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.

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.