The Rita – Thousands of Dead Gods CD (Troniks/PACrec, 2006)

“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.

Source: Discogs

“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.” 

Killer Sharks magazine. (Source)

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. 

Source: Wikipedia

“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.

Cover of The Voyage Of The Decima MAS (Source: Discogs)

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.”

McKinlay snorkeling while wearing his vintage italian full face mask — and contact mic. (Source: Sam McKinlay).

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.”

Original color photo of the mic being pulled out one of the lingcod’s mouths as it surfaced. (Source: Sam McKinlay)

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 Beige Channel ‎- The Nail House Of Yang Wu (Stasisfield, 2011)

“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.

The cover of The Nail House of Yang Wu. (Source: Stasisfield website via archive.org.)

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.”

The mini-disc recorder used to record the source audio for The House of Yang Wu. Image supplied by Michael Farley (The Beige Channel).

“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.

Yang Wu’s nail house, as pictured in the EP’s liner notes. (Source: Stasisfield website via archive.org.)

“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!”

Thanks to Michael Farley for the interview.

Label Archaeology: In a Lighthouse Cassettes (Jacksonville, FL, 1997-1999)

“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.”

The J-card for In a Lighthouse number one, Vetran. (Though the label’s name was simply “Lighthouse” at this point). Source: Discogs

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.”

A review of the Vetran tape in the Tape-Gun zine, issue two. This image comes from the My Mean Magpie archive of Tape-Gun’s five issue run.

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

(Source: Discogs)

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.”)

(Source: Bandcamp)

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.

(Source: Discogs)

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.”

(Source: Discogs)

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.”

Cover art rescued from Fabrice Herve’s archived website.

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

Source: Discogs

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.”

Source: Discogs

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.

Thanks to Carleton Peck for the interview.

Brent Gutzeit / Bill Groot ‎– Deselm CD-R (BOXmedia, 2003)

“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.

Unsolved Mysteries: Conglomerate Records

“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:

Cover of Klangfarbenbilder cassette by Kurt Schwitters Revisited. Schwitters was a German artist who is best known for the Merzbau, for which he converted six rooms of a house into a jagged sculptural piece. This was the basis for Japanese noise artist Merzbow’s name.

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-Standard article 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.

Pointless Endeavors

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.

The Anti-Records

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.

CGL zero: Surrogate Poultice Butter – Counterfeit Enema Lunch

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).

Erotic Misery

An empty cassette shell. No other information was provided with this tape.

Recycler

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:

  1. A tape cassette filled with dry macaroni.
  2. A massacred tape instructing you to “Please Rewind.”
  3. A couple deconstructed cassettes.
  4. A cassette shell filled with circuit board components, and attached via wires to a syringe.
  5. 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…)

Latest Developments

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.

Maggi Payne – Ping/Pong: Beyond The Pail CD-R (and/OAR, 2003)

“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

Chris Cutler

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.”

Payne recreated the bucket-and-hydrophone set up she used to produce “Ping.” (Image courtesy of Maggi Payne)

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.

Volume one of the phonography.org compilations. (Source: Discogs)

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.'”

Image courtesy of Maggi Payne.

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).

A Kombi ‎- Music To Drive-By CD (Dual Plover, 1996)

“The van rolled an entire 180 degrees, landing on its feet while traveling down Mount Tambourine in Queensland.”

Source: Discogs

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.

Lucas Abela performing live as Justice Yeldham, mouthing a piece of glass that’s been connected to a contact mic. Source.

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.

Source: Vimeo

“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.

Original source: Vimeo

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.

The Dual Plover logo (Source: Dual Plover website)

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/.

Angus Tarnawsky and Nathan Liow – Artifacts lathe-cut 7″ (In Context Music, 2014)

“The algorithms—which I don’t know much about—are doing their best to arrange the signal in a cohesive order, but it doesn’t always work.”

In 2014, an Australian artist living in New York City named Angus Tarnawsky and a pianist living in Melbourne, Nathan Liow, staged three improvisational performances despite the distance between them. Liow played piano in Australia while Tarnawsky listened via Skype. Tarnawsky then took that Skype transmission, listened for imperfections in the data stream, then looped these back to Liow’s end via FaceTime, where the signal was broadcast live over speakers. The name they used to describe their performances, along with the lathe-cut record that emerged from those shows, was Artifacts—a reference to the digital warps and clips in the virtual call medium.

Tarnawsky caught up with me via Skype to share the story of this unusual release, while Liow weighed in via email. Though Tarnawsky is now living in Toronto, having recently completed his masters degree at the Ontario College of Art & Design, in 2014 he was living in New York City. It was an important place for him to grow artistically, though profoundly different from his upbringing. He grew up in Launceston, a small town on the island of Tasmania, then attended college in Melbourne, where he became engrossed in the improvised music scene. After several summers spent visiting New York and deriving inspiration from the city’s extensive arts scene, he moved there in 2010. Connections he had made with local improvisers helped soften the transition.

While living in New York, Tarnawsky stayed in touch with his friends back home using video chat platforms. As he stayed up late at night to accommodate the difference in time zones, he started to pay special attention to the digital aberrations in the signal he was getting. “In Australia, the internet is pretty unreliable, or at least it was at the time,” he tells me. “I would get such bizarre artifacts, bizarre glitches and sounds.”

He points out that, at the time, many Australian websites had their servers in North America, so even for an Australian to access a local website, their signal would have to cover an impressive distance. On top of this, the internet connection in Australia at the time was also relatively archaic. All this led to glitches in the data stream. “So I’m on these Skype calls, hearing lots of artifacts. I can understand from a technical reason it has to do with the packets of the signal. There’s a certain compression of the signal that is then transported from point A to point B. Occasionally that packet delivery has some issues with it it, where it might load faster or slower. The algorithms—which I don’t know much about—are doing their best to arrange the signal in a cohesive order, but it doesn’t always work.”

At the time, Tarnawsky saw this as an interesting phenomenon, but wasn’t sure what to do with it, “I just kind of put this aside as an interesting thing, a kooky phenomenon.”

One friend that Tarnawsky would Skype with was Nathan Liow, a fellow improviser living in Melbourne. In 2014, Liow mentioned to him that he wanted to put something together for the Melbourne Next Wave festival. Their mutual friend, Rosemary Willink, was one of the curators.

Liow, in touch with me via email, told me a bit about Willink’s concept. “She had been thinking about the idea of the internet and play – she called the exhibition ‘Can we please play the internet?’ Which reminds me of what I used to say as a kid when asking about Playstation, sport or whatever. It brings to mind the idea of the platform—be it a console or a soccer ball or the world wide web—being the fun thing in itself and not just a means for communication or an invisible tool we look over for the sake of our end goal.”

The official program for the exhibition documents the emails that led to Artifacts, but they are rendered in a deliriously warped format.

Tarnawsky recalls discussing the idea via internet call. “He said, do you have any ideas what this might mean? And I said, how about we take this artifact concept that is on my mind, and we try to use it as a core feature of a work?” He emphasizes the conceptual challenge of trying to figure out “a way to use the internet as an instrument.”

Liow remembers the details of that first fateful call. “I first Skyped Angus about the project while I was in transit at Tokyo airport so it’s fitting that we brainstormed the idea literally over the internet. Taking Rosemary’s theme of play, and also with both of us being musicians by trade (piano and Angus drum kit and programming) we were both certain that playing our instruments needed to be a central point in the work whilst being really fun and spontaneous with the internet. The internet was both the thing that facilitated the work, whilst being an obvious participant and an instrument involved in the art making itself.”

Stretching Out a Glitch

After they figured out that they wanted to pull off an in-vivo distance collaboration, the challenge was in execution. Their idea was to have Liow playing the piano live at the festival in Melbourne, with Tarnawsky listening in live via Skype, then sending the distorted signal back to Melbourne via FaceTime to be played over speakers, concurrent with Liow’s playing. Since the ‘artifacts’ were the key focus, they wanted to ensure there would reliably be enough of these digital distortions in the signal. They ran several experiments in which they tried to tax their internet connections. At one point, they ran multiple devices simultaneously in an attempt to eat up as much of the internet connection as possible, and even considered programming something to intentionally overload the system.

In the end, a simple arrangement proved best, since the calls were glitchy enough by nature, and didn’t require any sabotage. Tarnawsky recalls sitting in his apartment with his equipment assembled before him, often up at strange hours due to the time zones. “I would be on a FaceTime call with Nathan, and on a Skype call. The Skype call would be me hearing the sound of the piano coming in to New York.” That call was sent to Tarnawsky via an iPhone poked inside the piano itself, captured via the device’s built-in mic. This arrangement was chosen because they realized, after trying different set-ups involving professional microphones, that the audio compression involved in Skype calls rendered any audiophilic tendencies futile.

“I was using some software to grab moments when a glitch would happen, and maybe loop it or stretch it out. Doing on-the-fly sampling of what Nathan was doing, or maybe trying to eventually build some feedback…. Then that signal was going back to Nathan in the gallery [via FaceTime] and coming out of a speaker.”

Tarnawsky’s rig had multiple components. The Skype call was first filtered through his Roland 101, where he applied a space echo. That signal was then sent to his computer, where it was processed via Mio Console. Then, using a copy of Ableton Live linked with Max MSP, he would sample, alter, and loop the artifacts as they came through. This all had to happen live, since the signal was then sent back to Liow in Melbourne via FaceTime, where it was played live over loudspeakers. The time lag between made the results even more interesting.

Liow, the one charged with performing live in front of an audience, remembers the performances vividly. “The experience being on the piano in the gallery space was quite a disembodied feeling. We set up the audio feed to amplify through two large hi-fi speakers placed on either side of the piano. I was literally swimming in sound, and that provided great impetus for musical instigation and response—though I could not discern who I was playing with and what was deliberate or pure chance. I tried to clear my mind and just react and create in the moment, however it was hard to ignore the fact that a lot of what I was hearing was heavily imbued with what I had played moments prior, hidden amongst layers and layers of lossy audio and feedback loops. Serendipitously, the internet in Australia is so patchy that it really lent itself to surprises in every performance.”

Artifacts was staged as three live performances for the festival, and was also set up as an installation at a gallery, and released as a limited-edition lathe-cut record for In Context Music, the label run by Tarnawsky, which continues, in sporadic form, to this day.

Analogue-Digital Degradation

Source: Discogs

Artifacts was the fourth release on ICM, and the first to involve Angus himself. The first three releases, which Tarnawsky conceptualized as a trilogy, were releases by other artists who were living in NYC with him at the time. He wanted to do something creative with them, but in lieu of the standard approach of pitching a jam session, he had something else in mind. “They were far more established than I was, and I wanted to know how I could instigate something but not a performance.”

Initially, the goal was to create a series of objects that the artists could use in their performances, for example wooden objects to be played by hand. “For various reasons, it didn’t quite pan out that way, and I discovered lathe-cut records. I figured lathe-cuts would be a way that music could be a way that music could be presented, with each artist needing to think about the medium as really affecting what gets put on the disc.”

The distinct sound qualities of lathe-cut records were intended to interact with the sound contained on the grooves. “I asked the artist to try to present music that would really accentuate that a lathe is a noisy object that almost sounds like it’s been dragged through the dirt. You’ve played it five times and it already sounds like it’s been dragged through the dirt for a decade.

“It’s a really complicated medium. It doesn’t lend itself to clarity for every kind of project.” For Tarnawsky, the question became: “What could we work together to make that would be something that would seem strange, but would be beautiful in this weird lathe-cut world?”

He figures that Artifacts was perfectly suited to In Context Music’s ethic. “There was this kind of backwards-and-forwards, analogue-digital degradation conversation. We took this long-distance collaboration that was all about lo-fi charm, and we were able to put it onto this plastic disc that was a bizarre kind of degradation/compression/alteration of the sound.”

The audio for the record was two 5-minute parts that Tarnawsky felt were suited to the release—especially beautiful excerpts that most closely resembled the sound he and Liow had been striving for. Though he used his own lathe to make some of the ICM releases, he was too busy touring during Artifacts‘ production, so a friend made the 50 copies. He was satisfied with the final outcome and its distinctive, run-through-the-dirt lathe sound. “I felt immediately that it was the perfect medium for it,” he says. “It made Artifacts seem like it came out at the turn of the 20th century. No longer an artifact of the digital era, but an artifact of this way, way back time. Some kind of Berliner disc found in the thrift store racks.”

The piano and speakers, as per the exhibition program.

Today, Tarnawsky retains an enthusiasm for the project, though feels that he would tweak things on his end if were to try it again. He notes that the nature of their set-up could be a bit “out of control” at times, with the sounds he was feeding back to Liow sometimes veering into chaotic, shrill territory— “spiraling out of control,” as he puts it. With more time to practice he says he would try to run things “with more subtlety”—working around the aesthetic he captured in the vinyl release.

Meanwhile, Liow tells me that Artifacts still stands out to him as an achievement. “I’m still really proud of the project. The concept is so visceral and relevant years down the line. And it’s also remarkable how far the technology has come and yet still remains so unrefined. Mostly I’m just proud of the fact that it sounds really beautiful, and it was fun to ‘get together’ and collaborate with Angus on a project that has now found it’s place in multiple gallery spaces and playlists.”

Thanks to Angus Tarnawsky and Nathan Liow for the interviews. All images courtesy of Angus Tarnawsky unless otherwise specified. Today, Tarnawsky is planning to move to Montreal to complete his PhD in communications at Concordia University.

Sudden Infant And Ze ‎– WC-D 3″ CDR (Entr’acte, 2005)

Founded in London but now based out of Antwerp, the Entr’acte label is today known for their experimental music editions which come in distinctive shrink-wrapped packaging. The package must be punctured in order for the music to be listened to, staging a conflict between collecting and listening.

But there was a time before shrink-wrap, and the label’s early discography includes a number of now-obscure oddities, including a recording made in an underground car park (Formatt’s Engtevrees), a composition produced in a deliberate stage of half-sleep (Phroq’s Half-Asleep Music), and a collection of field recordings of French cable cars (Simon Whethan’s Ascension_Suspension). Many of these were very limited editions, often released on CDR.

In combing through the early Entr’acte discography, I saw an interesting listing which warranted further investigation:

Live recording of an improvised performance at a public lavatory which took place on Saturday, 29 January 2005 in Kentish Town, London, in front of an invited audience, a bemused attendant and an unsuspecting stranger…

It was a 2005 3″ CDR Sudden Infant and Ze, seemingly the third Entr’acte edition, albeit allotted no catalogue number.

Courtesy of Joke Lanz.

Intrigued, I reached out via email to Joke Lanz, the founding member of the legendary experimental outfit Sudden Infant, which at the time was his solo project.

He tells me that this release came about after he moved to London in April of 2004, as part of an artist residency funded by Switzerland’s cultural department. “I lived for six months in a studio apartment in an old warehouse building on Commercial Road in Whitechapel,” he recalls. “During that time I met Allon Kaye of Entr’acte label who was working as a graphic designer for the Architectural Association. And I also met Joe Caramelo, a.k.a. Ze. We became friends and decided to make some performances together. After my residency I stayed in London on my own expenses until I moved to Berlin in August 2006”

But living in London, he found it was difficult to find opportunities to perform live. “The concert situation in London is quite difficult. There are not enough clubs and live spaces to cover the needs of all those bands and musicians who live in London. That’s how I got the idea of performing in unusual public spaces. Why not performing a Noise show in a public lavatory? Actually, I wanted to tour London exclusively in public toilets/lavatories.

“I joined forces with Ze and we checked out possible spaces until we found out that most lavatories were already refurbished into high-tech pay restrooms with cameras and attendants which made it almost impossible to hijack the space for a live concert.”

After hunting for a suitable W.C., he finally found a suitable venue. “The best I found was in Kentish Town right opposite of a pub called Bull & Gate. I assume that public lavatory does not exist anymore. It was back then already a bit run down.”

The public loo in question, now converted into a fashionable cocktail bar. (Source: Google Street View)

Lanz is right. The restroom, originally positioned in an intersection, has since been converted into a trendy cocktail bar called Ladies and Gents, which seems fittingly ironic.

Courtesy of Joke Lanz.

After inviting some confederates/participants via email and text message, Lanz and Joe Caramelo staged their performance. “We had battery amplifiers and went down to the men’s room together with an invited audience of approximately 12 people and started immediately with our sound performance. We didn’t realize that there was an attendant in his tiny small cleaning room in the back of the lavatory. He came out for a second, smiled at us and went back to his room.. I saw him just for a brief moment because I was mostly focusing on my playing and the performance. But friends who were in the audience told me afterwards that the guy was obviously amused about the scenery and had a smile on his face before he returned to his booth.”

At another point, someone else wandered in to use the facility. “He came in and had to pass us to go to a cubicle. Maybe he wanted to use the urinals, but we were standing in front of it, therefore he disappeared inside a cubicle.” After the show, they went to the Bull & Gate for pints.

The WC-D mini-CDR is a document of that restroom performance, during a period of time when the Sudden Infant name was still Lanz’s solo project. “Occasionally I collaborated with other musicians or had guests for my studio recordings and live shows,” he says. “Sudden Infant as a stable group started to operate in 2014, when I transformed the solo project into a trio, with Christian Weber on bass and Alexandre Babel on drums.”

Despite original plans for a public loo tour, this ended up being the only show performed in one. “We did another toilet performance at a transvestite sex club in East London called Stunners,” he explains. “But this was not a public lavatory, it was the official restroom of the club where some guys changed their dresses and their gender. Some other time we performed inside the Arnold Circus pavilion in Shoreditch together with Devotchkas Conundrum, a female noise duo.”

The Arnold Circus pavilion show.

Reminded of the performance by my email, Lanz reflects positively on this unique moment in time — an obscure performance that took place a decade and a half ago, immortalized on miniature CDR of which only 25 copies were produced. “It feels far away, but I still got very positive memories. We were a group of highly creative and interested people sharing ideas and actions. Allon Kaye helped organising and published the recording. Martin Holtkamp, another friend, documented everything with photographs. From today’s point of perspective I can say: We were digging deep into the ground of performance and noise with a shot of Dada and some Punk spirit.”

Thanks to Joke Lanz for the interview. See the Sudden Infant website to catch up on Lanz’s happenings.

Seth Cluett – Undr CDR (BOXmedia, 2004)

“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.”

From the postcard to the Resynthesis group exhibition. Source.

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.

Image of Cluett’s parents’ driveway, the location of Undr‘s recording. (Credit: Allen Cluett)

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.

A look at the Raven program. Source.

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.”

The driveway in winter. (Credit: Jennifer Eberhardt)

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.

Interview with Cluett by Barbara London, for Max Feed/Mix Feed

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”
Credit: Allen Cluett

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.

Interview with Cluett conducted May 18, 2020.