City’s highway system: it’s always in terrible shape but it gets the job done”) – all of these cohere into a vision of the mid-90’s as a more contemporary Dark Age, when businessmen put “confidential” cassette tapes into their Walkmen to bone up on bewildering innovations in their industries. The tape espouses a mixed attitude of skepticism and begrudging acceptance of the internet’s ascent. “Is it here to stay, or is just a flash in the pan?” one of the tape’s pundits asks. “There’s no way to know – but I think it’s key that anyone who thinks the internet offers them an opportunity begins doing something,” says another.
I don’t know if any executives listened to this tape in the nineties, or whether its nebbish standpoint shaped the way its intended audience interacted with this new technology. It’s hard for me to empathize. As a six-year-old in 1996, I was familiar with what existed of the internet back then and have never feared its capabilities. I can recognize, though, that 30 minutes of proto-Google paranoia and conjecture imprinted in ferric oxide and cobalt particles on a strip of magnetic tape housed in a two-reel plastic shell form a singular physical artifact that captures the beginning of our cultural shift into the realms of The Virtual. I’m still savoring this tape – but I’m using some of my time at HCL to compose a session of music to accompany its playback in a live setting.
The Internet Tape’s union of archaic physical media and virtual culture ties into another of my current musical fascinations: the New Aesthetic-baiting output of James Ferraro, Daniel Lopatin, and the “Vaporwave” movement. These artists inject trends and excesses seemingly exclusive to the virtual world into their music using a wide range of tactics: mimicking the sound palette of the not-so-bygone Windows 95 era, combining vintage equipment with digital software, pitch-shifting recognizable pop vocals, recontextualizing samples gathered online into new compositions etc. etc. etc. etc. The questions they generate about the interaction between the medium and the listener, the notion of authenticity in the face of universal accessibility, “easy” digital authorship etc. (etc.) can (sometimes) prove just as interesting as the music they create (which is extremely interesting).
But the Vaporwave subgenre seems to have reached a conclusion. Its pioneers have invested themselves in other projects, while some of its most acclaimed current practitioners have decided to retire their (numerous) monikers for good. Last week, the blog Tiny Mix Tapes – which initially championed the subgenre – declared it a “conceptual gesture” that “registered in the critical consciousness […] between mid 2012 and the start of 2013.” Perhaps these artists felt their work was finished when they found an audience, however small, that could conceptually roll with their punches. Which leaves us here… perhaps in a state of Post-Vaporwave (ehhhhh), maybe having learned something?
Without deriding the movement, I feel comfortable making the claim that Good Willsmith counters many of the sonic gestures that define Vaporwave: we eschew laptops and software in live performance; we emphasize improvisation over deliberate composition or programming; we sample our own output with loop-based hardware; we champion the hands-on manipulation of analog sound sources in a live setting. These are our tenets. But discovering The Internet Tape demonstrated that these tenets don’t necessarily preclude the presence of that vaporous virtual world – that some degree of “digitality” could and should creep into our music. Despite our troglodyte emphasis on The Physical, our band owes its existence to the internet – influences discovered, research undertaken, music downloaded, gear purchased, shows booked, news disseminated. It would be a betrayal to our maker to exclude it from our output.
I made a new cassette to use in live performance by dubbing audio directly from my computer to the tape recorder. The shift from finding tape gems out of thrift serendipity to sourcing and compiling them myself kinda ruins the fun of the whole thing, ya know?, but it also allows me to curate more thematically specific content on a larger scale (so it’s cool). The Tascam’s li’l built-in tape time ticker served as the master clock for my recording session:
I chose as source material two batches of related videos from Youtube. You might think that recording a cassette direct from Youtube would also kind of ruin the fun of the whole thing – but no: the lack of visual context can imbue the human voice with extra weight and terror or obscure the most obvious sources of sound out of recognition, while opening multiple Youtube windows at once can create a mixer of different samples. The tape I made applies these tactics to two series of videos, one per tape track, to create a 17-minute session of disembodied speech and noise.
The first track is a stream of videos of local amateur actors uploaded by Chicago acting school Sarantos Studios. The videos have a small cult following on Youtube and have captivated me ever since I first saw this one, circa 2010: