In 2003, the Columbus, Ohio based record label Gameboy Records put out Soun, was a seven-inch single that incorporated 100 different artists. Gameboy’s proprietor, Mike Shiflet, had put a call out for four-second tracks, which he then arranged into one seamless compilation-cum-composition. The catch? The order of the tracks was kept obscure, so there was no way of knowing which artist was responsible for which four-second tract. The list itself is a who’s who of the early 00s noise scene, featuring Merzbow, Reynols, Ernesto Diaz-Infante, and Aube, among many others.
I connected with Shiflet to better understand the background behind this unique release, which originally wasn’t going to be a record at all. It turns out that Soun was conceived as a way of exploiting the capabilities of compact disc technology. “I’d pictured it as a shuffle-able 99-track 3-inch disc and the 4-second time frame for each contribution was established because that is the minimum time you could use for a track on a professionally produced CD.”
Shiflet expands: “There was an issue prepping the files for CD production though, and I don’t remember the exact problem but I believe it had to with the lead-in information for the tracks adding very small gaps in playback that would under normal circumstances be mostly unnoticeable but here stood out pretty significantly. To rectify the issues, I ended up editing the all tracks into a single, flowing, .wav file, and after that the appeal of the 3-inch CD waned and I decided the one-sided 7-inch record would work better.”
As a result, the randomness of the track sequencing was no longer part of the release, but he took pains to maintain the “Anonymous and Random” quality of the release, guarding the actual identity of each four-second segment secret. As you might imagine, this 100-artist collaboration wasn’t an easy record to put together. “My significant other and I were in different cities then, so I probably had more time on my hands than usual to dedicate to fairly absurd endeavors,” he explains. “From a label perspective, this was released in the midst of pretty busy time. Noumena (Shiflet’s sound project with Aaron Hibbs) had kind of wound down but I wasn’t quite ready to shift my attention to solo work yet, so I had a bit more energy to dedicate to other people’s projects and releases. Soun might have been the impetus to actually focus more on solo work, given that is as much an uncredited composition as it is a compilation.”
Some inspiration came from the famous RRR-500 locked-groove compilation, put out on the legendary RRRecords label. “Contributions to that aren’t exactly ‘anonymous,'” Shiflet explains. “But it is very hard to drop the needle and find an exact groove. The original idea was to do something similar in CD format with no two listening experiences being the same.”
“Putting it together was a really fun process. I don’t remember how I decided who exactly to invite, but I knew I wanted to represent a broad spectrum of the artists that I was into at the time and still think it’s great to see people like Kim Cascone, Charalambides, and Kazumoto Endo side by side. The submission types ran the gambit and I won’t reveal anyone’s process but I got everything from custom cassette tapes (I just found and played one the other day) to being told to pull clips from existing albums. I had a few live recordings that I asked artists if I could add. There are side projects from people that appear almost nowhere else. It was fun. Almost everyone I asked was fine with the idea that their section would not be directly attributed them. I do think I got a few thanks but no thanks’ responses, but they are lost to time.”
I ask Shiflet if he recalled any anecdotes about particular submissions, but even years later he is careful not to provide any identifying information. “I do remember a few, but I don’t want to risk ruining anyone’s anonymity. One I can single out is Merzbow. As best I recall, I sent him a clip I pulled from a live performance that a friend had recorded (he had done a few West Coast shows in 2002) and asked if it was okay to include it.”
The record’s cover is silkscreened, and features text on top what appears to be blueprints or some form of electrical diagram. “A friend of mine who had previously helped us with some screen-printing got a job at a real printer and I got the pro-printed covers for a really nice price. Aaron, the other half of Noumena and early partner in Gameboy, had the blueprint drawings around from some of his early work in industrial architecture design. I think some of them may be from what became the Cleveland Browns stadium.”
Its unique concept and extensive track list, featuring many heavy-hitters, made for a successful release. “It was one of the few vinyl releases I did on Gameboy that sold out despite the fairly large edition number for noise vinyl at the time – 650, with every contributor getting two copies and 450 to sell. I think this was aided both by the uniqueness of the concept and the fact that it was actually fun to listen to. The record can be put on and simply played or treated like a puzzle and tried to be picked apart Invisible Jukebox style.
“In hindsight, I think the concept still holds up and could work even better in the online music landscape that we have to day. I could easily see a Bandcamp release with 100 (or more) uncredited contributions and an accompanying list of artists. I’ll leave that to someone else though. I do wish the original 3” idea would have worked out.
“If I could change anything, I would have consulted with the artists to see if they wanted their submissions to be longer or shorter after the format changed. The rigid 4-second durations give the piece an almost rhythmic meter and were pretty unnecessary after the format switch, so if I could do it again I’d ask for something in like a 1-to-6 second range to add a little more variety.”
When he isn’t busy working at his job at Ohio State University, Mike Shiflet continues to record experimental music, which is available at his Bandcamp. His latest album, Every Possible Outcome, is available there digitally and in an unusual 3×3″ CDR format courtesy of Skeleton Dust Records.