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John Cage - Early Electronic and Tape Music (2014)

'I believe the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.' - John Cage 1937. Although John Cage occasionally worked in large, sophisticated studios - for example, when he composed Fontana Mix in 1958 - his approach to electronic and tape music was often uncomplicated, makeshift, and pragmatic, employing simple tabletop devices: tape machines, phonograph cartridges, contact microphones, record players, portable radios, etc. He developed a soundworld that was utterly new, radical and demanding. It heralded the age of the loudspeaker, mass communication and Marshall McLuhan's 'global village.' The hiss, crackle and hum of electronic circuits, and the disembodied sounds, snatched by radio from the ether, spoke of the 20th century. Langham Research Centre works within the tradition firmly established by Cage, using resources that would have been available to him. For the realisation of Cartridge Music, moving iron phonograph pickups were sourced and restored. These have a knurled screw designed to hold a steel phonograph needle and, in the piece, other objects are inserted and amplified: pieces of wire, toothpicks, paperclips, etc. The realisation of Fontana Mix includes the individual mono tracks from Cage's original tapes created in 1958. These are played using open-reel tape machines. These practices ensure we work within the limitations that Cage experienced and enable us to get close to the soundworld he inhabited. (Robert Worby, LRC)

Early Electronic & Tape Music is a historical reconstruction of several John Cage pieces that can be arguably called fundamental in the development of avant-garde music during the second half of last century. Collective Langham Research Centre utilizes the various technologies that were available at the time of each composition (ranging from 1952 to 1962) in order to reconstruct a series of sounds and noises that are no longer common within the range of the contemporary sound-imaginary. The result is quite the listen – someone like me, who is now more used to digital sounds than anything else, might find these recordings utterly strange as they both re-create and re-bury the terms of Cage’s fascination with the electronic, at least in the sense that it provided the grounds for a certain kind of vaguely apolitical futurism with which to picture the universe as a single sound-entity we could willfully modify. The meaning of those technologies has changed over time, articulating a history of progress that has pushed the longing for utopia to the side in favor of the pragmatic mindframe that finds a new version of some gadget to be the essence of the new. An album such as this, unlike other ‘authentic reconstructions’ in different genres, becomes a reminder that there is an alternative timeline, one in which the irony of dead futures is not entirely lost to the narrative of what is obsolete and what is not. After all, it’s not like there’s no original recordings from Cage’s own time.

Recorded with a clarity that can only be called contemporary (perhaps even HD), Early Electronic & Tape Music understands it is but a construct, defying authenticity with humor worthy of the composer himself, as “Fontana Mix with Aria” deploys a singer’s voice whose style is closer to avant-garde singers of the 70s than to the original’s Cathy Berberian. It constitutes an interpretation that responds perhaps not to what these works actually were but what we now imagine them to be, well placed as they are in musical canon: it is as much just one more version as it is a full historical recording. If “Fontana Mix” (without the Aria) was supposed to be “a camera from which anyone can take a photograph”, like Cage once said, this version might as well be a cellphone from which anyone can produce all kinds of pictorial information, tracing images that are not only far from static but also integrated into data, a way of manipulating tapes that would not sound too out of place in some noise or drone album from the past few years. This is, therefore, not an album for nostalgics, not even an album for those who were Cage’s contemporaries, but for us, for those that have grown in a world that has half-heartedly assimilated the work of the avant-garde, for those that know that its spirit is yet to fade and keep, like the Langham Research Centre, imagining the digital not as the next step in linear civilizatory revelation but as one more turn in history’s dial, brimming as it is with difference and diversity.

In this way, the works contained in the album, apart from the aforementioned “Fontana Mix with Aria”, comprise an interesting selection because of each piece’s relation not only to electronics but to other kinds of technologies as well, objects that many times we no longer even consider ‘technological’. “Cartridge Music”, for example, makes reference to the cartridge of the phonographic pick-ups where the needle resides, into which are inserted whatever small things the performers want, generating all sorts of rhythms and sounds; “0’00” (4’33” No. 2)”, of which the composer instructed that “in a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action”, is built upon whatever technique the performer comes up with, which is to say an improvised manner of conceiving one’s actions within a technological horizon; “Variations I”, which takes the score and notation as the possibility of composing and de-composing a system of meaning, in other words a certain technological approach to what in principle is but a tool of performance… and little needs to be said about “Imaginary Landscape No. 5” and “WBAI”, with their delicate placement of sound reproduction at the heart of sound production. The whole collection, then, might be interpreted as an approach to a kind of surrealist inquiry that is no longer essential to electronic musicians and listeners, a certain criticism of the things we have surrounded ourselves with, an invitation to take hold of them and re-infuse them with a life different from the one they were designed to endure.

All in all, this is one of those albums you must have in your collection, if not out of historical interest in Cage’s ouvre, at least out of a curiosity for music that paradoxically could be said to no longer exist. (David Murrieta)

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