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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Seeing and Touching Sound: Magnetic Tape Composition

Tape Music by Women Composers

Imagine that you compose electronic music working with magnetic tape. What would your process be? How would you devise a method to realize the sounds that you imagine as a work of music?

How would you go about recording the source sounds? Would you include concrete sounds from the real world? Or maybe some synthetic sounds using gadgets and instruments from the studio?

How would you choose to construct, or realize, the completed work? Would you edit it moment by moment in the manner of traditional musique concrete, collating sounds recorded on individual strips of magnetic tape? Or, might you choose to invent a performative process, playing the studio equipment in real-time and recording work as you play it? Maybe some of each?

Would you use tape loops or tape delay to repeat patterns of sounds? How loud would the individual parts be? How many tracks would you be capable of mixing down without loss of audio fidelity? Are your tape splices clean enough not to make a sound of their own, or could you use some practice in that department?

These are the kinds of considerations once faced by the composer of electronic music on tape. So much has changed with digital recording and editing, but there was a time when every piece of magnetic tape was the result of a painstaking process of analog recording of sounds, applying effects, and working out a plan for piecing it all together.

There is no single method of composing with magnetic tape. Every composer needed to find their own way. This episode is a tribute to many of these methods of tape composition and the pioneering women composers from seven different countries who found a process for themselves and carried out their works. We will hear examples of works from the United States, France, Canada, Israel, Colombia, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Except for one piece from 1999, these all date from the mature era of magnetic tape composition, from 1966 to 1985.

First, we heard two short works from the album Out of this World, released in 1976. These were tracks created for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

1. Delia Derbyshire, Dreaming. Derbyshire joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1960 and worked there as a recording engineer and composer until 1973. In Derbyshire’s personal notes, she said that this snippet of music was extracted from her longer composition for the program "Travelling in Winter." It was renamed "Dreaming" for issue the sound effects collection "Out Of This World" issued by the BBC in 1976. The original track was composed in 1971.

2. Glynis Jones, Crystal City. Composer and musician Glynis Jones joined the Workshop in 1973 and produced the sound effects record on which this was released. Both the Derbyshire piece and “Crystal City” were likely produced using the EMS VCS III and EMS Synthi 100 synthesizers, both of which were being used by the Radiophonic workshop in 1971.

After those two short tracks was a longer work by Pauline Oliveros.

3. Pauline Oliveros, Jar Piece, from 1966, released on the album Electronic Essays in 1968. This little-known work was produced while Oliveros did a two-month residency at the electronic music studio of the University of Toronto. Working with inventor and engineer Hugh LeCaine, she had access to sophisticated instrumentation to further her work with tape delay that she had begun in San Francisco. In the span of a few weeks she completed some nineteen works. Much of this was possible because her technique often involved recording and later mixing music that could be performed in real time. Rather than focusing on the editing of tape, she focused on the performance process and setups to get the sounds started and created many of these performances according to predefined steps that she planned for each composition. In Le Caine’s studio, she had access to a 20-channel tape loop machine and various devices equipped with multiple oscillators. At the time, she became interested in the effects of using supersonic and subsonic signals to generate sounds that were equivalent to the difference between the two. I think you can hear Oliveros experimenting with this technique in certain sections where extremely high and low tones are used. This is a shortened version of this track as released on the album Electronic Essays. A complete version is found on the CD collection of Oliveros’ works called Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970.

4. Jacqueline Nova, Opposition-Fusion from 1968. This Colombian composer wrote pieces for small ensembles in addition to her experimentation with electronic tape music. She was a pioneer of Columbian electroacoustic music.

5. Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, Zones from 1972. Saint-Marcoux was a cofounder of the International Group for Electroacoustic Music in Paris in 1969 and then, upon settling in Montreal, the percussion ensemble Polycousmie in 1971 to integrate percussion and electroacoustic music with dance. In. Zones was realized in the Sonic Research Studio of Simon Fraser University in early 1972. This tape work, heard in entirety, modifies and fuses the sounds of instruments, such as harpsichord, piano, organ and electronic keyboard instruments, with other noises. Filtering and editing was used extensively to arrive at a these particular tone qualities and articulations.

6. Eliane Radigue, Triptypch part 2, excerpt. From 1978. French composer Eliane Radigue work in her home studio to create this extended work of three parts, the total piece being an hour long. She work in a manner like Oliveros, working out parts that could be played in real time, but she often mixed them together afterward. Her process at the time of this composition used the ARP 2500 modular synthesizer and three tape recorders. She recorded two separate parts on two of the machines and then created a mix-down using the third machine. She does not take well to improvisation and prefers to plan her works out carefully ahead of time. Going back to what I was saying about there being no rules for editing tape, Radigue recalled that when first working in a shared studio in NY in 1971 with Laurie Spiegel and Rhys Chatham, the only direction they had from the studio director was to “clean the synthesizer” when they were done each day. “After that,” she recalled, “we all had to make our own way.” She settled on a style of music with gradual changes that is a reflection of her longtime practice of Buddhist meditation.

7. Maggi Payne, Subterranean Network excerpt, from 1985. Payne is a composer of electronic and computer music as well as a video artist, installation and recording engineer. She was Co-Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College Oakland, CA from 1992-2018 where she also taught recording engineering, composition, and electronic music from 1972 to recently. She describes Subterranean Network as a sonic dreamlike experience recalling the practice of the tunnel fighting during the Vietnam war in which the Vietcong fought largely out of a vast network of subterranean tunnels.

8. Miki Yui, Mong, from 1999. Yui is a musician, composer, and artist born in Tokyo but based in Düsseldorf since 1994. This track is from her first CD in 1999 called Small Sounds. Yui says that “I always focus on the memory of sounds.” For this set of short pieces, she recorded everyday sounds “taken from her surroundings and developed them “as the fragments of memories.” Instructions for the album suggest that “small sounds are to merge and fuse with your acoustic environment - please play in a transparent level; in different atmosphere. Although clearly a digitally-edited piece, Mong has a clear affinity to the kinds of effects associated with analog tape editing. It appears to contain three tracks of a woman’s voice singing (in Japanese), a short passage that is repeated four times, yet none of the tracks remain in the same synchronization. They go in and out of phase with one another, continuously moving closer and further apart, like the effect of using tape recorders with slightly different playback speeds.

We concluded this episode with the Archive Mix in which I played two tracks at the same time to see what happens. I featured two additional tape compositions by women. The first was Bat-David by Veronika Wolf-Cohen, from the album Israeli Electroacoustic Music released by Folkways in 1981. This work was realized in the Centre for Experimental Music of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The work is based around the story that King David, when he could not sleep at night, would hear the desert wind setting his harp in motion, prompting him to go out into the night to write his Psalms. The second work was an excerpt from Amber ’75 by American composer Ann McMillan. McMillan worked with Edgard Varese on tape portions of Deserts in 1955 and was the music director of WBAI in New York in the mid-sixties. She developed a fondness of the sounds of nature and amassed a large collection that she applied to her electroacoustic music. This work includes the edited sounds of frogs, insects, and a bell. McMillan often changed the speed of the sounds to draw them out and create her sonic meditations. This work is from the album Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal & Other Sounds, released by Folkways in 1979.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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