No Wings Talk
No Wings Talk
I’m a bird, not an ornithologist.
—Orson Welles (or more likely Saul Bellow, or very probably neither Abraham Lincoln nor Ada Lovelace, a rough quote at any rate)
Even as something of a rough memoir re noise making in the later 20th century/early 21st century, this is an uneven document.
Years ago, in better times personally, I did play at interviewing myself. Not as self promotion so much as self distraction (and okay, maybe a quest for aesthetic awareness), something to do with words and points of view somewhat converging and edging apart. Something one does in the wake of the Usenet newsgroups and in lieu of same. A dialogue and consensus of one.
In my younger middle years I was hoping to absorb so much. For some later and more perfect union of thought & deed. Short of that, mottoes and rules of thumb are good for a laugh.
One triad often quoted even now is: GOOD, FAST, CHEAP.
With the proviso: Pick any two.
As some tripolar continuum of choices and outcomes, one may land on any number of locations. Me, I fly rather close to FAST and CHEAP. The idea being that any good outcome will rely on time and/or money (it won’t be fast or, if so, not cheap). Fast and cheap will not be good. Good and fast won’t be cheap.
This was invoked often in recording forums, even when the barriers to entry were costlier, less varied and more involved than today. People in well equipped and maintained recording studios were living out the triad even if the very analog and pricey world they inhabited precluded fast or cheap (though in that context, those terms had probably different relative values). Proper inhabitants of that world would say plenty, I would read it. That qualifies me then & now as an erstwhile reader, not as one who lives the stories.
To lay some groundwork for a perfect future world in which I somehow prevailed artistically (not a world that ever came to be or ever will), I read about synthesis. There were some TAB books and other such in the library. Diagrams about the harmonic series and its relation to pulse waves, saw waves, etc.
Likewise, schematics and block diagrams.
Also, in decades past, an electrical engineer/classically inclined musician & composer Stephen L. Martin and other more disembodied, online sources schooled me within my considerable limits and somewhat lightened my overall ignorance. I built fuzzboxes from schematics, a very few oscillators and such. Within other recipes, I tried some circuit bending projects, mostly not too hard, with scrap materials, contact wires and mixed results.
In the wake of the Great Recession and other sea changes, large scale and personal and in between, I greatly slowed down my acquisition of thrift store stuff etc., much of which could seen as late middle Radio Shack stuff that happened to be floating around when I was. Old toys, old radios etc. Old as in 10 or so years old. Nothing too old.
Yes, also some older things, but they were less familiar, less useful. In the FAST column, one needs familiar things with familiar ways and means (like actual potentiometers for volume control—yes, even thumb wheels). The vintage was fancy but less handy than the merely unloved and recently obsolete. That there are waves of this obsolescence, and waves of us somehow also obsolete in our experiences, can be well demonstrated in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode, ["Kimmy Meets A Drunk Lady!"] wherein Titus Andromedon must dig through layers of landfill to acquire a storage rack for cassettes (note here for Cassette Culture folks).
Back to my limited story, fast and cheap included various mostly feedback loop usages of late 1970s to 1990s consumer electronics and other such stuff that closely resembles the same.
It would take some actual thought and worse still sharp recall of hazy and hastily done things for me to share in detail, but in the heyday, I called the many ad hoc, offhand, multiform constellations of these gizmos “set ups”. Or more agriculturally, with a nod towards Rauschenberg, “combines”.
The much earlier and more high toned inspirations for these set ups were the feedback matrices of David Tudor by way of Nicolas Collins (which can also be brought forward by no input mixer noisecraft, but I’m not as familiar with nor riffing on that parallel development), the lab rat circuit cybernetics of Bebe and Louis Barron and the ready made/Merz aesthetics of Duchamp and Schwitters. Other folks figure in, but those are the main ones.
In short I went from the harmonic series to the overtone series. And even then this was more seeing how the set ups would play out.
Brian Eno and other pop production soniticians also weigh in here in approach and attitude. But it was much cheaper and more low rent than that. In short, general notions were nothing before whatever happened in a specific situation, set up.
To save time, or remind myself later to continue name dropping let me say also: Laurie Anderson, Charles Amirkhanian, Pauline Oliveros, William Burroughs, John Giorno, Terry Riley, John McGeoch.
But I was continuing a stray element that was even in my early pop tune/goofy monologue work, a tendency toward feedback. (One handy question: Why build oscillators when you can live in them? Yes, time to namecheck Alvin Lucier, tho’ I knew feedback and was hard yoked to additive room tone well before I heard of the considerably more focused AL.) I was recording poorly, quickly, cheaply in open air between cassette players. Sometimes with a cheesy cardoid mic that I would use to create feedback. This also with shorter more resonant settings on a MXR flanger pedal and with a Ross compressor pedal that I used on everything. So there would be ringing and swoops of feedback even way back when.
Later I got tired of writing lesser songs when the earlier ones had gotten things right enough. So there was less “music” and “songwriting” and more sound. Till the set ups and the sound they made were the tracks. Usually together as drones, sets of events, mixed with panning and level controls to make an overall recording.
This is the mostly recent thing. Done with tracks that were created by any means necessary/handy.
When there was space and quiet and isolation, there were feedback tracks etc created with physical world feedback loops in open air. Even then, other more electronic means were being taken on. Like circuit bent gear (Reed Ghazala of EC and beyond, Seaweed Factory website), feedback matrix (Nicolas Collins/David Tudor), pedals as oscillators (see above) and various odd bits of inductance (again with the Nicolas Collins). I had previous experience with this in my cassette-only analog days, but without pop songs/comic narratives (cue Anderson/Burroughs/Giorno, also Brother Dave Gardner/Richard Pryor/Rudy Ray Moore et al) at the center, the noise came forward.
Given all this prep time and such, one might argue, generously, that my noise is anything but fast. It took a lot of time and prompting from those before to arrive now. And so it is now. And noise.
There is more to say technically, but it may mean little or nothing to current practitioners who aren’t me. And very past tense even hereabouts. Technophilic nostalgia. Or consumer fetishism. Though hey, what fish swims out of water, what bird flies out of air?
Will leave the reader with one concrete example: the pause switch on old cassette recorders/remote off switch on old outboard cassette recorder microphones. This is the sort of old arcane detail that data mining soc. med. forums use to suss out one’s age and/or group affinity. “Do You Remember This?” (Or to quote a wise elder, George W. S. Trow, “Do you remember remembering the ‘50s?” Okay, now back to gizmos.)
Short of having a good hacking sense for varispeeding cassette (or open reel) tape decks, one can use the pause switch on a old portable cassette recorder in play mode as a remote power on/off switch. So if there’s a recorded tape to play with the play switch engaged, that tape will ramp up to full speed in play or down to full stop when using that switch to play/on or pause/off.
The most pop musical and audible use of that is in my Bengal Burlap era track, “Bobo”. A variety of stuff, including another recording of my voice and that of a flanged, squonking saxophone, is being ramped in and out of play in just that way. That playback was on what was even then a rather old RCA radio/cassette recorder my middle brother used to have. Not sure of the initial recording deck, but different playback decks have different ramp up/ramp down speeds and tapers and characteristics. (Handy, if cruel old dictum: What is different, sounds different. How different? Well, in a noisy mix . . . )
So if you hear a sax etc. smearing in and out of earshot on “Bobo”, that’s how that happened.
And. It can happen again, tho’ sure, there’s likely an app for that.
I love the article KR! Lots of food for thought. To many apps out there in my opinion I use as little as possible usually weather & such on my phone!
Kevin R Seward
Yeah. Stuff at hand with a purpose intended or not can be fun.
Kevin R Seward
Oh and hey, thanks for stopping by.
Great article! Welcome to the Cottage Mr. Seward.
Great article! I remember you making some pretty deathless pop music back when, that was good, fast and cheap! I'm a fan of fast and cheap personally, I mostly use free software and used (misused) electronics.
Listened to the 1982 Burlap today and was quite entertained. Thanks for the intro and too bad I didn't find out about you way back then. I expect I'll be hearing more of your library in the relative future. Got stuff to trade if you exchange hardcopies. Nice to meetcha.
Kevin, thanks for your really good, thought provoking article. “Bobo” is great!
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noise maker, aesthete at large, provisional poet, ex-songwriter