Feature: Hal McGee’s Dictaphonia Compilation Series

Since 1982, sound artist and curator Hal McGee has been faithfully dedicated to documenting, collecting, anthologizing, and participating in the worldwide practice of tape music. In addition to releasing countless recordings on his label HalTapes, he also put together a series of ten hour-long compilations featuring contributions from musicians all over the world, with the only stipulation being that the tracks would be recorded and distributed on microcassette. Though many would view this format as functionally obsolete, the small frequency range and mono-only channel of the microcassette enables adventurous artists to produce works that are uncannily intimate. As of now I’ve listened to the first three of these compilations, all of which are available for streaming and $1 or more download on the HalTapes Bandcamp page. For each entry in the series I’ll highlight two tracks/artists that had the most significant impression on me and provide a featured album for curious ears to seek out.

1-1: Su Sous Toulouse En Rouge – “Brugmansia Tea” (featured album: il n’y a pas de hors​-​texte)

Su Sous Toulous En Rouge are a mysterious duo (at least, I think) whose works blurs the line between active performance, field recording, and post-recording tape manipulation. Their contribution to the first Dictaphonia compilation is a colorful lo-fi journey through various snippets of toy instrument improvisation and jarring collage. Their sprawling opus il n’y a pas de hors-texte is based on the Jacques Derrida argument that nothing exists outside language, but their “fetid stew of musique concrète meditations, EMF field recordings, junk metal compositions, minimal electronics, and… other sonic oddities” seems to make a case for the opposite view.

1-2: Homogenized Terrestrials – “Air” (featured album: Distraction Holograms)

Phillip Klampe created his Homogenized Terrestrials project back in 1986 and has been releasing music ever since. His miniature “Air” is a simmering stew of crackling electric textures that seem to hover just on the edge of disastrous feedback before their seething energy is replaced by a more calming stretch of xylophone plinks. Distraction Holograms, released by Analog Minimum back in 2017, is a much cleaner and well-produced affair, sewing together deconstructed electronics and processed found sound with atmospheric drones.

2-1: Zebra Mu – “Micro Junk Cassette Slicer” (featured album: Psychic Ditch)

“Micro Junk Cassette Slicer” sounds about how you would assume based on its title; it’s a murky coagulation of bent circuits, junk metal clatter, and staticky scuzz. Last year’s Psychic Ditch was actually my original introduction to Zebra Mu, and is a wonderful little slice of contemporary harsh noise with an emphasis on cracked electronics and painful, piercing frequencies.

2-2: Pony Payroll – “Nah” (featured album: The Sun Is the Radioactive Wasp Egg)

The final track on the second Dictaphonia compilation is a bit of a departure, as Matthew Pony Payroll Bones evokes dark Appalachian caves and rural hysteria with his pastoral banjo plucks and madman ramblings. He also lent his talents to this year’s The Sun Is the Radioactive Wasp Egg, the first release by his collaborative project Pony Moon with Jenny Moon Tucker. The Cor Ardens C60 features two side-long tracks of amplifier feedback mayhem, howling vocals, radio grabs, and scrap metal abuse (plus Pony Payroll’s fiddle).

3-1: Jliat – “Beethoven’s 9th – Bonus track (Movement 5)” (featured album: Noise)

Jliat, a.k.a. James Whitehead, is “one of the most radical followers of John Cage’s anti-musical ideology” according to Discogs. His diminutive “Beethoven’s 9th – Bonus track (Movement 5)” is like a small section of tape stretched out across too wide of an area, its noisy drone fragile and tensile. The 2002 CDr Noise is perhaps a more conceptual study, with startling blasts of rumbling and piercing harsh noise sourced from location-specific field recordings.

3-2: auvikogue – “heima®t/exp – lost concert series vol. 1” (featured album: O.T.)

As auvikogue, Peter Schubert is interested in a variety of sonic possibilities, often delving into extreme minimalism and deep listening. His piece “heima®t/exp – lost concert series vol. 1” is a simple tape recording of a bubbling liquid, and the ambitious lärm​/​silence ansatz #23 makes use of empty vinyl record grooves. O.T. (The Insignificance of Monotony Part II), released on Hal McGee’s own Museum of Microcassette Art imprint, is more in line with the aesthetics of the Dictaphonia compilations and blank-tape-beauty artists such as Termite Acropolis and Darksmith.