It’s a question that Norbert Möslang, a Swiss sound artist who specializes in “cracking” everyday electronics to unleash their sonic properties, posed in a short 2004 article in the Leonardo Music Journal, a peer reviewed journal published by MIT Press.
It’s also a question that reflects the aesthetic of Capture, a peculiar CD he put out on the Cut label in 2004.
A great profile in Paris Transatlantic magazine summarizes Möslang’s development as an artist. Born in 1952 in St. Gallen, he apparently taught himself how to play soprano saxophone, performing improvised sets through the 1970s. At that time, he also began his long-standing collaboration with Andy Guhl. Together, they would form the pioneering experimental act Voice Crack, though their first release, a 1978 improv LP titled Deep Voices, was credited to their own names, and today commands over a hundred dollars per copy. That LP, as pointed out in the Paris Transatlantic article, is noteworthy because of some subtle credits on the back cover. The instruments involved include “home made instruments” and a “tape recorder,” hinting at a move beyond traditional instrumentation, and towards repurposing electronic technology.
The name Voice Crack appears in the eighties as the title of their 1984 album, which was still credited to their names. That record came out on their own Uhlang Produktion label, and is a live recording where each artist is credited with playing only one instrument: “Geknackte Alltagselektronik,” German for “cracked everyday electronics.” Images of those performances reveal the innards of various electronic appliances and doo-dads laid out on a wooden floor. The audio itself is a tract of whirs, creaks, and sundry abrasives, all reverberating against the surfaces of the room.
Their cracked everyday electronics aesthetic would be carried forward through the eighties and nineties. Their 2001 installation, sound_shifting, was one of their most impressive feats. Using an underwater microphone called a hydrophone, they broadcast the sounds of Venice’s Grand Channel into a nearby cathedral. It was documented in a CD and book.
In the early- to mid-2000s, Möslang and Guhl stopped recording together as Voice Crack, and since then Möslang has been involved with a number of solo exhibitions and recordings. In 2002 he exhibited glass_speaker for the first time. He took a gallery space, and connected contact microphones to the windows, then running the results through loudspeakers inside. As a result, every subtle vibration of the window from the goings-on outside led to big sounds inside. The. In a sense, this was similar to laser microphones, the technology that intelligence agencies use to hear conversations inside a building by measuring the subtle vibrations of a window pane.
By email, Möslang tells me about a unique release he put out in 2004, Capture. It was released on Jason Kahn’s seminal Cut label, known for a number of experimental albums. Möslang knew Kahn for years; in fact, they played together in the Signal Quintet, “In 2004, I was invited to be part of the group show, ‘Nachschub,’ in Feldkirch, Austria, in an old factory building. I developed Capture as a light-sound installation for this occasion.”
“Nachschub” is the German word for “replenishment.” According to the exhibition’s program, which Möslang generously shared with me, the warehouse used for the exhibition was the material depot that supplied parts to the Austrian national railway system, or the ÖBB. When the Feldkirch train station expanded, that warehouse lost is original function, and it was scheduled for demolition. The warehouse’s role was originally to “replenish” materials for the railway; as a result, this exhibition took this concept and extended it to art.
The idea was to create a work that fit inside the room and that had both a visual and acoustic element. “For the visual intensity, I chose 10 fluorescent lamps and placed them on the floor as a cluster. The sound sources, an infrared receiver and a guitar pickup, were placed on the fluorescent lamps. Each of the two different, more or less stable, sounds were processed individually by a parametric equalizer. The sound is always changing.”
Capture is a documentary of the acoustic side of the installation. It’s a classic case of cracking everyday electronics, and fits the exhibition’s theme of “replenishment.” As the program outlines, Möslang himself found the unused fluorescent bulbs in the old factory building, then repurposed them for their sound-generating potential. Those lights were intended to replenish bulbs that had burned out, and here they are replenishing a condemned building with purpose and life.
Thanks to Norbert Möslang for the interview and for sharing the exhibition program.
“I spent many hours down there staring into the abyss.”
Sam McKinlay likes sharks. He also likes ballet. And when Sam McKinlay — who is better known as the harsh noise artist The Rita — likes something, he gets deeply into it.
The Rita’s 2006 CD, Thousands of Dead Gods, is one of McKinlay’s most well-known records. And that’s for good reason. It combines recordings of actual cage dives, in which people submerge themselves underwater in a cage to get close to sharks, with McKinlay’s signature layers of harsh noise.
“Sharks are easily my longest life obsession,” McKinlay tells me via email. “I got a large rubber shark from my parents when I was a toddler. I still actually have the shark. I think the key manifestation of the interest was the media around me at a very young age in the mid seventies. Grocery store magazine racks had sharksploitation magazines like Killer Sharks and Jaws of Death, articles about Jaws and eventually Jaws 2 were everywhere… As a kid, I used to repeatedly draw long comic books about shark attacks. To this day I have been collecting rare book editions about killer sharks, mostly from the sixties and seventies, as the Great White Shark was garnering more and more media attention as cage diving became more common.”
McKinlay’s obsessive qualities often get incorporated into his art; unlike some enthusiasts, he doesn’t get off on, say, just collecting shark memorabilia. For him, it seems to be a more dynamic process. “I really like to immerse myself in the material, actually live it in most cases. I love the idea of the life obsessions being translated directly into the creative processes – the material then has a real sense of sincerity to it. So when I have life interests such as sharks, it means a lot to me personally that I can use it directly for sound.”
The genesis of Thousands can be traced back to a trip McKinlay took to go cage diving. “My girlfriend at the time and I made plans to go on a week long — never leaving the boat — trip to the Isla Guadalupe to cage dive with great white sharks. Obviously a life long dream of mine, so it was amazing that we had the opportunity to make it happen. My brother who is a videographer and nature film documentary-maker lent me one of his cameras to document everything. The footage that I managed to get from the deck of the boat had resulting audio that was perfect for processing.”
McKinlay’s description of time in the cage seems like the physical embodiment of harsh noise. “Being in the cage was surreal. We had onboard air supply with hoses going through the top door of the cages. You couldn’t see the bottom, so you were constantly anticipating something appearing out of the darkness.”
He explains that the source audio for Thousands was a combination of recordings of his own dives (taken from the surface), as well as recordings of other people’s dives. “My personal recordings with the video camera were from the deck — the shark’s approach to the cages, taking the bait, the reactions from the people on the deck, the splashing of the cage floats on the surface. There’s also documentation of myself coming in and out of the cages. I spent many hours down there staring into the abyss.
“The rest of the sounds were from my personal collection of vintage late sixties and early- to mid-seventies shark cage footage gathered through the years.” These include old VHS tapes of shark documentaries from the seventies and eighties. Among those tapes is footage of great white sharks done by classic divers like Rodney Fox and Valerie and Ron Taylor. “I have a great grey market copy of the masterpiece Blue Water White Death that was transferred directly from a rough 16mm print, years before the DVD eventually came out,” he tells me.
Using those VHS tapes, McKinlay carefully selected the portions of the footage with audio he wanted, then processed it “directly to taste from the various audio sources via various analog distortions and custom fuzz effects.”
At the time this record came out, The Rita was an established name on the noise scene. His earliest releases date back to the late nineties, though most of his music came out in 2004 and after. “I had gotten back into recording harsh noise after my BFA at the University of British Columbia. One of my more significant releases post-2000 was Bodies Bare Traces of Carnal Violence for Troniks which made full use of Giallo film murder sequence samples from various rare Giallo films. For my second CD on Troniks, I wanted to dig even deeper into the idea of life long interests, hence the great white shark as source.”
Thousands has since resonated with many noise heads, and McKinlay considers this an honour. He points out that a prominent Brooklyn noise store has adopted the name of the album for their storefront. “They reached out for my approval to use the name and I was honored to say the least. They still regularly stock merch from me and I got to finally visit the store in March of this year when they put on the Brooklyn show with myself, Black Leather Jesus, Vomir and JSH.”
I ask him how he feels about this often-discussed release, fourteen years later. “I still think it makes a strong harsh sound statement in terms of my lifelong obsession with sharks,” he modestly concludes.
Since Thousands, McKinlay has explored nautical themes in other releases. One such release was The Voyage Of The Decima MAS, a 2009 CD released on Troniks that references an Italian flotilla from the 1940s, active during the Fascist regime. On this album McKinlay combines noise with recordings of him snorkeling. To capture this audio, he used a custom contact mic designed to be used underwater, which was built for him by Traumatone, a.k.a. Ryan Bloomer. “The mic had a heavy-duty plastic and resin enclosure so I could rub it against rock, coral, the deep underwater cliffs where I snorkeled for the recording. The mic was still also sensitive enough to pick up the surface splashing when I came up for air.”
The noise artist Crank Sturgeon later designed a similar contact mic for McKinlay to use during live shows, which he adapted to simulate the Decima MAS experience. At live shows in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Dayton, he filled a large water basin and submerged the upper half of his body underwater while wearing a vintage Italian full-face diving mask. He put some rocks in the bottom of the basin and scraped the contact mic around among the rough surfaces to generate the performance’s audio.
The nautical story continued in 2017, when McKinlay released a seven-inch record called Journey Of The K-Verband (Throat Lure) — an audio document with an even more unusual premise. For this record, he rigged another Traumatone contact mic to a fishing lure, running its cable along the fishing line. “I have lots of experience fishing in the Pender Harbour area for lingcod, rock cod and dogfish, so I knew that it was inevitable one would take the lure in their mouth and catch some sort of sounds.”
His first catch was a rock cod, and he was overjoyed to discover that the microphone had caught it all: both the underwater “take” sounds and the sound of the ocean’s surface splashing as the fish was pulled up onto the deck. “I knew that when a large lingcod finally took the lure and mic I’d get even more aggressive sounds,” he says. “The plan went perfectly — large Lingcod, lines of underwater thrashing sounds, the surface splashing, and the eventual flopping on the deck before release. The mic held up beautifully.”
Those sounds — the sounds of the ocean resonating from the inside of a fish’s mouth — made it onto the eventual record, mixed in with McKinlay’s noise.
Thanks to Sam McKinlay for the interview, and for sharing his photos. McKinlay’s website is bakurita.blogspot.com. His latest release is a split C30 between The Rita and fellow noise artist Bacillus, on McKinlay’s own Lake Shark HN label.
“The hum of a refrigerator, the whirring of a ceiling fan, the clicking sounds of a cat eating dry food from a metal bowl, or acorns falling from a tree.”
In 2011, a curious digital release popped up on the digital archives of Stasisfield, an online sound art label run by John Kannenberg, who now runs the Museum of Portable Sound — a mobile “museum of sounds” that are contained in digital form on his cellphone. (You can visit the museum by emailing him and and arranging to meet somewhere in London). Though Stasisfield has since been shut down — and all its digital releases lost to the annals of time — it was, at the time, a highly-regarded label, considered by some the gold standard of avant-garde net labels.
The interesting release in question was entitled The Nail House of Yang Wu, and was advertised as being “sourced from a field recording of the artist pulling up carpet tacks.” It was by The Beige Channel, the project of Michael Farley, a sound artist from a hamlet outside Albany, New York, called Delmar. Besides his audio work, Farley has worked full-time as a librarian for the past 37 years.
In touch with me via email, Farley tells me he hasn’t revisited this piece for years. “I listened to it tonight for the first time in nine years, since I never listen to anything again once it’s been released, because by that time I’m already well into my next project. But it was pretty obvious to me what I was getting at.
“I actually started it in July of 2008. It was a summer weekend, and I was involved in a particularly tedious task one Sunday afternoon — removing old shag wall-to-wall carpeting from the master bedroom of our house. The house was built in 1966. Apparently, the custom in those days was to put in beautiful hardwood floors, and then completely cover them in hideous shag carpeting, in this case they had chosen a vomit-y pink orange carpet. The upside was, when I was finished, we suddenly had pristine hardwood floors in our bedroom, virtually untouched since it was built! But it was a lot of work, pulling up the carpet, ripping it apart by hand, and pulling out all the nails with pliers.”
Farley explains that one of his philosophies as a sound artist is to find beauty in “ordinary” sounds that are often taken for granted. It’s an idea he described in a brief 2007 interview for the Some Assembly Required blog:
I like to deal with disenfranchised sounds, that is, sounds never meant or expected to accumulate significance with repetition or diffusion. By recontextualizing fragments of recuperated audio, I hope to reveal unexpected meanings inherent to the originals. I believe the listener makes the music into art, not the composer. My intention is to present discoveries for individual contemplation, not to express my feelings, nor to symbolically represent ideas that would be better voiced with words.
Michael Farley, interview with Some Assembly Required
“As I was making all this ugly, mundane racket, pulling up nails and dropping tools, I noticed the noise I was making in the room was fairly consistent, with a degree of slight variation, but always the same kind of texture of incidence. I quickly got my Minidisc recorder, and let it record this sound world, thinking I would listen to it later to see if there was anything of interest there.”
“Ordinary sound out of context often presents a fascinating aural document, and it was the case in this instance. The recording came out well (Minidisc recorders were truly an incredible invention) and I was really excited by the potential of using the sounds for a composition.”
I ask Farley to tell me more about his idea of “disenfranchised sounds,” and he is quick to point out that he is not the only sound artist to think this way. He cites the phonography movement, and the scene surrounding the phonography.org collective in the early 2000s, as embracing the same concept.
In order to contextualize the idea, he separates sounds into three categories. There are sounds that most people find pleasant. “Birdsong, babbling brooks, wind through leaves,” he provides as examples. And then there is noise, a judgmental term. “Noise is thought to be an annoying nuisance, chaotic, an interference, unnecessary, and barely tolerable.” Apart from those extremes, he identifies a third category of sound — the everyday sound that we take for granted, that exists on the fringe of consciousness. “It’s not confrontational enough to demand attention, or pretty enough for anyone to make an effort to enjoy. It’s just kind of ‘there’ in the background, easy to ignore, if it’s even noticed at all. Those are the disenfranchised sounds I found I was attracted to, like the hum of a refrigerator, the whirring of a ceiling fan, the clicking sounds of a cat eating dry food from a metal bowl, or acorns falling from a tree. I call them disenfranchised because they’re too mundane to be considered worthwhile, and not aggressive enough to demand attention.” He points to other recordings he has done in this vein, including compositions that incorporate the sound of acorns falling, or the audio from a tennis match.
The EP’s title, The Nail House of Yang Wu, is a reference to the Chinese phenomenon of “nail houses.” These are buildings whose owners refuse to move when property developers are razing an area. Yang Wu, one famous example, was someone who refused the money of a developer for many years, even after all his neighbours had sold their properties. As a result, Wu’s entire neighbourhood was demolished, leaving just his house alone on a mound of dirt, surrounded by a trench. Even the electricity and plumbing were disconnected.
“Between the beginning of recording, and its release on Stasisfield, I had been to China a second time. China was certainly on my mind a lot in those years, and I think it was natural to relate my creative work to the intriguing and mystifying culture of China. Somehow I found nails referenced in a news story from China about the ‘nail house, the house that Yang Wu and his family refused to leave, even as developers dug deep trenches around it, leaving it stranded almost in mid-air. I was so impressed with the tenacity, confidence, and defiance demonstrated by these homeowners against the greed of corporate business, that I was inspired to dedicate this EP to their cause.”
To listen to this recording is a treat. You can check it out yourself; though the Stasisfield website is long-gone, the old site — and zip file — are miraculously still alive here thanks to archive.org!
Over email, Farley outlines the record for me, providing insight into the largely abstract sounds. “Part One” showcases the carpet sound in largely unprocessed form. “The first half of ‘Part One’ is basically the exposition,” Farley says. “About halfway, some of the sound is buffered and filtered, resulting in an echoing drone.” Thereafter, the source recordings are subjected to digital processing to alter the sound.
“Part Two” uses a processed loop, then adds some guitar and synthesizer to lush effect. “In ‘Part Three’ the original sound is now fragmented and manipulated to resonate at inherent frequencies using granular synthesis. I probably used the Pluggo plugins from Cycling ’74.”
“The ultimate transformation” is how Farley describes “Part Four,” the final piece. “From the drudgery of weekend chores comes this thing, which is almost ‘music.'” Farley points out a review on Disquiet.com, which likens the piece to the minimal techno put out on Chain Reaction. It’s a very apt comparison. “The only thing missing is the kick drum,” Farley says.
Farley wraps up by updating me on what has happened since The Nail House came out. “After The Nail House of Yang Wu came out in 2011, I did one more album, Evening In Paris, in 2012, a few videos, and a few live performances under the name The Beige Channel. After that, I completely switched gears and abandoned field recording and sound art. I had already begun pursuing a shoegaze/indie pop/dream pop project called Caramel Snow at the end of 2009. Since then, on the average, I’ve written and recorded one new song a month. Even now, I’m working on about three or four new songs at various stages of completion. I spent most of my life just trying to write a convincing rock & roll pop song and I could never figure out how to do it. Once I learned how, it was like I flipped a switch, and I can’t turn it off!”
“I used to tell people to tell their friends to send demos. I liked listening to unpolished tracks that were off the cuff.”
In a recent Label Archaeology article I did, Christopher Fischer, who runs Unread Records, marveled at the labyrinthine network of tiny tape labels that spanned America in the eighties and nineties. He told me that he just recently stumbled upon a label called In a Lighthouse Cassettes from Jacksonville, Florida. He was taken aback that, twenty years after the fact, he could still discover an entire label that he hadn’t been aware of. The tape scene was simply that deep.
Intrigued, I tried hunting down information about that label, but there wasn’t much apart from some partial listings on Discogs. But by looking at the available scanned J-cards, I was able to identify that In a Lighthouse Cassettes was run by someone named Carleton Peck:
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this old prodigy.com email address is defunct (Prodigy died in 2001). But a Google search led me to a plausible Carleton Peck, who works as a creative copywriter. To my good fortune, he was indeed the same Carleton Peck, and was happy to chat about his experiences running In a Lighthouse.
Peck started In a Lighthouse around 1997, while living in Jacksonville Beach, a small resort city on the coast near Jacksonville, estimated current population 23,628. He had moved there from Minnesota. “Jacksonville Beach was a cultural shock after growing up in the Twin Cities up until 1993,” he tells me, via email. “I went from being surrounded by incredible record stores to having very few options to discover new music. In Minneapolis and St. Paul I would buy random tapes all the time, even on my walks home from elementary school!
“Jacksonville Beach was pretty rough in some ways. Most kids there plan to go to jail or the military—sometimes both. I knew a decent amount of people that ended up in prison. They have military recruiting in schools but don’t always allow SAT testing. What a set-up! The beaches south and north of there were and are beautiful. Undeveloped and inspiring spaces of shockingly sparse populations. I loved to read on the beach. Was a nice weather improvement from Minnesota winters.”
Peck found himself “stuck” in Jax Beach, with few worthwhile live music options to draw from. “I remember an early Modest Mouse show that was novel for Jacksonville to host. But overall not a lot going on. I would generally go up to Atlanta but mostly Athens to hear music.”
In his sojourns to Athens, he became friends with the members of Gritty Kitty, an early band on Kindercore Records, one of Athens’ stalwart indie pop labels. He discovered a number of other Athens bands, including The Gerbils, Kincaid, Elf Power, and Masters of the Hemisphere. “The irony was my personal life in Jacksonville was mostly centered around surfing, playing guitar in reggae bands with friends, DJing hip-hop, house, and techno at small parties, and generally totally outside any local indie music scene. I thought many of the indie people in Jacksonville were pretty insular when it came to indie cred litmus tests. Pretty funny when I look back. I tended to get along more with rave kids and people in punk and hardcore bands. They were more open and less judgmental and generally more laid back—more my speed.”
Release Number One
It was through one of the Athens bands, Masters of the Hemisphere, that In a Lighthouse came into existence. In late 1997, he released his label’s first cassette. It was a self-titled tape by Vetran, which was the solo project of Bren Mead, a founding member of Masters, who around then had just released their debut single, Going On A Trek To Iceland, on Kindercore.
“I first met Bren in the fall of 1997,” Peck explains. “I heard some other music he was doing, mostly on his own. It was brilliant stuff and I thought, well, I have a couple of tape decks for dubbing. I have no money. But I can send this to labels and college radio hosts and record stores and just see what happens. People really were into it which was cool. I was not prepared to spend the time I would have liked to spend on it.”
That Vetran tape was produced in true DIY fashion. The J-cards were Xeroxed at Kinkos, and the tapes were 30-minute blanks purchased from a DJ-oriented store in Brooklyn, ProSound and Stage Lighting. “I would say out of the first 40 tapes I dubbed I gave away 30 of them to bands or zine writers or labels—either in person or through the mail. Sometimes when I placed an order with, like, Up Records or someone I would send a tape or two with my order.”
He initially dubbed 100 copies, then made the subsequent 100 copies to order, for a total of 200. “I would say Vetran is a bit like a lo-fi Laurel Canyon sixties pop group. The additional instruments and sounds were more icing on the cake. But the songs were pretty much strummy indie pop similar to the Masters of the Hemisphere. I really like how Bren made everything sound though. Guided by Voices-style four-track recording. He has an awesome style to his vocals.”
I ask Peck why he chose the name “In a Lighthouse” — though, as a scan of the Vetran tape shows us, the label was just “Lighthouse” until the second release. “So this sounds corny, but it was all about making music alone. And I lived at the beach. I enjoyed four-track recording alone, and knew that many other people liked the ‘studio as an instrument’ approach to experimental recording. And I thought about how lighthouse keepers probably spent a lot of time alone. I was thinking In a Lighthouse would represent that solitary mindset well.”
Peck’s approach was to distribute his tapes on a very micro level. He did send some copies to a few small mail-order distros, but most orders were handled directly via mail. “I didn’t really advertise. I think I put some small ads in some small zines. I remember I did one ad that said ‘send me a picture of your cat doing something for a free tape.’ Much of it was word of mouth though. I would have them available at shows around the south that I attended.”
He would also sell tapes at shows, giving them to bands and labels he liked, and use them to network with people via mail. He recalls sending tapes to Mario Suau of a Michigan indie-pop duo called Shoestrings, which was Mario and his partner, Rose Uytuico. Suau ran a radio program called the Dream Kitchen Radio Show, possibly via the Oakland University radio station. Peck believes Mario may have played the Vetran and Mathlete tapes on air, but doesn’t recall for certain. “His radio shows were incredible. He was also one of the nicest people I have ever met. He would send me tapes of the shows he did… I listened to some of those 1997 and 1998 radio shows of his for twenty years. I still have a few in storage. He loved groups like Club 8, Eggstone, and tons of Spanish and French pop groups. Also some good things from Japan. I probably got more into Momus from his show.”
Peck’s enthusiasm for all things musical, and radio in particular, shines through when he reminisces about this time. “I loved radio shows from a young age. I use to make compilation tapes of beats… I would listen to the house and rap shows in the middle of the night on FM radio and whenever I heard a good beat I would hit record a get a minute or so of it. The first time I heard/recorded Art of Noise’s ‘Moments in Love’ I probably replayed the beat the same night like 80 times.”
1998: ILC-02 to ILC-08
In 1998, In a Lighthouse kicked into high gear. The second release was a self-titled tape attributed to Clarify, which was the solo project of Dan Sostrum, who was just starting the Clairecords label back then. That label would become a linchpin in the second-wave shoegaze scene. “Clarify was Dan making some noise music,” Peck says. “Lo-fi synths and drum machines. He gave me the tape to listen to just to hear and I enjoyed it a ton. I loved the fuzzy sound of it. I don’t remember how I first met him but I was just out of school [at the time]. I was 18 and in between being on my own and my Mom’s place. Dan is an absolute expert when it comes to shoegaze and noise pop. Has some of the greatest knowledge of anyone I have ever met when it comes to noise and dreamy rock from the large bands (Swirlies, Ride, MBV, Chapterhouse, etc.) to all the thousands of bands those groups influenced.”
Around this time, he was also networking with labels and artists from across the globe, expanding the reach of In a Lighthouse. “It seems weird now but I had a lot of friends in the mail,” he says “A lot of times it was exchanging mixtapes and compilations. Sharing new finds.”
He describes the ease with which some of these connections were made. “I think sometimes it was just writing label addresses and zines. Other times it would be something like someone being really into Tape Op magazine on a recording forum and me chatting with them… I know it was friends of friends too. Like, hey, my friend works at Tower in Tokyo and likes Broadcast. And I would be like, oh cool I will write them and just say if you like this mix and this Biwa tape then write back and say hey… even better make a compilation of your favorite eighties synth bands! If I had a decent job and situation I would have probably traveled to more places to explore those places and see the live music there in person. Postage to overseas addresses was cheaper back then.”
It was via these methods that he connected with labels like Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Fantastic Records, and a prolific Italian label, Best Kept Secret, which he admires to this day (“Alessandro Crestani was an awesome guy. I loved what he was about and how he released everything with a consistent look and feel.”)
This was how he ended up putting out In a Lighthouse’s third release: Prince Charmless by Kisswhistle, a trio of Penn State students. A few of the songs from this tape are available for digital download, as collected on Kisswhistle’s odds-and-ends compilation, Ginger Pale Ale. Those recordings reveal classic threeish-minute lo-fi indie pop replete with tuneful guitar chords and jubilant keys.
In a Lighthouse number four was Demonstration Tape by Biwa, a Japanese band. “They were tight despite being a really newly-formed band. I wish I had my old emails with them. I don’t remember enough. I think it started with them sending me a tape randomly through the mail. I used to tell people to tell their friends to send demos. I liked listening to unpolished tracks that were off the cuff. ‘Honor your mistake as a hidden intention,’ as Eno would say. I liked the rough edges. I wrote Biwa back and asked to put it out. I don’t know what happened to them though. They had a cool sound with nice guitar hooks and vocal harmonies.”
The fifth In a Lighthouse tape featured one of the label’s bigger names — that is, within the magnitude of the deeply DIY lo-fi pop scene. Teleport was the first-ever release by Mathlete, the duo of Mike Downey and Dan Marsden, then based out of Illinois. Downey was also a member of Wolfie, the well-regarded Parasol Records band. Fortunately, Downey has since uploaded the Teleport tape to his Bandcamp page, where you can enjoy their brand of pop, centred around cascading, outer-space-sounding synthesizers, drum machine beats, and weird vocals:
The sixth tape, which isn’t listed anywhere online at this time, was a tape called Future Boy by Entertainment, the solo project of Julian Garr from Winterbrief. “Really great guy,” Peck says. “I loved talking to that dude. I hung out with him in Philly once or twice. The music was more drum and bass styled, like Darla Records’ Bliss Out series or [the band] Color Filter. I love that type of stuff.”
Number seven was Denver’s self-titled tape. Despite the name, Denver was the moniker of Stephen Maughan from England. “Eighties style guitar pop with drum machines” is how Peck describes it. “I can’t remember the connection or how we met. He was in the band Bulldozer Crash and creator of This Almighty Pop! zine. Awesome music. I should have put it on CD or LP maybe and made it a larger release? It was cool stuff. He also had a 7″ on Elefant Records out of Spain. Elefant was one of my favorite labels of the 90s.”
River was the solo project of Fabrice Hervé, and his Venus tape, In a Lighthouse’s eighth, was one of several small-scale releases he put out around this era on labels like Home-Aid Recordings (the micro-label of the Pittsburgh band Tourister) and Bliss Aquamarine.
1999: The End of In a Lighthouse
Peck put out three tapes in 1999. The first one was from Australian lo-fi indie pop staple Simpático, whose first tape was on In a Lighthouse. After that came OPC by Other People’s Children, another project of Simpático main man Jason Sweeney, described contemporaneously as a “new and very buttery project” with plenty of keyboards, à la Stinky Fire Engine and Stereolab. “Jason was someone I spoke with probably online and then exchanged things with,” Peck says. “I loved a lot of reverb drenched Australian and New Zealand groups. The Cat’s Miaow was a favorite, and I thought Simpático had some cool vibes and wanted to share that.”
The final tape was A Category Fantasy by CJ Geno, which itself seemed to predict Peck’s shift in interest away from pure indie pop. It was a sample-based record by Kisswhistle frontman Cassette Jockey Geno, a.k.a. Marc Pattini. Kisswhistle has since posted the tape on Bandcamp for all to enjoy, replete with lo-fi beats and a delightful send-up of the “Flower Duet” set to a hip-hop beat (“We Have Lust”):
“With the CJ Geno release I found myself restless with some of the indie music I was hearing and seeing. I wanted to dive deeper into other things. And I moved a few times, including a summer working at Warehouse Music in North Carolina. Great crew of people at that store at that time. I started to really enjoy live jazz and African music more and more. And Brazilian music too. The label just ended when I dropped away from all that. I am someone that doesn’t like to hang on to things and rather just explore something or somewhere new. So I lost touch with everyone and got on with others things in life. But never stopped listening and looking for music with no less enthusiasm.”
Peck’s passion for music shines through as he talks about his In a Lighthouse days, and his thirst for new sounds comes through with every email. At one point, he sends me a list of 166 releases that he believes should be reissued on vinyl!
Even for the former proprietor of a tape label, he is particularly enthusiastic about physical media. “I love records and tapes because from a super young age it was just synonymous with listening to music. And that was addicting. And I love the artwork. I am not fixated on one type of medium. I even appreciate CDs and their packaging. In the early and mid nineties I bought m0st rap albums on CD for the car, so I have nostalgia for their format.
“I also like being able to put something on. There is a pushing play. There is an end. I have gone to people’s homes where they have 10,000 songs to stream but their stereo never works and the songs are always hard to find or don’t sound good. I’d rather just pick up a record with a tree on it and put it on. I like the visual relationship — you can search for things visually. I also think tapes sound good, LPs sound good, and CDs sound pretty clean but alright too. But a nicely pressed 180 gram record on a decent stereo is pretty impossible to beat for my ears.”
As an interesting footnote, while Peck was certain that he never ran a website for In a Lighthouse, several days after our interview, through some complicated internet gymnastics, I came across an archived webpage for the label. (It was listed on the Links page to the also-archived website for the band Winterbrief). It provides some valuable descriptions of the In a Lighthouse tapes that haven’t made it online, includingg a claim that Clarify’s tape has been “Hailed as MBVs ‘loveless’ on a shoestring budget and with only keyboards and drum machines as instrumentation!”
Worryingly, Peck’s archive of In a Lighthouse tapes is not with him at the moment. “I have a pretty unwieldy music collection (mostly vinyl) and pieces of it that are not with me are in LA, Boston, Miami… living in considerate closets of family and friends.”
This makes me nervous — tapes are delicate, and belongings have a habit of disappearing when under the possession of those who might not appreciate them. But Peck strikes an optimistic tone. “One day it will be united,” he assures me.
“I guess it takes a special person to be excited about a CD of tractor sounds.”
Deselm, Illinois is a place. When you look it up on Google Maps, this is what you get:
The Wikipedia article for Deselm is three sentences long. It will tell you that Deselm is an unincorporated community in Illinois’s Kankakee County, that it was home to a post office from 1867 to 1902, and that it was named after its first postmaster, John B. Deselm.
Deselm is also the name of a peculiar CD-R by Brent Gutzeit and Bill Groot, two woodworkers who ran the BOXmedia record label out of their woodshop, Claremont Woodworking. In touch with me via email, Gutzeit tells me about the origins of this unique release. “Groot was the owner and I was the only employee. We ran BOXmedia on the side — out of the same office. BOXmedia was releasing a lot of CDrs at the time and I was also touring and playing a lot of shows at the time.”
Deselm is named so because it collects three recordings made at a place near Deselm called Burn’s Woods, which are so obscure they cannot be found on Google Maps. “It was in the middle of nowhere,” Gutzeit says. “I remember driving down many two-lane roads through endless corn fields.” Groot and Gutzeit were there to attend the annual Antique Tractor and Threshing Reunion, hosted by the Will County Threshermen’s Association. (That event has since been moved, and 2020’s rendition — the 58th! — was cancelled due to COVID.)
Groot and Gutzeit attended the Reunion in 2000 and 2002, making recordings of some of the engines. “Bill and I were both interested in field recordings. And we were both interested in machine sounds and noise. We had recorded a bunch of ‘sessions’ in the woodshop using the tools and large machinery as sound sources — some real Luigi Russolo kind of stuff,” he laughs. “Bill came across an ad in a trades magazine for the tractor fair and we decided to go and record it. Both of us being woodworkers, we enjoyed a trip into the past of motors, engines, tools and large machinery. To us it just sounded like a fun and interesting trip. We packed up the recording gear and headed downstate to Deselm.”
Gutzeit remembers the reunion. “There was a small engines section that was similar to an outdoor flea market but just had different people set up in booths running different motors. So as you walked through it was a weird sound collage of motors.
“Then there was a parade showing off all the old antique tractors. And the most interesting thing for Bill and I, being woodworkers, was the saw mill. It was incredible. Imagine a full-sized steam engine train, but without the wheels and without the cab. Now this giant steam engine has a huge pulley wheel on the side that is connected via 100 ft belt to a 10 ft saw blade. The saw blade is set up vertical and is ripping through 4 ft wide whole trees like butter. The steam engine is wailing like a train powering up a steep hill. Pretty massive. Pretty impressive. Oh, and the big thing for everyone was the noon whistle blow where all the tractors blew their steam whistles. I have to say it was way more interesting than we had expected. We ended going back a few years later to record more.”
Tractors were familiar to Gutzeit. “I grew up in a little town east of Flint, Michigan called Davison. And we weren’t even in Davison, we were in Richfield Township. The road we lived on was dirt until I was eight. We were surrounded by corn fields. So tractors were a normal everyday sight for me growing up.”
The CD collects two tracks by Groot and one by Gutzeit. “Bill and I both had different recorders and recorded our own sources,” Gutzeit says. “I basically did a more straight forward collage mix. Bill decided to do a more ‘DJ style’ mix where he took a lot of smaller samples and looped them.
When they made the recordings, they already had in mind a release on their label. “It was going to be in the fourth BOXmedia CD-R series (Hence the catalog code BOXCDR403), which was all field recordings.” Others that series include Todd Carter (collecting sounds from Chicago), Michael Hartman (sounds from Japan), Yannick Dauby (sounds from India) and a compilation called Vacation for Hourly Employees, which features sounds from all over the world.
When I ask Gutzeit what the response was like from listeners, he tells me that he sold very few copies, and that he wasn’t aware of anyone writing a review of Deselm. “The second year we went back (to the tractor reunion) we had burned off a stack of CD-Rs to hand out to people from the previous year. Most people were confused but some were really excited about it. I don’t know — I guess it takes a special person to be excited about a CD of tractor sounds,” he laughs.
Yet today, Gutzeit carries only fond memories of this unique release. “I thought it was wonderful. I’d recommend it to anybody – farmer or not.”
Thanks to Brent Gutzeit for this interview. He currently lives in Milwaukee and recently put out a split album with Mike Shiflet, entitled Welcome to Cleveland. Via his JMY label, he just put out a massive 106-track entitled Building a Better Future, whose proceeds all go to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
“Without getting too philosophical about it, its almost as if I was meant to discover this collection.”
In early 2014, a Pittsburgh musician named Ben Opie wandered into one of the most intriguing experimental music mysteries in memory.
He was shopping at a local record store, Jerry’s Records, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Browsing the experimental music racks, Opie discovered an unfamiliar record with a hand-assembled cover:
Intrigued, he looked inside, only to discover that it was a record made up of pieces of several other records, all carefully glued together. He would later try playing it on his turntable, and learned that it played well.
According to the insert booklet, the LP is a mutant combination of eight different LPs, ranging from a New Order Blue Monday 12″ to a Dave Brubeck record to a couple Mendelssohn symphonies.
The record was titled T OA RIT ECC G, short for “The Only Actual Record In The Entire Conglomerate CataloG,” and was credited, intriguingly, to Kurt Vile and Rose Selavy. The label was listed as Conglomerate Records.
“What became especially intriguing was that the return address on it was for Connellsville, PA,” Opie tells me via email. “Connellsville is a small town in western PA, about an hour or so south of Pittsburgh. It’s really backroads, and not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. This made little sense, and I went onto a local bulletin board to ask if anyone knew about Conglomerate Records, or the record’s credited creators, Kurt Vile and Rose Selavy.”
After posting on the board, he got a message from an employee at Jerry’s Records. “He said there was a collection of cassette tapes that went with that record. I arranged to buy it all. It came as part of a mass purchase Jerry’s made of a major local collector. He had died and his widow sold off his record collection.”
As Opie puts it, “The Conglomerate collection is an insane collection of recordings and objects.” He has painstakingly cataloged most of them on Discogs, complete with explanatory annotations, with the exception of several anti-cassettes and two anti-LPs, which don’t meet the website’s standards.
“The packaging, as you’ve probably noticed, ranges from basic 80s-period xerox covers, to elaborate hand-created original creations. the music ranges from primitive musique concréte/Plunderphonics, ambient music, industrial noise, and more conceptual releases. I was told some tapes didn’t survive, such as one tape wrapped entirely in rubber bands.”
This DIY visual aesthetic, which is often quite striking, is intermingled with tongue-in-cheek references to experimental art and music:
Opie sorted out that many of the names involved were references to other things. For example, “Rose Selavy” is a play on Rrose Sélavy, a female alter-ego maintained by Marcel Duchamp. And “Kurt Vile” is not the contemporary singer/songwriter, but instead a reference to the German composer Kurt Weill. Few of the releases have dates on them, but those that do span from 1986 to 1990.
Opie was desperate to figure out who was responsible for this artifact, posting on local message boards in search of information. Other people, intrigued, fanned out in an attempt to find anyone who know anything about the label. But even discussions with Pennsylvanians who were on the scene at the time, and RRRecords’ Ron Lessard, who is more or less a historian of the underground experimental music scene, were fruitless. Nobody knew anything. Nobody had even heard of Conglomerate Records.
There are few definitive pieces of information about the releases themselves. None of the artists on the releases were listed as having releases elsewhere. Bands like Oviparous Pig, Phthisis, and The Donut Holes, were Conglomerate-exclusive. One tape, String Quartet Hoedown by The Conglomerate String Quartet, includes some possible clues in its liner notes. These notes include an essay which profiles each of Quartet’s members, including Kurt Vile (“he takes great pains to conceal his true name”) and other names like Stephen Thomas, William Alva, and Dieter Mueller:
However, none of those names lead to any plausible clues on Google. It is likely that the entirety of this essay, attributed to Rose Selavy, was fabricated. In fact, all people and bands associated with Conglomerate Records appear to be Conglomerate-exclusive.
Opie suspects that there was a ring-leader behind Conglomerate, but that more than one person was involved. “One of the Conglomerate ‘house bands,’ The Donut Holes, has a picture of two people on the cover. One of those two people is also seen clearly in a group photo on the Albert Ayler Memorial Washboard Band tape. The guy with the big glasses. I have to wonder if that is Kurt Vile.”
Take a look at the bespectacled man on each of these covers:
The other clues are the references to various places in Pennsylvania. The tapes with the earliest catalog numbers provide an address for a PO box in Lemont Furnace, PA, along with a zip code for that area (15456):
Lemont Furnace is a small unincorporated community near the southwest corner of Pennsylvania with a current population of just over 800 people. As a Herald-Standardarticle describes, it is a small town that was founded to house coal miners, an industry that has since dried up. The name “Furnace” refers to the large kilns that were used to bake coal. One tape is recorded as being live from the Pizza Hut in Lemont Furnace, but who knows if one existed in the late eighties?
Later releases list an address in Connellsville PA, which is a small city about 20 minutes away from Lemont Furnace, most recent population over 7000.
Other tapes mention a performance that occurred live in Black Lick, PA — another southwestern PA town, with a population of 1,462. There is also a mention of “the Bettendorf, Iowa group Quadriplegia.” It is tempting to imagine a late-80s noise scene emerging from the small towns in the corner of Pennsylvania, playing house shows and Pizza Huts.
Several of the Conglomerate tapes seem to parody various noise and experimental tropes of the age. The cover of a tape called Pain Party At Presque Isle features a graphic pornography close-up. There is also a tape with a sandpaper cover, and another with a Xeroxed cover depicting human innards:
The Conglomerate Records web of mystery also includes a number of dubious “compilations,” each with its own assembly of colourful band names that don’t appear anywhere else. Pain Party at Presque Isle compilation advertises itself as such:
Its track listing is filled with unfamiliar names; only Helicopter and Twilight Sleep appear elsewhere, on their very on Conglomerate tapes. None of the bands are listed on any other record labels on Discogs. The idea that Kurt Vile created this web of (presumably) fictional noise acts is something to marvel at:
Meanwhile, another compilation, Fast and Slow Pain is billed as a “thrash & grind” comp. It is described by Opie as such:
“Spurious compilation on Conglomerate. Band names listed on cover are Ash Wednesday, Boanerges & the Pewkickers, Burn Unit, Consumption, Litigation, and Spree Killer. Content is actually tape loops and various audio mixing of thrash metal recordings.”
It, too, features more fictional band names, and also references a few (real) extreme metal compilations. Perhaps the best part is the toll free number:
This compilation is one of the most clear indications that Conglomerate is purely satire. The idea that there are bands listed, but that their songs are all loops of established thrash recordings, is clear evidence that elements of these releases were pure fabrications.
Conglomerate even had its own sub-label, an imprint called Pointless Endeavors that focused on especially conceptual releases. These are a few of them.
PE 1: Revlover
Opie: “The Beatles’ Revolver album played backwards. When it was more difficult to do such things.” For me, the greatest realization is that “Revolver” spelled backwards is “Revlover.”
PE 6: Mel Odious - The Original Soundtrack From WANK’s Award-Winning Mood And Melodies Radio Special Hosted By Mel Odious
Opie: “It’s literally Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits, with a mustache drawn on her. I think this is a nod to Duchamp drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
PE 7: Kurt Vile – Beatlephobia! A Statistical Smear
According to the amusing liner notes above, this tape contains Sergeant Pepper overdubbed onto itself over and over, such it produced 17 million overdubs in total.
PE 8: Kurt Vile – Throbbing Gristle Bring You 20 Jazz Funk Greats Erased By Kurt Vile
A copy of Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats that’s been “half-erased” — likely subjected to a strong magnet.
A number of the Conglomerate releases haven’t been documented by Opie on Discogs because they are anti-releases, and thus unplayable. This is a nearly exhaustive showcase:
Conglomerate Multiformat A
Opie: “It’s an LP with (parts of) a CD, buzzer, cassette, radio cart, flexidisc, and 78 attached to it.”
CGL OX5: White Noise for Kasimir Malevich
The contents of this tape are all spraypainted white, including the actual magnetic tape inside — which leads to an appealing visual effect. Opie says it cannot be opened.
Fornax / Sculptor
A cassette adorned with a collage, with the magnetic tape pulled out and wrapped around it.
MMMMNNN – One Second
Opie: “A cassette box filled with shards of cassette case, and 1 7/8” of tape.” That amount of tape would play for one second if properly spooled.
CGL OX6: Onomatopeia
The text states:
soft, relaxing music performed by the Methaqualone Con??uort under the direction of Claes Oldenburg
CAUTION: This cassette may not be compatible with all stereo systems or sensibilities
The cassette has been melted to the point of being unplayable. The tape’s label references Claes Oldenburg, is a sculptor known for his public art, and methaqualone, a now outdated sedative, better known as Quaaludes. The exact last word of the second line is difficult to make out.
CGL 00: Rat Prick Anthems
If you’re like me, you’ll want nothing more than to hear a Rat Prick Anthem. But don’t get too excited — this tape has been taken apart and thrown into the tape case without its cassette, along with assorted scraps of paper.
CGL 0XXXI: Telemusik 2: For People on Hold
Opie calls this an “assemblage of cassette tape loop and some sort of electronic device that’s fallen apart over time.” It appears to be a piezoelectric transducer, perhaps a contact mic or speaker.
This is a tape with various items glued to its case, including a guitar turning key, some cassette innards, and several pieces of metal. A dadaist band name and title cap it off — if those are indeed the band and album name.
CGL 3TF: Rosi & The Dirigibles Present Three Transposed Functions
Opie guides me through this bizarre release. As seen in the top left image, the outer sleeve of the record is a camouflage pattern, which is the polyurethane bag used in the package of Throbbing Gristle’s 1980 single, “Subhuman” b/w “Something Came Over Me.” Inside that is a record sleeve constructed of chopped-up flexi discs that have braille on them; these are 8 RPM records that were intended for visually impaired people, with readings of then-current periodicals. The record itself is a Xerox of a 7″ single. It is housed inside an unusually shaped inner sleeve repurposed from an actual LP sleeve. This sleeve includes some information plus a list of recommended songs, including artists as diverse as Skip James and AC/DC — these songs comprise the track listing for the playable tape contained within Rose Sélavy’s 100 Grooviest Corporate Hits box (see below).
An empty cassette shell. No other information was provided with this tape.
As per Opie, the tape’s j-card is a Buffalo Springfield cover (but upside down), and it’s been overlaid with a transparency of Yes’ Yesterdays compliation. The empty cassette shell comes from an unidentified RRRecords release, and is an obvious homage to the label’s Recycled series — one of Conglomerate’s many satirical nods to the noise scene.
CGL PE9: In a Silent Way: Anti-Frantic Music from Conglomerate Records
This tape promises performances of John Cage’s “4’33″” and Lennon and Ono’s “3 Minutes of Silence.” But the cassette has no tape in it. That is presaged by the twin warnings “no dolby” and “no sound.” Of note, Kurt Vile’s name is playfully spelled “Kurt Vial,” and an ensemble called “The Spitvalve Brass Quintet” is billed on the front.
Unidentified Empty Cassette Case
Another cassette shell with no tape in it. The bits of text (“American”) and what looks like the end of a zip code or phone-number are tempting hints — though it is unrelated to American Tapes, which did not exist at this point.
Unidentified Metal Tape
This tape is playable, but features a rusted metal cover and tape label.
CGL 0X13TH20: Rose Sélavy – Rose Sélavy’s 100 Grooviest Corporate Hits
The pièce de résistance, this is an eight-cassette case filled with wonders. The catalog number suggests that these eight tapes are assigned numbers 13 to 20 within the CGL 0X series, which is the Conglomerate series focused on anti-tapes. The highlights here include:
A tape cassette filled with dry macaroni.
A massacred tape instructing you to “Please Rewind.”
A couple deconstructed cassettes.
A cassette shell filled with circuit board components, and attached via wires to a syringe.
One playable tape, which collects the songs listed on the LP insert to Rosi & The Dirigibles Present Three Transposed Functions, above. (Why? We’ll never know…)
Opie tells me that, since he initially put out a call for information about Conglomerate, he’s had recovered another artifact that sheds more light on the label’s story.
“The last development was that the person who sold me the tapes told me there was something additional he didn’t give me,” he tells me. “There were three snapshot albums filled with duplicate, original, and even unrealized covers for the cassettes. This has led me to be certain, though without confirmation, that the person whose record collection this was, was most likely ‘Kurt Vile.’ I have never confirmed this with his widow. His nephew is a former student of mine, but he knew little of his uncle’s younger life. I’m not yet ready to share that name.”
As seen above, the booklets include copies of the Donut Holes cassette, among others. He notes that these booklets also contain covers for some non-CGL releases, including tapes by John Zorn and Milton Babbit, and John Oswald’s Plunderphonics, suggesting that the person behind Kurt Vile was likely active on the tape trading scene.
And yet there are no records of any Conglomerate releases online, nor does anyone remember any of it. This makes it doubtful that Kurt Vile actually traded copies of his Conglomerate releases. Adding to this, many of the label’s tapes are obvious one-copy editions, even if some of them state on their covers that they are larger editions:
In the end, I ask Opie for his “best guess” as to why these editions exist. “It was done for the creator’s (or creators’) personal enjoyment to be sure,” he explains. “But there’s so much work put into these things, there must be more to the story than that. I believe more than one person was involved, but have absolutely no leads as to who those people could be.
“Without getting too philosophical about it, its almost as if I was meant to discover this collection. Of course I don’t mean that literally, but it’s fortunate that it wound up in my hands where it’s appreciated. I wonder what tapes are completely lost to time, and I find that unfortunate.
“Nobody I’ve discussed this with, or shown the collection to, has any real theories as to the origins of these tapes.”
My theory? It is clear that this collection was a laborious and resource-intensive undertaking. Is it possible this satirical collection was produced as an exhibition for a gallery? If so, was it ever exhibited? Was there possibly an an arts grant? Was this collection mentioned somewhere at the time, for example in a zine like Sound Choice or Option?
For now, Opie tells me he has no immediate plans for the collection. He has dubbed every playable tape into digital versions, and plans to invest some time into separating them into tracks and making them more available. Perhaps one day someone will come across them and they will tweak a memory.
Do you know anything about Conglomerate Records? If so, email me or leave a comment!
Ben Opie plays saxophones and various electronics in a variety of projects, including Thoth Trio (intense acoustic jazz), Bombici (electro-acoustic Balkan dance music), and Throckmorton Plot (improvised deep grooves and electronics). He also books the Live! at Kingfly creative music series at Kingfly Spirits, and teaches music technology at Carnegie Mellon University.
“I wanted listeners to immerse themselves in this unusual listening environment, experiencing detail not usually apparent.”
whatever you record will be broadcast just as it is in london between 2330-000
From July 1, 2002 to July 1, 2003, Chris Cutler produced a radio program for Resonance FM from 11:30pm to midnight, Greenwich Mean Time, every night. To fill that time, he put out a call to sound artists to provide 30 minute recordings of “whatever you want.” The only catch was that submissions had to be recorded “in real time” during the half-hour period that Cutler was airing them.
Maggi Payne, a sound artist living in California, was forwarded the request via email. An accomplished composer and recording engineer, she was the Co-Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, and was teaching full-time. Around then, one of her main gigs was doing historical remastering for the Music and Arts label.
She tells me, via email, about that rewarding work. “[I was] bringing classical music recordings from as early as the 1920s back to life by reducing noise, hum, hiss, etc., adjusting pitch so the works were on pitch and stayed on pitch, eliminating ticks and pops, repairing incorrect editing done before I received the source tapes, equalizing the recordings to improve the sound, and filling in gaps where sections were damaged or missing. It’s meticulous, though very rewarding, work. It pulled me back into a mysterious unknown past world I’d not experienced myself.”
After receiving Chris Cutler’s request, Payne knew she wanted to record something for his show, but wasn’t sure how to pull it off. She lives in northern California, and so hoped to record a local redwood forest, to immerse the listener in that beautiful environment. But intense rainstorms — usually a welcome event, given the area’s frequent droughts — made this impossible. “The rain came in waves that would destroy my condenser microphones,” she recalls.
Fortunately, she owned two hydrophones for making underwater recordings. “I’ve been fascinated with transmission of sound under water since I was a child. I’d been looking for high quality hydrophones for several years, but it took me almost a year to convince the wonderful people at Offshore Acoustics to sell me their last two very special hydrophones that were made for the Navy.”
Armed with this gear, she hatched the idea for “Ping.” She had always kept a metal pail on her front porch, which she used to catch water for her plants. Drawn to it because she liked the sounds it made when it rained, she let the pail fill with rainwater and then placed the two hydrophones inside. “I started recording on my DAT machine at precisely 3:30 and turned it off at 4:00. I wanted listeners to immerse themselves in this unusual listening environment, experiencing detail not usually apparent.”
“There are many layers of activity, including some very sharp high frequency sizzling sounds as the raindrops struck the water’s surface, combined with the deeper tuned resonances of the pail as the larger droplets hit the rim and sides of the pail and others drove deeper below the surface. Beyond these layers, the rhythmic interplay is of main interest.”
The program for “Ping”
She recalls being fascinated by the “variability of timbre, rhythms, activity, resonance, and differentiated sonic layers.” She was also reminded of her childhood. “Recording under water reminded me of hot summers in the panhandle of Texas, where I spent many hours each day swimming under water in a local swimming pool. The sounds were utterly fascinating.”
Accounting for time differences between Pacific Time and GMT, the recordings took place between 3:30 and 4:00pm in California.
It was still raining the next day, so she decided to try something different. For “Pong,” she flipped the pail over and placed two condenser mics inside, protected from the rain. The resulting 30-minute recording captures the sound of raindrops pattering the pail. “The rain became the percussionist, and I love the spaces in between drops where the listener can experience the low resonant frequency of the pail as it resonates with the rumble of the nearby freeway and trains, as well as the percussive strikes of the raindrops, ringing at several different frequencies. During brief breaks in the rain the richness of the resonant frequencies of the pail, which acted as a Helmholtz resonator, are very clearly heard.”
Prior to these recordings, Payne was no stranger to using natural sounds in her soundscapes. However, “in the noisy world I inhabit, I frequently must use extensive equalization and noise removal software to clean up the sounds so that they can be heard without distractions,” she points out. In order to do this, she draws upon her sound engineering skill set. Remarkably, however, “Ping” and “Pong” required no processing whatsoever. Perhaps due to the time of day, there are few intruding extraneous sounds in these recordings, though Payne notes that a faint horn and siren can be heard during “Ping,” and a “beautifully resonating” plane enters into “Pong” at the two-thirds mark.
In January 2003, after her recording had been aired, she sent a seven-minute extract of “Ping” to Dale Lloyd, who was assembling the latest chapter of his phonography.org compilation series, which collected field recordings by international artists. Those compilations are worth exploring. In a 2006 interview, Lloyd described “phonography” by explaining that “as photography is to the eye, phonography is to the ear.” Phonography.org emerged from a message board specializing in field recordings, and ended up growing into nine fulsome volumes of work.
But Payne’s recordings never ended up on a phonography.org compilation. Shortly after she submitted it, Lloyd called her and said he wanted to release “Ping” and “Pong” in full on his and/OAR label. Ping/Pong was released on CD-R in 2003, and is now long gone.
Payne still creates music, including projects with analog synthesizers and some acoustic work. But she often finds herself making field recordings. “I still constantly record sounds that I find fascinating in a variety of usual and unusual ways… I usually process sounds beyond recognition because I’m attracted to an abstract world, both visual and aural. Some sound sources are so unidentifiable that I don’t process them at all. This is in an effort to create an abstract world in which listeners experience the sounds immersively from the inside out, each listener creating their own narrative in their imagination without touching down to ‘reality.'”
Thanks to Maggi Payne for the interview. Her most recent releases include vinyl reissues of her 2012 LP, Ahh-Ahh (Music For Ed Tannenbaum’s Technological Feets 1984-1987) and her 2010 CD, Arctic Winds, which both came out on Aguirre Records in 2020.Payne’s recordings also feature on two 2020 compilations: San Francisco Tape Music Collective (sfSound) and Air Texture VII (Air Texture).
“The van rolled an entire 180 degrees, landing on its feet while traveling down Mount Tambourine in Queensland.”
Music to Drive-By is the infamous first record put out by the Dual Plover record label, run by Australia’s Lucas Abela. The album captures the bizarre sounds emanating from the malfunctioning stereo system of his Kombi, which is the Australian name for a Volkswagen Bus, or Volkswagen Type 2.
This release, which garnered accolades in The Wire and Bananafish for its odd concept, was also included in Aquarius Records’ famous distribution list. That’s where I first learned about it many moons ago.
Today, Lucas Abela records music under the name Justice Yeldham, and is famous for working with contact microphones and broken glass. He’s even contributed shattered-glass sounds to Death Grips’ 2018 album, Year of the Snitch. But before he became Justice Yeldham, he was known as DJ Smallcock, and even before that, he put out Music to Drive-By, credited to A Kombi.
I asked Abela about this unique release via email, and he filled me in on the details. “I was homeless when we recorded the record, and was actually living inside A Kombi for that entire summer,” he explains. “But A Kombi, to me, wasn’t about just that record but more the entire period of time I owned that van. The recordings were done in 1994, not long before A Kombi died somewhere near Newcastle, Australia and was abandoned. But before that we had a good few years together.
“I brought the Van in ’92 just after finishing high school in order to move to Sydney, but it wasn’t until a year or so later that we had the accident that started the whole A Kombi phenomenon.”
That harrowing accident led, in a circuitous way, to the van’s profound ability to generate unusual sounds. “The van rolled an entire 180 degrees, landing on its feet while traveling down Mount Tambourine in Queensland. Fearing that the engine would stall if I stopped, I just decided to keep driving. It was quite a surreal experience and I guess the adrenaline made me carry on, bleeding from my elbow and staring through a shattered windscreen. Anyway, the body of the van was trashed but the engine was still good, so I shopped for a Kombi with the opposite problem and switched the motor out.
“I also switched out the stereo and must have done something wrong as somehow I had inadvertently turned the entire van into a contact microphone of sorts. To this day I’m still unsure why, but the body of the van became amplified in a way like if you turned on the windscreen wipers an electric screech would blast out from the speakers. The sounds emitted were quite random and always changing and honestly the album only hints at the kinds of sounds the Kombi started to produce.”
I asked him if there were patterns to the noise the stereo system would make. “Whenever you remained motionless in the car and did nothing it would make a clicking sound. If memory serves, these sounds are best documented in the ‘Plight of the Bumblebee’ track. The sound would then careen into noise whenever you moved inside the car or ran the motor.”
He then got the idea to record the sounds the car made using a microphone next to the car speakers. The results were channeled to a DAT player that was sitting on the roof. All this happened with the car parked in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery, which is situated on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
This recording was an early example of his fascination with avant-garde sounds. “Although I had an interest in experimental music and had done some bedroom experiments with vinyl records in the eighties to replicate a NON record I had read about but couldn’t buy, I wasn’t really making my own music at this point and wanted to become a film director. Weirdly, this interaction with my van steered me in the musical direction, that and finding myself with a graveyard shift on community radio when I first moved to Sydney.”
I wondered what compelled him to record the Kombi sounds specifically. “Because I had an appreciation for discordant sounds, I knew these blurts of static were more musical than your average malfunctioning stereo,” he reasons. “One of my favourite things to do with A Kombi was to pull up to a bus stop full of people and do a quick drive-by recital at full volume. The van even played live at a club once.”
All of the tracks were unaugmented recordings of the vehicle alone, apart from the three-parted “Moonlight Serenade,” which was a recording of the car speakers playing a tape of an experimental radio show that Abela was running. Those tracks combined the Kombi’s cacophony with a broadcast Abela had done in which he rigged up a record to play on a mutant turntable with four or five styli on “bendable wire arms” playing the same record simultaneously. Thus, these tracks carry an extra background ambience, which was augmented by some reverb.
The cover of the A Kombi disc features a grainy image of the Kombi driving across the Harbour Bridge next to the Popemobile. In a moment of serendipity, Pope John Paul II came to visit Sydney in 1995, and Abela ended up driving next to the Pope’s car vehicle by accident in his noisy Kombi. “I was coming back home across the bridge after buying a Lenco turntable I found on the trading post. Us driving alongside each other was totally random.”
The Pope’s ride across the bridge was caught by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I didn’t even know they had footage but assumed someone must have filmed as it was historic I guess, and the Harbour Bridge seemed like the obvious place to get a shot of the Pope. So I called up the ABC and asked. They looked it up in archivals and asked if I was driving the Kombi with the smashed rear end.” A screencap of that video found its way onto the cover of Music to Drive-By, and has also been put up by Abela on Youtube.
After sending out the recording to several labels who weren’t interested, he decided to put it out himself, creating the Dual Plover label for the occasion. It was those other labels’ loss, since the record is now a cult album, and Dual Plover has grown into a seminal underground label.
Abela says he was taken aback by how people responded to Music to Drive-By. “I sent copies out to people I admired and was blown away that people like EYE, Merzbow, Kramer and others wrote back loving the record. The copy I sent to Gregg Turkington at Amarillo Records (which I loved) was even handed over to Bananafish who wrote me wanting to do an interview. It was these initial connections that allowed me to do my first overseas tour in Japan and America where I got to meet and play with a lot of these people I adored. it made me realize the world is so small and that even though I was culturally marooned on our stupid antipodean island that I could still take part in the music world I observed from a far. It wasn’t totally removed, which pre-internet was an amazing feeling.”
As a fun footnote, Abela also recalls sending a copy to a magazine for Kombi enthusiasts (perhaps VW Magazine Australia?). They didn’t respond.
Today, Abela looks back fondly on this release, and figures it is due for a revisit. “Would be great to see a reissue on vinyl. Only 500 CDs were pressed and a lot of people still think it was my best work, as the naivety was especially naive compared to what followed.”
Thanks to Lucas Abela a.k.a. Justice Yeldham a.k.a. former owner of A Kombi for the interview. You can explore his various goings-on at http://dualplover.com/.