Issue 23 / 2014

Tape and quality. Attempt to derail the problem

Tomasz Misiak

The tape recorder resembles a Pythagorean veil: it creates new phenomena to observe but among all: new conditions for observation[1].

Pierre Schaeffer


What was new in the mid-20th century, is already old today. The magnetic tape together with the tape-recorder enabled a revolution in thinking about music and sound. Musique concrete and acousmatic experiences extolled by Pierre Schaeffer made music dependent on the tape. A carrier became indispensable at all stages of the composing process. It was a starting point (firstly, something has to be registered), a medium (what has been registered should then be transformed) and a destination (a materialised composition). Musique concrete is probably the only historical example of music being so strongly dependent on a particular sound carrier.

Currently, the tape doesn’t have that much significance for the music. What is more, the increasingly frequent question is whether it has any significance at all? Along with the development and possibilities of digital media, the expression “music for tape” turned into a historical indication. The history of music, however, which is interwoven with the history of the tape, is “like any history ” hermeneutically open. This openness gives space to the following question: what can we find out about ourselves by invoking the past? What can we learn about (today’s) modern music by analysing the role of the tape? What is the point in speaking about the quality of the tape?

Attention to certain aspects related with the quality of the tape could be more spread, if we treat the quality categories as broadly as possible. Perhaps even as broadly as centuries ago by Aristotle who suggested that quality attests the uniqueness of a given thing. In the philosophical tradition originated by Aristotle, there are five quality categories: state, disposition, ability, experience and form[2]. Quality isn’t constant and unchangeable. It is rather a collection of potentialities and possibilities which help a particular thing become what it is. Assuming this perspective in the reflection over the tape makes it possible to break free from the dominant in the modern culture economic-marketing thinking of the quality but also, complementarily, from several issues evoked by the problem of audiophilia.

What, therefore, makes the tape different from other sound carriers? What possibilities of the tape find their reflection in music? Let us track a few contexts related with those questions. Nonetheless, there is in fact only one answer. What distinguishes the tape and devices serving modifying and replaying it is the fact that on various levels the tape itself becomes an integral part of a musical work, while its functionalities translate into certain composer’s decisions but also specific ways of recording and listening.

Let us go back to musique concrete. From the beginning, experiments with this genre were about deliberately exceeding the possibilities of sound carriers which were considered as the irremovable context of musical creation. Musique concrete is recorded, registered and produced on a given carrier. Such approach also shows certain disagreement to treating a carrier as an unchangeable and complete testimony of the registration process. Musique concrete is determined by a carrier, at the same time trying to transcend its “natural” limitations. Schaeffer’s first experiments with locked grooves or later attempts to explore the tape were already a sign of the need to consciously reflect over the possibilities of carriers and other sound-reproducing devices.

As the most important and the most straightforward consequence of those activities, carriers were considered as carriers of not only sound but also defined artistic and aesthetic attitudes. Sound carriers ” interconnected with devices reproducing the sound ” gradually turned into instruments bringing new potential to seemingly finished compositions. Locking records? grooves or gluing fragments of tapes are simple methods of adding the very carrier’s functionalities to the assembly of crucial components of a musical piece. Consequently, working with the medium constituted yet another stage of the entire composing process.

In view of the already classic scheme of musique concrete, according to which the composing process leads from recording through experiments to “a material composition” (and not, as in the case of traditional music, from the composer’s idea through the score to the instrumental performance), it is worth enquiring about the ontological status of the “material composition” placed on the carrier. In this case, can we speak at all about a composition (a work) and a carrier as separate elements? Is recording the actual end of the composing process? Does only the recording itself constitute a musical piece or can we also call that a result of interference into a recorded carrier? If a musical work and a sound carrier are inseparable, does any transformation of the former affect the latter? Do changes within the carrier (also the ones that are unexpected and unintended by the author) cause changes in the very piece?

These and other similar questions touch the key aesthetical problems concerning the ontology of a musical work. Without recounting elaborate stories composing the centuries-old dispute, it is only worth underlining that, in this context, Schaeffer’s approach is fundamentally traditional as he doesn’t notice and fully use the connections between the recording and the carrier yet. The composition is “ready” when it is placed on the carrier, let us add: the last one. But at the same time: the first one. The last one because there has to be a material end to the conducted experiments (including experiments with the carrier itself). The first one because the carrier containing the results of the experiments will be copied in (in principle) unchanged form. What happens with the carrier after the last recording is not a question of the composer’s choice and so it cannot influence his work[3].

It could be said that musique concrete has always had awareness of its limitations in the context of its relations with sound carriers. It turns out again, however, that its basic possibilities were fully exerted only much later. In this sense, talking about Schaeffer’s approach as “traditional” is obviously possible only from today’s perspective. Only various artistic methods of radicalising the ideas being the foundation of this tradition made it possible to assign to them a wider meaning.

In order to show another aspect of the relation between the carrier, i.e. the tape with music, we should take a closer look at artistic productions which radicalised Schaeffer’s attitude in the context of his experiments with carriers themselves. The below mentioned example shows dissention to the first/last sound carrier being a guarantee of a musical works coherence. This example will also problematise the status of a musical work against today’s new technologies. It will also reflect the need to pay special attention to a carrier and its material basis – a carrier which will not be treated as an aesthetically neutral art medium. If the traditional concrete approach ends with a carrier, validity of this type of activities will be visible in making the carrier a new starting point for multiple attempts and experiments.

One of the most telling examples here is output of an American artist William Basinski who frequently exceeded the traditional use of a carrier in his works. In this context, the cycle of works entitled The Desintegration Loops[4] seems particularly interesting. They are an effect of the author’s meditations over the tape. Revealing background for creation of the presented pieces, the artist activates several universal symbols related with birth, transience and death. The starting point for the composition are tapes containing fragments of American pastoral music recorded by Basinski in the 1980s. When the artist listens to these recordings years later, it turns out that replaying them leads to the tape being destroyed by the head of the tape-recorder. The process is documented by the composer in the very recording and becomes the starting point for further experiments based on obsessive repetitions of the selected fragments. His search results in composing long, meditative pieces characterised by repetition as a basic formal element. However, what the author strongly underlines is the significance of the ideas standing behind his discovery. The Desintegration Loops become a testimony of “dying”, destroying, erasing sounds registered on the archaic – from the point of view of modern technologies – carrier. In this specific case, replaying equals experiencing both the ephemeral nature of the recording and the related carrier. Life and death were being recorded here as a whole – death as simply a part of life, a cosmic change, a transformation. When the disintegration was complete, the body was simply a little strip of clear plastic with a few clinging chords?[5], writes Basinski.

Apart from the symbols pointed to by the author, The Desintegration Loops can also be interpreted as an result of the reflection over the nature of the recorded sound as determined by a defined carrier. Tape recordings in the context of digital technologies get a second life or even eternity as they transcend the material limitations of their original carrier. Yet, it is only new digital technologies together with dematerialisation of the sound carrier that give the possibility to observe the matter and the process of its disintegration from a certain distance. The “initial”, “starting” recording is effaced in the process of its replaying and this process is simultaneously registered by means of another medium – this is how the “final”, “end” recording becomes the result of “normal” replaying and registering. In this case, replaying and recording reveal diversity of the used media and indicate the full of contradictions relation between the sound and the carrier. Basinski’s proposition reminds us that if we talk about obliterating traces in music, we need to take into account the background which allows us to talk about traces. There are no traces without the carrier but also the other way around: there is no discussion of the carrier without the traces. In this sense, referring again to the symbols of transience mentioned by the author, The Desintegration Loops appear as “immortalisation of the moment of death” or simply as registration of the last replay of the recorded tape, perpetuation of the process of obliterating the traces.

By problematising the links between the processes of replaying and registering which become entangled in specific media, Basinski’s artistic output also attracts attention to the heterogeneous status of the carrier itself. The latter is coupled with a given replaying/registering medium and so it facilitates “shifts” of sounds but it is also an object which may be subject to similar manipulations as these performed on the sounds. Manipulating registered sounds takes place within a given carrier but it is also possible to manipulate the carrier itself. Then the carrier is treated not only as a medium for the sound but also as an object undergoing further artistic strategies.

Of course, the tape is not an exception here. Christian Marclay’s experiments crowned with a gramophone album Record Without a Cover (1985) or Yasunao Tone’s Solo for Wounded CD (1997) are examples of a similar type of thinking[6]. However, the tape seems to be – especially due to its strong addiction to the idea of musique concrete – a carrier of the widest range of possibilities or potentialities related with transforming it. Editing of the tape is directly related with the necessity to interfere with the carrier’s structure. The plastic nature of the material the tape is produced of enables preparation of meticulous combinations, cuts and connections which can be performed indefinitely. No other carrier ensures such sublime work with the medium. We cannot, therefore, forget that – whatever it would be, it is always a long, narrow and thin elastic band wound on a reel or locked in a cassette. Its recording or replaying always happens by means of linear travel in an appropriate device and always requires an appropriate apparatus or dispositif[7].

Apart from the fact, though, that the tape is an object liable to transformations, it has yet another type of potential. Every sound carrier is characterised by specific noise. The tape extremely vividly sensitised composers and listeners to this irremovable background in which the recording is inscribed. Some listeners still appreciate dealing with the tape (usually locked in a cassette) precisely due to the possibility to experience the noise which is an evidence of the carrier’s uniqueness. Composers themselves, on the other hand, had to know exactly the kind of the tape before the recording in order to adjust it to the noise typical of a particular carrier[8]. Therefore, what is sometimes treated by listeners as a specific “effect” of the recording, for composers and sound engineers is a sound that immanently belongs to the carrier; a sound which needs to be tackled and which cannot be omitted. The tape attracts attention to itself. It has to be taken into account. It becomes an inseparable part of choices made by composers and engineers. The noise typical of the tape also significantly affects experiences related with silence. Lidia Zieli?ska noticed that liberation from the necessity to work with the noisy tape allowed composers to more consciously nuance the silence in their work[9]. But also, even if it was not for the earlier experiences with the tape and its noise, perhaps there would have never appeared a thought of something like “nuancing the silence”.

In search of typical features of the tape, we should eventually notice that it is a carrier with which an artist builds a very intimate relationship during the composing process. Touching the tape stands for touching the very sound. Just like in the case of Julian Antonisz who – with regards to animation – argued that drawing directly on the tape shortens the way from the idea to its realisation, dealing with the tape in music can take form of a direct encounter with the sound. A particularly loyal proponent of such encounters and related metaphors is Eugeniusz Rudnik who has recently got heard about again by saying that he is “the General Tape-Cutter of the Polish Radio SA, former SB, and the General Celebrance of the Epitaph for the Magnetic Tape”[10]. The artist explains the reason of his intimacy with the tape in the following way: “what was once transient ? the sound which existed only as it lasted, then died irreversibly ? suddenly got preserved. The sound was recorded on the tape through the alternating magnetic field influencing the density of metallic particles reacting to the magnetic field. And suddenly I had a sound in my hand! I held it by its beginning or its end. This is the extraordinary miracle that happened and had been obliging for over half a century. Then, in the digital age, the sound gained a form of two 4- or 6-digit figures again. It became strange and abstract again and I stopped liking it?[11].

[1] P. Schaeffer, Acousmatics, [in:] Ch. Cox, D. Warner (Ed.), Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum Books (New York: 2004), p. 79.

[2] Categories [in] The Complete Works of Aristotle, 2 vols, Transl. J. L. Ackrill, Princeton University Press (Princeton: 1995), pp.3-24.

[3] In the dictionary of sound recordings terminology, the term master tape still has a meaning of a tape (or another carrier) containing the original recording. See K. Szlifierski, Pro-Audio. Angielsko-polski słownik terminologii nagrań dźwiękowych, Warsaw 1996.

[4] These works were released on the 4-record album The Desintegration Loops I-IV. Published by 2063 in 2003.

[5] The description of the record can be found at the publisher’s website:

[6] I write about these experiments more widely in the book Kulturowe przestrzenie dźwięku, Poznań 2013.

[7] P. Krajewski, Zmierzch taśmowego nośnika, [in:] “Widok. WRO Media Art Leader”, no. 1 2009, p. 12.

[8] Prof. Lidia Zielińska has pointed me to this problem, which I am very grateful for.

[9] The conversation with Lidia Zielińska was published in a magazine “Kultura Współczesna” no 1(72)/2012: Sound, technology, environment.

[10] See the booklet in Eugeniusz Rudnik’s album ERdada, Requiem Records 2014.

[11] From the interview conducted by Zuzanna Solakiewicz [in:] M. Roszkowska, B. ?wi?tkowska (ed.), Studio eksperyment. Zbiór tekstów, Warsaw 2012, p. 22.