Strange Sounds in the Dark: S.F. Tape Music Festival's "Cinema for the Ear"

The San Francisco Tape Music Festival was born 10 years ago when composers Matt Ingalls and Kent Jolly began considering the future of serious electronic music. Two caveats: Tape Music isn't on tape and some people don't even consider it music.

"What we call Tape Music was an avant-garde movement started in the 1940s by people like Pierre Schaeffer, who coined the term Musique Concrète," Ingalls explains. When reel-to-reel tape recorders became available in the 1940s, some composers started using them to break down the limits of what humans could play on instruments. The artists recorded sounds, sometimes just ambient street noise or random tones. By cutting and splicing these tapes together, they created a new sonic landscape. "It's symphonic music in a way," Ingalls says, "but the material they used wasn't what you'd hear in instrumental music. It wasn't the notes and melodies that you'd normally expect as a human sitting down and listening to a composition. It was called Tape Music because it could only be created on tape decks in the 1940s. Today, it's created on computers, but we call it Tape Music to make a connection to the history of the genre."

The first concert of Tape Music, put on by the people who eventually became the San Francisco Tape Music collective, took place in a warehouse in East Oakland 10 years ago. Ingalls and Jolly set up a circle of 24 speakers, hooked them up to computers, and invited people in to listen to some serious electronic compositions. After they turned out the lights, listeners were immersed in the sounds they were hearing.

The Voyager spacecraft's "Golden Record."
The Voyager spacecraft's "Golden Record."

"It's like sitting in a movie theater," Ingalls says. "It's cinema for the ear .... Speakers surround the audience, so a sonic canvas is created that the person projecting the sound can manipulate. They can mix the volume to focus your attention on a tiny sound, or wrap you in a massive IMAX theater ambience. You actually feel the music. We do it in the dark because of the effect it creates when you can't see where the speakers are. Your brain has to fill in the gaps, so you create a 3D environment in your mind."

This year the collective, which now consists of Ingalls, Cliff Caruthers, Thom Blum, and Joseph Anderson, will present another adventurous program, featuring 30 works by 20 local and internationally known composers, including Jacob Felix Heule, Aaron Oppenheim, Maggi Payne, and Bruno Ruviaro, as well as a variety of premieres and established pieces by members of the collective. Highlights include a recording by sound pioneer Alexander Graham Bell. "It's the first recording Bell ever made," Ingalls says. "It's from the late 1800s, and it's so old and the fidelity is so low, it's almost an abstract experience. You're listening more to the noises [on the cylinder] than the actual sounds."

They're also playing "Melodica," a rarely heard tape loop piece by Steve Reich from 1966, from the Mills College library. The San Francisco Tape Music Center, started by composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender in 1962, moved to Mills in the early 1970s. They organized a library of music and wanted to make it available to everyone. "Melodica" consists of a short phrase played on multiple tape loops. It becomes increasingly complicated and more abstract in its rhythm and texture as the piece unfolds. This is the last piece of Tape Music that Reich made actually using a tape recorder.

The collective is also presenting "The Sounds of Earth," the sound collage that was inscribed onto the gold-plated copper record inside the Voyager space probe. The disc has sounds selected by a NASA committee, chaired by Carl Sagan, to give anyone who finds it an idea of the diversity of life on the planet Earth. It includes animal noises, Morse code, a mother and daughter cuddling, and the music of Beethoven and Chuck Berry. It also has illustrated instructions on how to play the disc. (The illustration is reproduced on the poster for this year's festival.) "Voyager is now traveling through space at the edge of the heliosphere, the magnetic barrier that encloses our solar system," Ingalls says. In one sense, it's a bit like tape music itself: an antique vision for an imagined future, still hurtling determinedly toward the real thing.

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