Magnetic Lemniscate: A Brief History of the Tape Loop
Sometimes, if the day has been hectic, when I get home I just want to kick back, relax and put on a record. Or a cassette. I still have hundreds of hours of music stored on tape, one of the finest mediums of storage ever invented. This privilege of being able to listen to recorded audio is unique in human history, and my ability to soak in the musical glow from my hi-fi system with my feet propped up and my head in my hands was built on the sweat of many researchers. The phonograph, loudspeaker and microphones all proclaimed that the age of audio had arrived. The promises made by this tech only cracked the door ajar. There was still a bolt in place on the other side barring further entry. The invention of magnetic tape recording proved to be the golden skeleton key responsible for unlocking the door to the studio of the audio engineer, and from there many other rooms in the mansion of new media.
Inside the tape studio it is possible to cut. Splice. Rewind. Fast forward. Edit. Create a new sequence for creative playback. The practice of recording and editing audio using magnetic tape was an obvious improvement over the previous electro-mechanical methods. The leap in audio fidelity alone was a dramatic feat. Further, it allowed for new practices of editing. It allowed for repetition, a key aspect of music, and so the loop was born. Splice. Snip. Audio on magnetic tape had established itself as simply superior. The analog tape recorder made it possible to erase. Audio mistakes could be fixed at less cost by recording over a previous recording, something not possible on the shellac and vinyl based medium of the phonograph. The edit turned into an art form as tape had the advantage of being cut. Spliced, it could be joined back together in an endless profusion of edits. Music could be rearranged, deranged, or removed.
From 1950 onwards magnetic tape quickly became the standard medium for audio master recording in the music and broadcast radio industries. This led to the development of hi-fi stereo recordings for the domestic market. If the day has been hectic, just kick back with some Les Baxter or the exotica of Martin Denny and let it transport you away from the work of the daily grind. Now in hi-fidelity, and turning at 33 1/3 rpm, longer songs and longer sounds mean more time to chill in the lounge. Sonically edited the album now offered to audio engineers the same plasticity of arrangement known to film directors. The many new combinations available became mind boggling and cinematic.
When I think of tape, I think primarily of its role in audio and video storage. I think of the way it revolutionized sound recording, reproduction and broadcasting. It allowed radio, which had always been broadcast live, to be recorded for later or repeated airing. I think of how I sat with a radio and it’s built in cassette player to tape those late night radio shows. To be listened to again and again. But there was also data storage on tape. Remember tape drives? They were a key technology in early computer development, allowing unparalleled amounts of data to be mechanically created, stored for long periods of time, and rapidly accessed.
When I think of tape I think of iron oxide. It’s on tape and it’s also in your blood. It’s the stuff responsible for giving it that bright red color. It’s the stuff that holds the memory of a recording on the tape making it magnetic. The memory is in the blood. Iron oxide stores the genetic memory of music. Editing a tape splices the DNA of sound. Perhaps it is this magnetic resonance of the iron oxide, a shared connection with a vital and elemental force that has given tape such a place of prominence in electronic music. Perhaps it was the way the tapes could be manipulated, slowed down, sped up, chopped up and put into new patterns, which made tape such a dream. This medium of preservation and creation is in the very blood of electronic music.
With the invention of the tape loop the dream of creating infinite music was realized. The use of the pause button had been put on hold. Tape loops are spools of magnetic tape used to create repetitive, rhythmic musical patterns or dense layers of sound when played on a tape recorder. Sound is recorded on a section of magnetic tape and this tape is cut and spliced end-to-end, creating a circle which can be played over and over again, continuously, over and over. This is usually done on a reel-to-reel machine, though industrious lo-fi recording artists have been known to rig their own cassette tapes into loops. The loop originated with the musique concrète work of Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s. He used the simultaneous playing of tape loops to create phrase patterns and rhythms. Musical experimentalists continued to explore the possibilities of this method on through the 1950s and 60s. Devotees of the tape loop included Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Brian Eno.
The medium is perfect for creating phase patterns, rhythms, textures, and timbres. When the speed of a loop is accelerated to a sufficient degree a sequence of events originally perceived as a rhythm now is heard as a pitch. The variation of the rhythm in the original recording produces different timbres in the sped up sound. Tape can also be slowed down, causing the music to drop in pitch and for sounds to be stretched. Tape was also used to create echo systems. The first delay effects were made using tape loops improvised on reel-to-reels by shortening or lengthening the loop of tape and adjusting the read and write heads, to create an echo whose time parameters could be adjusted. This delayed signal may either be played back multiple times, or played back into the recording again, to create the sound of a repeating, decaying echo.
Being the pioneer he was Stockhausen made extensive use of loops in Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–56) and Kontakte (1958–60) and he used the technique for live performance in Solo (1965–66). Steve Reich was the composer to use the technique the most, specifically in his "phasing" pieces Come Out (1966) and It's Gonna Rain (1965).
In the realm of popular music it was used to great effect in the 60’s and 70’s. Think of the psychedelic music of the Beatles on the White album and of its use in the progressive rock and ambient genres. A standard loop on a standard reel-to-reel is at most a few seconds long. This is not enough for some composers. To create a longer loop a standard practice was to use two reel-to-reels or for even longer stretches of tape, to run them around mic stands, or even door knobs. Perhaps the best known album made with this technique was Brian Eno’s Music for Airports: Ambient 1. This recording ushered in the vast and sprawling genre of ambient. In creating his 1978 landmark Eno reported that for one song, "the tape loops was seventy-nine feet long and the other eighty-three feet".
Enter William Basinski
Texas born Basinski is a classically trained clarinetist who studied jazz saxophone and composition at North Texas State University in the late 1970s. At the age of twenty in 1978 he became inspired by the techniques of Steve Reich and Brian Eno and started the process of developing his own musical vocabulary using old reel-to-reel tape decks. Basinski experimented with short looped melodies. When played against themselves the loops created a pleasant feedback. Working with this discovery he created his singular meditative, melancholy style within the drone and ambient genres.
Basinki’s first release was Shortwave Music. First created in 1983, it wasn’t released until 1998 when Carsten Nicolai's Raster-Noton label put it out in a small vinyl edition. It was followed by his shortwave magnum opus The River. Basinski writes, "As a young composer in the early 1980’s I was experimenting with tape loops: recording and mixing them with sounds coming from the airwaves. The idea was to capture music out of the ether. In NYC, there was a very powerful radio station, I can’t remember the call letters, but it was the station that played American popular standards….that is, the ‘1001 Strings’ smoothed out, de-syncopated versions of the American popular standards: what was commonly referred to then as Muzak, or ‘elevator music’. In those days, there was no Prozac, only Muzak to smooth out the seams and ease the tension of hectic neurotic life in the mid-late 20th century. At any rate, this station was so powerful, it could be picked up by simply running a wire across the floor, so frequently I was picking up background transmissions in my recordings. Since it was inevitable and I had no choice in the matter, I began experimenting with recording off the radio small loops of string intros, outros and interludes randomly in my primitive studio in Brooklyn. I would then slow them down a couple of speeds and as if peering into a microscope, to see what I could discover beneath the glossy surface. Frequently, these loops held great depth and melancholy. This appealed to me greatly and I created a vast archive of these loops to later experiment with. I am still using this archive to this day.”
Having this library of ‘found’ material became very important to his work, as it became the basis for many future albums and releases. Something else he found at a thrift store was also important, the machine that would provide his radio static. “I bought a wonderful old Hallicrafters shortwave radio at the Goodwill around the corner and began listening to that. The sounds coming from this magical device were awesome. The idea that one could hear transmissions from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ or Japan or London was thrilling and mysterious. The waves of shifting static and interstellar particle showers were mind-boggling to a young man who grew up in the shadow of the space race.
I was having a problem with a 60 Hz ground loop hum in my recordings. I had no idea what was causing it at the time…probably our fluorescent lights…just that it bothered me and I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. So I decided to try to mask it with the shortwave radio static. I would set the Hallicrafters on a pleasing in-between-stations setting teeming with showers of sparkling static and record live while mixing my loops. The results were extraordinary. The Hallicrafters would sometimes shift focus as if responding to the music coming from the loops. Occasionally a distant station from the Middle East perhaps, would slide into range just for a moment like a lingering column of cigarette smoke swirling slowly in a spotlight. I was very encouraged and excited. I didn’t know if I was really a composer, or if this was music, but to me it was magic! I loved it and was in my laboratory every night after work, like Dr. Frankenstien, just waiting to see what fascinating and strange sounds would bubble up next. The results of this period of experimentation were the Shortwave Music pieces and ultimately, the 90 minute masterwork of the series, The River. It would be over 25 years before these pieces would be released to the public."
Even though it wasn’t until the late 90’s that his music saw release on a label Basinski remained very active in the NYC music scene. He was a member of many bands including the Gretchen Langheld Ensemble and House Afire. In 1989, he opened his own performance space, "Arcadia" at 118 N. 11th Street. In the 1990s he helped put together many intimate underground shows at his space for artists like Diamanda Galás, Rasputina, The Murmurs, and Antony as well as his own experimental electronic/improvisation band, Life on Mars. In 2000, he made a film titled Fountain with artists James Elaine and Roger Justice.
In August and September 2001 Basinski started work on what would become his most recognizable piece, the epic four-volume album The Disintegration Loops. The album is made up of old tape loops whose quality had degraded. In an attempt to salvage these loops by recording them onto a digital format, the magnetic iron oxide ferrite on the tapes slowly crumbled. With each pass of the tape over the head on the reel-to-reel deck more and more of the iron oxide fell off. The loops were allowed to play for extended periods as they deteriorated further, with increasing gaps and cracks and spaces in the music. These sounds were treated further with a spatializing reverb effect to further enhance their haunting aura. Basinski was able to capture the sound of their disintegration and the results were beautiful and stunning. The disintegration of these tapes was made all the more poignant as he finished his work on them on the morning of 9/11. Basinksi sat on the roof of his apartment building in Brooklyn with friends listening to the finished project as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The artwork that accompanies the album features stills of footage he shot of the NYC skyline in the aftermath of the attack. In September 2012, the record label Temporary Residence reissued the entire Disintegration Loops series as a 9xLP box set, marking the project's 10-year anniversary as well as its impending induction into the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
The creation of the Disintegration Loops was something of an accident, timestamped by their own destruction and the terrible tragedy of 9/11. The four albums are perfect as a reminder of the beauty to be found in imperfection, as a reminder of our own transience, of our own ultimate disintegration, of how the iron oxide in our blood will once again return to dust.
Live wires :a history of electronic music by Daniel Warner, Reaktion Books Ltd, London, England, 2017.
William Basinki’s website: http://www.mmlxii.com