In 1984, the guitarist Gayle Ellett founded the instrumental progressive rock band Djam Karet with three friends. Over the years, they’ve put out dozens of albums, amassing a cult following. Ellett has also recorded music for TV and film, accumulating an extensive catalog of credits.
His 2002 album, Winds of War, is an anomaly. It is an abstract sound collage of field recordings — culled “from ancient Arabic deserts and 1,000-year-old villages, viciously processed and mangled forever by contemporary analog keyboards and other recording studio devices.” According to its press release, the goal was to symbolize the destruction of Islamic culture by the American military.
I spoke to Ellett about this unusual record. Ellett lives in Topanga, California, and around the time Winds of War came out, he was dating a woman who had lived in the Middle East and spoke some Arabic. They chose to travel to Morocco for a vacation, and he found himself captivated by the sounds he encountered there. “I made a ton of field recordings there,” he tells me. “I had a small portable DAT recorder with me that I used to record the sounds of the markets and mosques. I wasn’t sure at the time how I would later use these recordings, but I knew it was a good idea to at least capture the sounds I heard on the streets of Morocco.”
He then ran this audio through his Minimoog analog synthesizer, filtering and modulating the sounds and performing some digital touch-ups on his computer. “Once I heard how it sounded, when I ran it through my analog synthesizer’s filters and modulation system — it took on a rather creepy vibe,” Ellett explains. “And we were, as we are now, in the middle of a huge war in Afghanistan. Basically I was mangling the sounds of their Islamic culture by jamming it through an American synthesizer, and bending and distorting their world to my liking. And so the album began to take on a rather anti-American/anti-imperialism tone to it, and I maintained that theme with the track titles.”
Indeed, titles include “The Liberated City” and “‘Round ‘Em Up.'” He explains that he was inspired by his revulsion towards the anti-Muslim sentiment in the air at the time.
When asked about the precedent for this type of experimental record, Ellett puts it simply: “Everybody listens to John Cage, don’t they?” He explains that experimental music is commonplace in California and, besides, Ellett’s band, Djam Karet, would often utilize reel-to-reel tapes to add layers of found sounds to their live performances.
Winds Of War was released through the early digital music website mp3.com, which ran a service called Digital Automatic Music, in which they would produce CD-R versions of albums at artists’ request. Ellett believes 250 copies were made in total.
Listener response was mixed. “Well, it is a very strange recording! Seriously strange! So many people did not like it at all. But some did find it to be very interesting and unique. But I really made it for myself, not others, so I was happy with how it all turned out.” Only a couple of reviews were done, one from an American prog rock website and another from an Uzbekistani website.
Today, he reflects positively on this release, which is one among many. “I think it worked out really well, in my totally biased opinion,” he says. “I write music in a very wide range of styles, from art-rock to film music to traditional World music, and currently I play in eight bands and I’ve played on over 120 albums. So I am very interested in a really wide range of music, and making this avant-garde album was a unique experience, and a ton of fun!”
Thanks to Gayle Ellett for the interview. Visit his website here.
“Then I did one comp where I would leave the cassette out. You’d get the cover, and the plastic case, but there’s nothing else in it. There was no tape.”
Mike Tetrault used to make a point of being provocative. He still considers himself prone to pranks, but he was at his peak when he ran Epitapes, a cassette label that was part of the international tape-trading network. While at its helm, he released three compilation albums that were direct affronts to the controversial noise artist Boyd Rice. They were titled My Dream Date With Boyd Rice, Sex On The First Date With Boyd Rice, and, logically, Pregnant With Boyd Rice’s Baby.
Tetrault tells me via phone that, at one point, he sealed copies of these three compilations into an envelope and sent them to Mr. Rice himself. He never heard back.
This was only one of the curious concepts that emanated from the Epitapes headquarters in Western Massachusetts, where Tetrault grew up and currently lives. Unsurprisingly, this rebellious streak is deep-seated. Tetrault tells me that he became interested in punk music in the seventies, after buying a copy of the The Damned’s debut album from a record store in Amherst, Massachusetts called Sunshine Records. Soon after, he was picking up records by other bands. “Slaughter & the Dogs’ ‘Cranked Up Really High,’ then Johnny Moped… All these obscure bands that were really, really excellent and are now considered classics.
“So you buy one, you like it, so you start looking for more. And once you start looking, it gets easier and easier. So then you buy some punk fanzine, and order some stuff from that. Meanwhile, punk’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s still not popular and not a commercial thing, but there’s more and more punk bands. X-Ray Spex, The Drones… tons of bands. And then I discovered the LA bands — The Skulls, The Bags. And then you find about the Finnish bands. You find out more and more as you get into it.
“There was never a store in my area. I live in Western Mass. Most people had never even heard of punk. I only found one person in that first year who’d even heard of any band. So everybody would think you’re crazy, or listening to noise. It wasn’t fun to be into something, especially when you’re young and you just want to be doing something, and want to be having actual fun, not just playing records. This place wasn’t the place to be. So that’s when I decided I’m going to move to some city somewhere.”
Craving adventure and keen to live in a city with a real music scene, he picked up and moved to L.A., but shortly moved to San Francisco after realizing L.A. was no fun without a car. There, he engrossed himself in punk music while working a series of temporary jobs. “There’s a Sex Pistols line,” Tetrault says. “‘You won’t catch me working nine to five/It’s too much fun being alive.’ And that was my motto. I didn’t want to get a job. But I would get jobs, just to live. And I would always get temporary jobs.” His most consistent gig was as a bicycle messenger, a vocation that attracted several punks in SF.
While in San Francisco, he attended several industrial and experimental shows, including concerts by Throbbing Gristle and SPK. He tells me he still has a recording he made at an SPK show which he believes has never been released anywhere else.
In the eighties he moved back to Belchertown, MA after burning out on the city. “Everything seemed ugly. That’s when hardcore was taking over, and everybody I knew was doing heroin or meth. I didn’t want to be a junkie, but a lot of people continued to do it and were junkies. And it was just sleazy and ugly. Everywhere I looked on the streets, everything was ugly. And I thought, why am I living here if I think everything is ugly?
“Moving to the city was an adventure, but after awhile it lost its appeal, so I just went back to the country. I love nature. I take tons of nature photos. I hike every single day. I just love it, and it’s hard to explain why, I just do.”
The Beginnings of Epitapes
While Epitapes is often listed as being a Belchertown label, Tetrault explains that he had actually moved to a different town in the same area, Sunderland, by the time the first tape came out.
That first tape was titled The Beauty of the Warning and featured a number of artists that Tetrault was in touch with at the time. Some were friends from San Francisco, including numerous former roommates, including Robert Turman (one half of NON), Fortune Dagger, and Arkansaw Man. Others were people he knew via the mail. “I must have just written to these people, and they’re the ones that responded, and I liked whatever they sent.”
Tetrault still has the master copy of this compilation. Over the phone, he takes me through some of the tracks. “Endless Calm is me,” he laughs. “Randy Greif was fantastic, you don’t hear about him too much anymore. John Hudak is a very interesting person. He would do these really simple pieces. [His track] ‘Eighteen Pennies,’ he actually just played with a pile of eighteen pennies… When you listen to it, you can tell. It’s just a pile very slowly being fondled, basically. Just playing gently with these pennies. It’s a very relaxing little song, and everything he does is like that, as far as I know. He’ll hit tree branches together, it’s always these simple little things.”
There is also track from the legendary hometaper Ken Clinger, whom Tetrault later collaborated with via mail. “I sent him a tape of me reading poems, and he surprised me by setting them to music,” Tetrault recalls.
The cover of The Beauty of the Warning features an image of the Virgin Mary that Tetrault took at a cemetery. In fact, Epitapes’ name honours Tetrault’s lifelong passion for epitaphs. “I used to, and I still do, collect epitaphs. I go to old cemeteries all the time. And I took literally thousands of photos of old gravestones, and that’s how the label got its name.
“A lot of my tapes ended up using really good gravestone rubbings or photos,” he explains. The inserts were made via cutting-and-pasting, and were copied at a local copy shop. The tapes themselves were TDK blanks purchased at a local office supplies store.
In an improbable incident, Epitapes’ name almost got Tetrault in trouble. “The label Epitaph, the one that Bad Religion is on, wrote me a letter threatening to sue me, and they said I was trying to cash in on their name,” Tetrault says. “And I said, ‘I’ve been running this label since before you were a label, and the hundreds of people on this label will attest to that.’ So they left me alone. You record punk rock, and I record insects and machines and music boxes, how am I trying to cash in on your reputation? We don’t do anything similar. I was so obscure. I don’t know how they ever heard of me!”
When Beauty of the Warning came out, he intended it as a one-off. Though he coined the name Epitapes, he wasn’t expecting it to grow into a full tape label. From a logistics perspective, that single tape was a lot of work. “I had to make each copy by hand. I would record one tape at a time. There’s ten or twelve people on that tape, so I had to make ten or twelve copies. Each one would take 90 minutes. So it was a time consuming thing.” But what started off simple became an extensive hobby, and Epitapes eventually accumulated a discography of over 70 tapes, the vast majority of them compilations.
The second Epitapes cassete was another comp, Songs Of The Whippoorwills, featuring Randy Grief again, as well as seminal experimental artists like Le Syndicat, Big City Orchestra, and City of Worms. He seasoned the tape with brief interludes of his own home recordings of actual whippoorwills around his area.
Another contributor was the prolific artist Minoy, who has lately been the subject of a large box set. “Minoy used to do primal therapy through music. On this comp, his piece is called ‘Hell’s Bells.’ A lot of his work is just layers and layers of screaming, and some of it, even though he’s screaming the whole time, is absolutely beautiful. Everybody knew he had mental health problems. I actually didn’t know that at the time when he was contributing — later I found out about that, on the internet.”
Some of Tetrault’s most intriguing concepts were his themed compilations, in which he solicited submissions that all had to revolve around a particular idea or sound source. He is proudest of A Crutch Or Reel Or Water-Plant, a tape compilation in which he asked for untreated recordings of machinery. He explains that some of the artists even worked in factories, so they brought true audio exclusives to the table. The track listing reveals many interesting items. A mysterious artist named Diet/Labine contributed “Cement Mixer” and “Sri Lanka Coconut Grater.” Veteran artist Jeph Jerman sent in “Fan Belt.” And one of Tetrault’s own pieces is descriptively titled “Crane Used To Pound In Concrete Pillars.” Despite being a favourite, he acknowledges that A Crutch or Reel sold very few copies.
Another sound-source-specific compilation was Music Boxes, in which he asked artists to send in unaltered recordings of music boxes. That tape featured artists like Randy Greif and No Unauthorized, as well as a remarkable composition by Tetrault himself. “It was a pain in the neck,” he tells me of that track “I hounded everyone I knew for their music boxes and I ended up with like thirty of them. And I wound them all up at once, and recorded them playing. Slowly they died out until only one was playing. I really liked that.”
Then there was All Bare or Dead Forms Under Sunlight Cast Mysterious Shadows on the Snow, whose theme was “surrealism.” Artists were free to interpret that as they pleased, and the interesting results made this another one of his favourite Epitapes releases. Artists on this tape included No Unauthorized, Hybrids, Redemption Incorporated, Victor/im, Machine Made Man, Dead Goldfish Ensemble, Odal, and Adam Bowman.
As might have gleaned from his Boyd Rice themed compilations, subversion was a central feature of Tetrault’s aesthetic. “I was a troll before that word was used. I used to play all kinds of pranks on the tapes… I had a whole series of Genesis P-Orridge comps where I insult him basically, at least in the titles. One of the comps had all these people, big names in this kind of harsh electronic music, and at the end for about five minutes, I went into a really vicious rant insulting everybody, one by one. I would say, ‘Oh and this guy sounds like little kids throwing cans at each other, and they would call this fucking music?’ I would rant about every single piece. I would just have fun. The more I did the tapes, the less inhibited I felt about doing anything.”
Another Genesis P-Orridge comp was titled Genesis P-Orridge’s 20 Bad Disco Greats. “Somebody sent me recordings of bad disco albums,” Tetrault explains. “One was Star Wars music done disco-style. And then there was another bad disco one. So I filled the tape with both of those from start to finish. then I recorded the noise over that, leaving a minute’s gap (between tracks). So you had the bad disco in between every song. People liked that one.”
Eventually, his pranks lurched towards the realm of concept art. “I started to package the tapes in ways that were frustrating to people,” he says. “Sealing them in plastic where there was no way to open it — I would wrap and wrap it and wrap it in plastic, and keep melting the plastic. There would end up being no seams, so you couldn’t really open the cassette. I remember doing one where I stuffed the package and tape with razor blades. Now that I think of it, I could’ve gotten in trouble I suppose!
“Then I did one comp where I would leave the cassette out. You’d get the cover, and the plastic case, but there’s nothing else in it. There was no tape. So I would just play these games… I used to like provoking people. I still do, actually.”
For his harsh noise tapes, he might use a mellow piano track by Ken Clinger as a cheerful intro, then drop unpredictably into a cavalcade of abrasion. On one occasion, he targeted a contributing artist who was very particular about their music. “As I dubbed it, I made it sound like the tape was slowing down and being eaten and all this stuff. And I released it that way and that person got a little perturbed, even though I did it on purpose. Later on, when I told him it was on purpose, then he liked it, but at the time he didn’t like it.”
Epitapes’ Final Stages
The vast majority of Epitapes releases were compilations, but Tetrault did put out a few non-comp tapes. These include several cassettes of his field recordings, including audio of insects at nighttime (Night Insects) and daytime (Day Insects), as well Rainbow Gathering, where he took several recordings at a rainbow gathering — “a gathering of hardcore hippies, the kind that live in the woods or just constantly travel.”
Tetrault’s last releases were around 1992, at which point he eventually lost steam when it came to producing new compilations. But when he closed up shop, he had several that were in various stages of completion. “One was rock music, but it was music using only rocks, pebbles, or sand. Nothing else. Another was ambient versions of Sex Pistols songs.”
Another aborted comp was a collection of cover versions of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” — he found the submissions disappointing, but points out that this is likely a result of his own idiosyncratic expectations instead of the shortcomings of contributors.
Yet another was a planned compilation of “pagan music,” which didn’t attract enough interest in contributors. “Some people from Norway sent some absolutely beautiful songs, but nobody else was contributing.” He laments that those recordings never saw the light of day on an Epitapes release. One wonders if those recordings survive today.
After Tetrault wound Epitapes down, he continued to make his tapes available for distribution, even creating a catalog that listed all the available releases and their respective themes. Yet most compilations didn’t sell in quantity. In some cases, no copies were sold at all, and the only ones that were produced were the artist copies! This lack of interest was one of the reasons he wrapped Epitapes up. He also recalls being frustrated with the politics of whose music would get put on a comp. Rather than deal with complaint letters and snail-mail arguments, he decided it was easier to stop putting new tapes out.
The Digital Age
Tetrault and I talk about the fact that digital rips of some of his comps have turned up on blogs and on YouTube, and how some (partial) information exists on Discogs. He is okay with these comps finding their way online, since it means more people can hear them. But he’s surprised how many survived. “I sold almost no copies of most of these tapes,” he marvels. “I don’t know how the copies are all spread around so much these days! It’s all a mystery.”
Tetrault still has single copies of the masters of most of the comps. He sent a few of them to someone who said they would burn them to CD for him, but he is still waiting for that. While a few people have offered to digitize his tapes, he is scared of sending out the remainder of his originals, lest they get lost or damaged in the mail. It’s a reasonable fear — obscure bits of experimental music history such as these are often one copy away from extinction.
Tetrault’s own collection of other labels’ and artists’ comps has thinned over time, reflecting how esoteric music can become an endangered species. Tetrault explains that, over the years, he would downsize his collection by disseminating his tapes in unlikely locations. “I’d either leave them in a phone booth, or I would leave them on a table somewhere at the laundromat for some unsuspecting person to pick up and play. They’re the ones who would throw them away, not me.”
Remarkably, in the decades since Epitapes’ inception, not one of Tetrault’s master tapes has broken. We chat for a while about what he can do with these tapes, which aren’t getting any younger. He wants to work out how to transfer them to his computer, but isn’t sure about the logistics. If he can figure out the process, he’d be open to posting them online, because, as we both agree, they are important historical documents. I, for one, can’t imagine a world where his compilation of machinery sounds, A Crutch Or Reel Or Water-Plant, is lost forever.
“I sincerely believe that every ventilation system becomes, or is, a wind instrument.”
In 2006, Éric La Casa put out a collection of recordings with an unusual concept. Fascinated by the ventilation systems that circulate air through modern buildings, he set about collecting audio from air ducts around town. He recorded thirty different samples, adjusted their volume levels to keep their loudness standard, and collected them on this CD in two minute intervals.
In the process of producing AIR.ratio, La Casa became an expert in the very contemporary phenomenon of mechanical air circulation. Via email, he tells me about how he developed his obsession with ventilation — and what went into creating AIR.ratio, which I suspect is the first album made entirely out of air duct recordings.
“Since my arrival in Paris in the early nineties, I lived in a Haussman-style building,” La Casa explains, referring to the big, cut-stone edifices created in the mid-19th century. “My daily life was that of a Parisian citizen whose indoors life was not governed by the standards of the end of the 20th century. The insulation in my apartment was as uncertain as the ventilation. The window was my only access to outside light and air. But the walls themselves seemed to breathe.”
But one day in 1994, he found himself in a friend’s modern bathroom, where his attention shifted to the air vent above the bathtub. “One of my friends had just rented an apartment in a building built in the eighties,” he tells me. While visiting that friend, he realized how much of everyday life is governed by industrial design. “The door code, the elevator, and even mechanical ventilation had become germane to life in Paris. All of this had become the standard of living,” he says.
“The elevator and the ventilation caught my attention very quickly. I have always appreciated the relationship between sound and space: how sound is diffused and how it informs me about the design of the environment. My awareness of mechanical ventilation in someone’s home was like a brutal shock. I was discovering that architecture could allow rooms to exist that don’t have windows. And in my friend’s bathroom, when I closed the door for the first time, I’m in the dark, with a constant sound that I don’t immediately think of as mechanical ventilation.
“And then, I rapidly became interested in all those Parisian rooms, public or private, without windows, which owe their survival to ventilation. And I was struck by the fact that each room has its own sonic identity due to the sound of the air extractor and the aeraulic system.”
That was in 1994. In the year 2000, he decided to start recording these vents. At the time, he didn’t have a final project in mind. “By dint of recording, and constantly being drawn to these air devices, I ended up with my final project. For over a year I did nothing more than that.” Today, he figures he created AIR.ratio to expunge himself of his air duct obsession; he figures he could have become pigeonholed as an artists who focused exclusively on ventilation systems. “But this is not my artistic endeavor,” he reflects.
Making the recordings in public spaces posed its own challenge. He attached two condenser microphones to a boom and held them up to vents and air conditioning conduits. They had to be suspended in the air, not quite touching the vents.
It turns out that it wasn’t easy to convince everyone about the goals of his recording, though many did seem receptive. “I often received a warm welcome when I explained the importance of the sound dimension in their interiors,” La Casa recalls. “But most of the time, I didn’t have permission to record, and had to sneak in with my equipment. Fortunately, the world was not as safe as it is today… I often arrived with my equipment completely dismantled and had to put everything back together quickly without attracting outside attention. And when you are in a toilet, installing equipment, quietly, it creates a bit of a weird situation with ordinary public toilet users. I often found myself in a washroom listening to a ventilator that sounded astonishing but but barely perceptible, while people waited to get in… before giving up.”
The disc collects two minute samples of each recording, each one identified by its specific location. Locations include a hospital, library, art gallery, and apartment. La Casa explains that bathrooms were often the easiest places to record to avoid drawing too much attention.
La Casa has thought deeply about ventilation systems. At one point, he hosted a radio show where he met professionals in the interior design industry, including architects, engineers, acousticians, and a sociologist. He worked with an organist, Jean-Luc Guionnet, which led him to draw a connection between the organ’s pipes and the air conduits in buildings. “I sincerely believe that every ventilation system becomes, or is, a wind instrument,” he tells me. “A continuous breathing system. As with an instrument, what happens in an air network is linked to the complexity of its architecture.”
The curves and twists in a building’s air ducts are analogous to the turns and valves in a musical instrument. This is why the vents he recorded all sound different. And much of the differences and sound have to do with imperfections in the system, which can occur for many reasons.
La Casa explains that, when buildings are being designed, the ventilation ducts need to be planned via sets of complex calculations. If those calculations are off, you’ll get turbulence — which produces noise.
Then there’s wear and tear. These networks of ducts must be kept in good, clean order. “A system that plays with forced air always ends up producing unforeseen effects if you didn’t have any maintenance,” he warns.
And lastly, there is basic user error. Since few people know why ventilation systems exist, many will unwittingly disrupt the system’s flow, for example by putting furniture in front of a vent. This one indiscretion can throw off the entire building’s ventilation network as a whole, causing turbulence and noise.
La Casa explains that mechanical ventilation was developed by engineers to solve a technical problem — circulating air in rooms that don’t have direct access to the outdoors via windows. But those engineers didn’t consider how users were adopt their system; those answers, instead, would have lain within the fields of anthropology and sociology. For example, cultural beliefs about the purpose of ventilation — and its adverse effects — have emerged over time. “Depending on the period, theories have spread in our societies to make mechanical ventilation responsible for benefits (filtration of fine particles …) or, on the contrary, for problems (mainly on health, instead of sound).”
La Casa explains that engineers are keen to develop technical solutions to human problems. And, La Casa points out, “mechanical ventilation technically meets new interior standards for human habitation while preserving the building.” As a consequence, it has been implemented universally.
“Living in southern Italy and northern Scandinavia is not at all the same. But in the end, it becomes the same in terms of normalizing indoor comfort. Architects seized on the fact that one can use the mechanization of the air in a building to expand their vocabulary. Thus, the interior space today is more and more equipped and governed by increasingly sophisticated techniques to guarantee and meet the standards of comfort of human life.”
The architects and engineers who design air conduits do take their sonic properties into account, but in a highly technical way. “Each object is defined by its sound level, which now meets strict specifications and noise standards. I went to a building measurement center to understand how these exhaust air measurements were made. In an empty building of typical dimensions, measurement microphones record the sound level. Here, no one cares whether the permanence of this noise in a space is desirable, or whether the user really wants it. The technical obviousness of a mechanical air system is something everyone now has to accept. In fact, the issue of noise is completely peripheral, even secondary. Engineers are more concerned with the flow of air in space. They don’t like people asking about noise.
“For AIR.ratio I put them face-to-face with this question while inviting them to be creative in their way of arranging their systems: why not call on musicians from the design stage to get out of the strictly technical culture and try to instead deal with the ‘musical’ question beyond noise? Let’s get out of this noise culture to see that we live in a complex sound world that could also have hidden musical goals.”
La Casa, who has produced an extensive discography, still looks back on AIR.ratio fondly. “I find that what ventilation tells us — about contemporary architecture, our relationship to the exterior, our need for control, our society, its relationship also to noise, and to the continuous, therefore to time, etc. — is particularly rich in teaching and expressiveness, and therefore artistic potential. I could continue to work on ventilation to this day. But because I don’t want to become an expert on this at all, I’m not sure I should. It seems to me that AIR.ratio allows us to enter into this topic of ventilation through our listening – which is quite an original way to address this question.”
Since creating AIR.ratio, La Casa hasn’t stopped thinking about ventilation systems. “Ventilation is at the center of our new strategy of living indoors, bringing to us the vital elements of our survival: water, air, electricity, and now food… This is the gradual establishment of an internalization of our society. The inside has now taken on more importance in our lives than the outside. Everything seems to indicate that we are spending more and more time indoors, and that goes through the elevation of indoor comfort. Ventilation is clearly one of the essential components of this strategy. Air is now an important building issue.
“To sum up: we have moved from the fields to the offices, and for that we had to increase the comfort of life and accentuate our technical and even technological efforts. And this is a process that accelerated at the end of the 20th century. It is a constant thought of engineers, and an increasingly growing demand from residents, to meet the new challenges facing the city.”
Thanks to Éric La Casa for the interview. Visit his website here, and his Bandcamp here.
“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 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.
“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).
“I walked that driveway every day for eighteen years to the school bus, so it’s filled with memories of my perception of the world, nature, and sounds, and being immersed in it.”
I came across this unusual CDR while exploring the discography for BOXmedia, a Chicago label run by Brent Gutzeit and Bill Groot from 1997 to 2004.
BOXmedia was devoted to improvised and experimental music, including CDR, CD, and vinyl releases of work by a variety of producers, among them Pita, Kevin Drumm, and Reynols. Their extensive discography is home to a number of limited-edition treats, including a disc of field recordings taken at a rural tractor competition, as captured by Gutzeit and Groot themselves.
Seth Cluett’s Undr CDR is another interesting artifact. Its basis was a recording of Cluett and four members of the Undr Quartet walking the long driveway of Cluett’s parents’ house. That recording was then digitally processed using sine tones, only leaving faint flecks of the original source audio in the mix.
Cluett, now Assistant Director of the Computer Music Center and Sound Art Program at Columbia University, recalls the era of his life when Undr came out. He had completed an MFA in Electronic Art at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute two years prior, in 2002, and subsequently became interested in the Chicago New Music scene after performing at a series of shows for a group exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Betty Rymer Gallery. The exhibition was called Resynthesis and was curated by Philip von Zweck, its intent to situate sound art as equal to the material usually featured in art galleries. For the show, Cluett rigged up audio equipment in a stairwell, turning the environment into a “large acoustic resonator.”
Participating in that Chicago event led to a number of different collaborations and solo exhibitions, and also introduced him to BOXmedia’s Brent Gutzeit. “Brent reached out and asked if I wanted to do a CDR in the next batch of BOXmedia CDRs,” Cluett explains. “It was complicated because at the time I was juggling these long form composed works and installation pieces.”
Indeed, in 2004 Cluett put two other releases, both of which came out before Undr. The Masked Verticalities mini-CDR, on Crank Satori Records, was a recording of the stairwell piece he had staged for Resynthesis. The other was his first widely-distributed, professionally-pressed CD, My Own Thousand Shatterings, which garnered reviews in publications like The Wire. That CD, which took years to produce before coming out on Sedimental Recordings,was typical of Cluett’s focused, time-intensive process.
“I had just released this 74-minute monolith of a fixed media recording,” he explains. “It took me three years to make and I was not in the same head to produce another epic, long thing… I was tempted to use it as another opportunity to release something a little more ephemeral, a little less fixed-media. So I came up with a strategy to split the difference and make a site-specific piece based on a field recording.”
Around that time, Cluett was very interested in the way sounds occupied spaces and how this affected the psychological experience of listening. He was exploring these ideas in his live performances, creating tones using sine-wave oscillators to accentuate elements of the sound environment, including the resonant frequencies of the venues’ physical space. He wondered how he could create a recording that incorporated the same processes. Undr was the result.
That name — Undr — had two meanings. It originates in a Borges story of the same the name, from his short story collection Book of Sand. “I think the Borges relation is deceptively simple,” he shares. “I feel comfortable telling you that it is about allowing worlds to exist within less. For the people in the story, their poetry consisted of a single word. I was interested in how sound creates meaning, where content lives in our sonic memory, and how small sounds contain multitudes.”
The more immediate connection was Boston’s Undr Quartet, who, along with Nmperign, were what Cluett considers the “vanguard in Boston of what got dubbed by Steve Roden the lowercase improvised scene.” The members of the Quartet accompanied Cluett for the walk that comprises Undr‘s source recording.
Cluett shares the story behind that field recording. At the time, the Undr Quartet were recording with Cluett at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, since Cluett still had keys to the recording studio. For convenience, the Quartet crashed with Cluett at his parents’ house nearby. “I grew up very rurally in Upstate New York,” he explains. “My folks have a quarter-mile long driveway with about a half-mile on either end of the driveway from either neighbour. I took a binaural microphone and I walked down the driveway with the Quartet slowly, listening, and then walked back up the driveway.”
His pet Labrador, Rudy, joined as well. In relating this story, Cluett acknowledges his gratitude to the Quartet’s members in joining him for this project. At the time, Cluett was in his mid-20s, a few years younger than these established improvisers, who were mentors to him at the time.
“I walked that driveway every day for eighteen years to the school bus, so it’s filled with memories of my perception of the world, nature, and sounds, and being immersed in it.”
After creating this recording, he took it and he weaved layers of sine tones into the source audio. Indeed, it’s difficult to hear any remnant of the walk in the mix; only by playing it at very loud volume can one make out a sporadic faint tinkle of the dog’s chain or the crunch of a leaf.
The sine tones were added via a twofold process. The first step was what Cluett calls an “aural” one, with him selecting sine tones by ear. He tells me that, around the time Undr was made, he had been performing live using a set of eight Heathkit sine-wave oscillators. “They were these big tube oscillators that I carried around in my car and set up for performances. At the time, I was doing these performances in which I would listen to the room and then bring in and tune tones to what was happening. Some tones were also tuned to the architectural space of the room. I would do a sweep before the show started and look for resonant notes in the space.”
He used these oscillators as phase one of Undr‘s production process, running the field recording, and playing along live with his oscillators, matching elements of the recording to specific tones by ear. After he recorded several runs, he layered them atop one another.
Step two of the sound processing was where the process diverged from his live rig. “At the time we had this software from the Cornell ornithology laboratory called Raven,” he recalls. Using an algorithm called fast-Fourier transform, it would generate a spectrograph of a recording, providing Cluett information about the frequency, amplitude, and phase of the audio. He had access to this program since he had used it for a collaboration with Pauline Oliveros in which they examined the acoustics of Italian cathedrals.
Running the driveway recording through Raven, he used the resulting frequency data to select tones, which he produced using digital software and added to final Undr mix. “So it was a mixture between machine listening and human listening,” he explains. “Kind of bringing it between the immediacy of the performances I was doing at that time, and a compositional thing that was painstaking and slow, like what I had done for the Sedimental release.”
Undr served as an important conceptual moment in Cluett’s career. “It’s almost the keystone for what I got obsessed with over the next ten or fifteen years, which is this use of sine tones to pick apart content,” he explains. “There’s all these instrumental pieces that came later, like Objects of Memory, which was my first record on Richard Chartier’s Line label. Those pieces are buried inside of Undr. That way of thinking, really trying very hard to make real human connections through some mediation of technology.”
Indeed, in looking through Cluett’s writing, this idea of using sine tones as a sound production tool has been a through line over his years. It a technique that has evolved with his perspective on exploring the interrelationship between sound perception and physical space. In a recent interview in which he discusses the early stages of his career, he recalls proposing a series of compositions designed to highlight certain psychoacoustic phenomena to one of his academic supervisors, Pauline Oliveros, only for her to point out that the concept had been done years before, for example by Alvin Lucier.
I really had to stop thinking about making work in a notebook and started to make work in a studio. I realized I shouldn’t try to merely imagine what is possible with psychoacoustic effects. Most everyone had thought of and made work out of the obvious effects in the early development of the medium.
Eventually, he shifted from an approach to composition that was centred around the initial concept to a dynamic process in which the piece is more than the idea — compositions that instead evolve as a function of the ongoing creative process. This interactivity has manifested most obviously in his site-specific pieces, where he will carefully explore a room, searching for ways the space will interact with his audio — in many cases, using surgically-precise sine tones to draw out these physical properties. In a brief artist’s statement written in 2006, he summarizes the approach:
Much of my practice has consisted of concert pieces and installations making use of sine tones, acoustic instruments and amplified objects, and field recordings that are tuned to the spaces in which they are performed. In these pieces I have been developing the relationship between sine tone pitches and a given room’s acoustic signature.
Seth Cluett, “Toward a Post-Phenomenology of Extra-Musical Sound as Compositional Determinant”
With Undr, this idea was extended to a fixed field recording that was created in a specific space. And while Cluett describes it as being a significant turning point in his career, only fifty copies of the CDR were reportedly produced. Despite its limited pressing, however, it did garner a few positive reviews in journals at a time when Cluett’s work was picking up steam following his CD release on Sedimental.
He has since uploaded the recording to Bandcamp, where it can be purchased or listened to via streaming. That he chose to make this years old, limited-run release available online hints at his fondness for the release. “I was always a little sad it was just a CDR and didn’t get distributed much, but there are still people every once in a while who tell me, yeah that’s a great disk. I’m not so invested in whether it was great or not, but I do feel like it was important. The work got me to a place where I needed to be.”
With thanks to Seth Cluett, whose website can be found here.