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.

Feature: Fals.ch

cd_slopper members and fals.ch founders Florian Hecker (left) and Oswald Berthold (right)

Fals.ch was a small mp3 label formed by Florian Hecker and Oswald Berthold (who released music together as cd_slopper) that focused on extreme computer music. With no concern for conventional album length or structure, the label’s output is quite diverse, from extended single pieces to releases with over a hundred minuscule tracks. Their last release came out in 2002, but recently the entire catalog has been uploaded to Bandcamp for name-your-price download. I’ve slowly been working my way through all of it, but here, in no particular order, are some favorites:

cd_slopper – eating aluminium (2001)

I was already into Hecker’s music when I discovered cd_slopper through their 2000 CD SaskieWoxi, but something about the pureness of the source material, how it truly sounded like they were sculpting (and slopping) bursts of unadulterated data. eating aluminium is quite short (it barely reaches four minutes) but contains some of the most mind-blowing digital creations I’ve ever heard. The duo’s other release on fals.ch, 1999’s ismurgTeNN4, is also excellent.

Voice Crack Taken and Changed (1999)

Though the work of Andy Guhl and Norbert Möslang often sounds like it was wrested from the depths of some complex computing device, but in fact the duo uses “cracked everyday electronics,” a large array of prepared objects and appliances that they often controlled via physical gestures. Some of the albums that Voice Crack has recorded with this approach are loud and raucous, like 1990’s Earflash, but Taken and Changed is some of their most pleasantly reserved material.

i.d d4ta corruption (2001)

This single 25-minute piece is definitely one of the harshest fals.ch releases I’ve heard yet. Sound artist Shunichiro Okada’s nightmarish glitch tornadoes are disorienting and hyperactive, but he also relies on stretches of punishing repetition to further overwhelm the listener, drills and jackhammers of grating noise. d4ta corruption is loud, exhausting, and—despite its cold and lifeless origins—quite cathartic. Holding on for dear life while everything else is torn apart by a digital vortex.

Poire_Z c’est juste (2000)

Poire_Z was composed of percussionist Günter Müller, abstract turntable virtuoso eRikm, and both members of the previously discussed Voice Crack duo. The group explored the meditative but alien worlds their unique sound-making palette made possible, and documented some of the most amazing electronic improvisations ever on their 1999 self titled CD. c’est juste is what seems to be a single 30-min live recording, and sees the quartet at their most muffled and withdrawn.

Ken Shoticker avatar toolkit (2002)

A very short release, but no less exhausting than any of the others about which I’ve written; Ken Shoticker injects so many bizarre samples and sound effects that it’s as if you’re listening to ten albums at once. This is the sound of the friendly and familiar being stretched, twisted, mashed, and ground into oblivion. Horrifying and anxiety inducing but I at least couldn’t tear my ears away.

Event: Lustmord at the COSI Planetarium (May 26, 7/9 p.m.)

This amazing event is being put on by the Fuse Factory Electronic and Digital Arts Lab. Legendary ambient composer and musician Brian Williams, a.k.a. Lustmord, will be putting on two performances at the planetarium of the Center of Science and Industry, located in downtown Columbus. Lustmord is famous for his trance-inducing ambient music and immersive accompanying visuals, and these shows are sure to be some of his most ambitious and incredible events yet. Tickets can be purchased here for the 7 p.m. show and here for the 9 p.m. show (one ticket will not grant admission to both). This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Clicking the image above will redirect to the event’s Facebook page, which has more information)

Event: Nick Keeling & Kaily Moon Schenker Live Performance and Demonstration (Herzog Music, Mar 17)

This Saturday, March 17, experimental musicians Nick Keeling and Kaily Moon Schenker will be performing at Herzog Music on Race Street, in downtown Cincinnati (full address in Facebook event). The duo just released a cassette called Marker on Torn Light Records (listen to a sample here), and to celebrate they will be performing as well as demonstrating and taking questions about their unique music made from cello, piano, and custom-built tape machines. If you’re anything like me and love to see the actual process behind such unique sounds and compositions, this will be fascinating and a lot of fun. I’ll definitely be there, so come hang out.

Event: Frequency Friday at the Fuse Factory (Mar 2)

On the first Friday of each month, the Columbus based Fuse Factory Electronic and Digital Arts Lab puts together performances from a variety of experimental musicians and artists, both local and worldwide. I was so happy to discover that such a place existed so close by, and I’ve been to one show so far and am planning to attend some of the workshops they offer. On the bill for tomorrow is Ava Mendoza, a solo guitarist and singer who is also a member of Unnatural Ways; Ann B Clorox, a performance artist; Istvan Medgyesi, an experimental electronic musician; and local Columbus artist Mike Shiflet, who will perform excerpts from his new composition Tetracosa. The latter I am most excited for, because Tetracosa, Volume One was fascinating and I just preordered the next two installments, but every act sounds worth the modest admission price. Stop by and hang out! (Adjacent image is of Wasteland Jazz Unit performing at the February Frequency Friday event, courtesy of FF’s gallery.)

Thoughts: Jürg Frey’s Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8, or, The Difficulties of Listening to Lowercase Music on a College Campus

R-2846496-1326746393.jpegIn contrast to many traditional figures of classical music, Swiss composer Jürg Frey is not exactly known for loudness or grandiosity. And while many works by well-known composers aren’t exactly short, Frey’s pieces often dwarf them in scope – take, for example, last year’s archival release of L’âme est sans retenue I by Erstwhile Records; this composition stretches past the six hour mark. Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8 is shorter, but by no means brief. Originally created to accompany installations by the late artist Mauser from 2001 to 2002 (Olewnick), the album was released on 8xCD by b-boim in 2010. It consists of eight segments, each titled simply “Raum” plus the disc number, that were produced through heavily processed field recordings gathered by Frey himself. The processing results in the original sound sources becoming mostly unintelligible, instead blurring into ethereal, layered drones. If you haven’t heard the album, at this point it probably sounds like a pretty typical ambient construction. However, as is Frey’s tradition, the music is so quiet it is almost imperceptible at normal volume.

This use of low volume and occasionally complete silence to emphasize sound is a cornerstone of the philosophy of the Wandelweiser Group, of which Frey is a key member. The compositions created by Antoine Beuger, Radu Malfatti, Michael Pisaro, and others are often categorized as “lowercase,” a moniker that references their scaled down palette. Though I am no expert in many of these artists’ work, what I have heard has been both fascinating and gorgeous. However, the quiet and sparse nature of these recordings necessitates a very quiet listening environment, something not easily found on a bustling college campus. So Weites Land… has been, for lack of a better phrase, my “guinea pig album” for prospective listening environments, as I investigate various libraries and secluded areas around town to find the optimal space. And today I think I’ve found it; I was able to listen to “Raum 3” in the geology library’s almost complete silence, a favorable setting that allowed me to truly appreciate the subtle beauty that Frey has constructed. Music at such a quiet volume level requires a lot of focus, which causes a significantly increased perception of even the most minuscule dynamics and elements. In the future, if no one who works here objects to me spending hours upon hours at a time just sitting with headphones on, I’ll be able to experience a lot of cool stuff.

Thoughts: Marika Papagika’s Greek Popular and Rebetic Music in New York

Setting aside the music itself, compilations like these are incredibly interesting because they provide a window into a completely different time. In a way similar to Washington Phillips’ The Key to the Kingdom or Robert Johnson’s The Complete Recordings, this collection of Marika Papagika recordings from the 20’s presents a portrait of an artist most likely unknown to many people in modern times. MI0000264383

Rebetika isn’t a genre with which I am at all familiar, so going into this album I really had no idea what to expect. I immediately noticed that many of the tracks were much longer and more developed than singles usually were at the time, often utilizing unique song structures. Papagika’s voice is captivatingly beautiful, mysterious and enigmatic in an enjoyable way. Interestingly, many of the scales and intervals used in her melodies were ones I personally associate with Eastern folk music, but they communicated a completely different mood than the spiritual mysticism often found in those compositions. The frequent use of harmonic minor intervals seems to contradict the friendliness of the music.

I’m probably going way too in depth with my descriptions here. Regardless of my analytical observations, the compilation was ultimately very enjoyable, and I’ll definitely be checking out more Greek folk music in the future.