According to a character in the 1972 Film Super Fly, having an 8-track stereo system was part of the American Dream. Mention the Betamax video format with reverence today, and you’ll be met with a disbelieving grin.
Audio and video tapes have long since fallen from public favor, but certain indie music labels have revived the cassette format in recent years.
The first installment of the Dilating Nexus performance series—co-presented by Secret Weave and The Shaking Ray Levi Society (disclosure: I am on its directing board) and partially funded by an ArtsBuild grant—entitled “An Evening with Tapes,” spotlights tape as more than just a format, with performers encouraged to use any type of tape (audio, video, reel-to-reel, adhesive, etc.) as an instrument.
Local musician Rick Weaver (Dinner Music, Form a Log) of the presenting group Secret Weave is bringing his concept behind “An Evening with Tapes” to Chattanooga after its first presentation in St. Louis, and he’s drawn to the possibilities of analog audio formats.
“Tape is not passive once it is set in motion. It is an organism with a ‘life of its own.’ To engage with it creatively is a rodeo. The bull will buck,” said Weaver. “The musician is able to easily explore musical notions such as tempo modulation, polyrhythm and microtonality that they would find challenging to achieve on a traditional instrument and tedious to achieve through a computer.”
“This year marks the 70th anniversary of Halim El-Dabh’s The Expression of Zaar, which was perhaps the earliest example of tape music,” said Evan Lipson, musician and Secret Weave co-founder. “Tape represents a return to a more primitive, playful and hands-on approach towards the creation and performance of electronic music.”
“Linear storage is more mediative, considerate, deliberate and focused than the vast and disjunct world of digital storage,” said Weaver. “The exchange of objects from hand to hand is more conversational and intimate than throwing files into the Internet void.”
The event will feature out-of-town performers Catholic Guilt (St. Louis), Harvest Team (Nashville), Chris Davis of The Cherry Blossoms (Nashville) and Nows (Atlanta), and there is an emphasis on interaction and collaboration.
Davis sees the event’s concept as “a musical problem to solve” and even cited a packaging job at a brewery, taping up boxes, as something that he approached with a musical attitude.
“I’m a firm believer that any action can be music...it’s more fun that way,” said Davis.
Tony Levi (Secret Guilt) and Jerry Reed (Rurnt), who have a collaborative set with Australopithecine, are mainstays of the Chattanooga noise scene. Reed describes his solo work as “my love of distorted loops and loud noises and my reflections on loss, anger, depression and disgust,” and Levi says that noise doesn’t need to alienate and that it is possible “...to write pieces with actual form and feeling behind them.”
Reed and Levi are co-founders of the label Failed Recordings, which almost exclusively releases cassettes, and Reed describes tapes as being “the number one D.I.Y. sound format.”
“Tapes never really went away,” said Reed. “They were just replaced with something easier to produce and over-charge for.”
Visual artist and musician Robert Parker, of Color Graphics Array, approaches the event with his artistic vision of “experimenting with and observing data, especially when it changes as it passes through different membranes.”
“It’s always interesting to see how a particular technology will attempt to dither the infinite x-factors of the analogue world,” said Parker. “And even more so when that same technology gets it wrong.”
Stratton Tingle (a.k.a. Prophets & Kings) will collaborate with performance artist Aaron Cowan in a piece that will “explore and approach the sonic and physical limitations of the medium” to be both “guttural” and “cerebral.”
The cassette revival may be seen by some as format fetishism, and Tingle has a dissenting view among the tape-love.
“I do not like tape as a medium,” said Tingle. “I’m happy to degrade the medium and do not plan to defend tapes as a legitimate format for producing or presenting art. I would find ‘An Evening with SnapChat’ to be more contemporary.”
Other local participants will include EV MHIR, Guest Room, Tim Hinck, Wadsworth Longfellow, Jeffrey Mitchell, Pukelust, Ahkahshick Taper and Bridget Venuti (a.k.a. Aether Jag).
While the event’s focus is on tape, ultimately, it is about letting an arbitrary artistic limitation inspire creativity and putting musicians outside of their comfort zones.
“You can’t take ‘tape lessons’ at your high school or local music store,” said Lipson. “Everyone is self-taught, and therefore each artist is forced to call upon his or her own creative abilities, resources and inventiveness.”
“This ‘Tape Fest’ could just as well be ‘Bread Fest’ or ‘Lawnmower Fest,’ and it would still be mind-blowing, because the performers involved in the event are all pros at their game,” said Weaver. “Their personalities will shine through despite the restrictions of the festival.”
An Evening With Tapes (Dilating Nexus series Part I)
Artifact Gallery, 1080 Duncan Ave
April 26, 7 p.m., $5
An auxiliary event will be presented the day after AN EVENING WITH TAPES, featuring Catholic Guilt, Secret Guilt, Rurnt, Torschlusspanik, Baby Magic and Subconscious Colors at Sluggo’s North (501 Cherokee Blvd.) at 10 p.m. on April 27. Admission at the door is $5.