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Magnetic Tape an Introduction to Tape Music

Magnetic Tape a Slice of Musique Conrete

At the start of the nineteenth century composers began to introduce more unusual timbres to their work. Parade, a piece by the composer Satie, was just one of the new approaches to composing that used unusual timbres within a performed production; typewriter and ships horns were just a few of the sounds used. What was problematic about this approach in composing, was that if the performance venue was of any size, sound(s) would become almost unheard, if heard at all; thankfully for future composers this issue amongst others would be resolved and become accepted in the form of Schaeffer and his conceived ideas of musique conrete.

Magnetic Tape Production

At the start of the musique conrete movement the use of tape in its production was confined to the studio. Some of the reasons for this were due to the concept and constructional process behind its thinking. However it was not long before composers of this new material eventually began to contemplate tape as a performance media; allowing this studio based production to move to the public arena. This in turn opened up questions regarding the aesthetical problems associated with performing tape music in a concert scenario, while questioning its place as an instrument or tool of development. This paper will look at how the tape machine interacted in the development of music in what was already a time of high innovation.

Tape Music

The initial motivations to use tape in concert situations was not an individuals stroke of genius, rather through a logical assumption that the reproduction of music in public performances via a media such as tape, faired no different than sitting at home listening to the same material, with a larger audience to accompany the listener.

Pierre Schaeffer would be the first person to contemplate seriously the potentials of tape, conceiving the idea of the Phonogene and the Morphophone in 1951. The first of these two machines was able to produce variable speed and pitch changes, while the latter enabled desynchronizing to take place. It was however Karlheinz Stockhausen who first questioned the new media with his piece Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Children) (1956), this was originally designed for five speaker diffusion before being reduced to four. His thinking was that from an audience perspective this for them was a completely new experience, in his words

"The direction and movement of the sounds in space is shaped by the musician, opening up a new dimension in musical experience."

One of the key elements of this piece was spatialization, asking questions of the area of performance rather than the media itself. Therefore Stockhausen had opened up questions regarding the necessity and the reasoning of using such equipment, while at the same time being coupled with individuals who saw the tape machines as a new tool from which development rather than experimentation would commence. From the development side of tape performance came the term now most associated with this type of performance, titled 'Tape music '; This was not merely a named adoption of the equipment used, rather a logical formula that would combine both the found sound works of Schaeffer's musique concrete with the manipulative techniques of Stockhausen Elektronische Musik; this term was coined by the San Francisco Tape Music Centre (SFTMC) its members at it origins were Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender and Terry Riley . The SFTMC founded itself after performing in 1961 under the name of Sonic I, a set of performances using real instruments and tape; early experimental adoptions using improvised arts with Tape music were also carried out at the SFTMC with an Ampex 3 channel recorder (left, right and centre speaker) also being used in these experiments.

Another group also active at this time was the collaboration of Gordan Mumma and Robert Ashley. Mumma and Ashley were two composers who were both members of the Once group (1961); performing festivals bearing the s ame name. Sinfonia (1960) by Mumma, was a composition for 12 instruments and magnetic tape, using tape in the third movement as a way of bridging the gap between movement II and IV. This somewhat radical use of the tape as a creative intervention equal to an orchestra would be further explored in the nineteen seventies by Francois Bayle. Mario Davidovsky would also pursue the interaction of tape and instrument(s) with his collection of movements titled Synchronisms. As a whole the piece has ten movements with movements one, three and six composed for electronic sounds and orchestral instruments, while the remaining movements use tape alongside a real instrument. Such has been Davidovskys desire to pursue these avenues that even as late as1992 he still continued to compose movements for this piece using the same format as explained. Ashley also used tape in an opera style composition That morning thing (1967) using frog recordings alongside male performers, who's voices were manipulated to give a frog like timbre; these voices in turn directed four dancer's movements. A painter Mary Ashley who appeared at the Once festival and was part of the group is quoted as saying ''I think that up until around 1970, the most interesting ideas about music were so impractical that they verged on being, well, imaginary'' . This showed just how much the users of tape contemplated the possibilities it held with only its technological development stopping the ideas of the users. Another composer to use tape was Jacob Druckman who interacted with the new media by first recording to tape real instrument(s) (in the case of Animus I, a trumpet), before performing live alongside the machine ''in effect another trombonist but with a hostile, competitive stance '' . These original motivations came about as Druckman found slicing tape was unacceptable for the effects he sort, however Druckman became fascinated with the exaggerated qualities that pre recorded tape offered .He was not alone as Milton Babbitt also experimented in this way only using the voice in place of instrument(s); pre recording and manipulating the voice before performing in the same way as Druckman.

All this would eventually lead the way to Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) where musique concrete and Elektronische Musik combined with improvised arts; this original conception of MEV was pioneered by Frederic Rzewski and Alvin Curran after an experimental concert in Rome (1966). These concerts encouraged collaboration by bringing jazz and avant-garde musicians to the world of electronics and improvisation arts; encouraging a composition that is created in a spontaneous collective process rather than by score. With development and innovation taking place in abundance the SFTMC and the Once group together proved that tape offered new ways to expand and develop performance ideas, not with multi-pound studios, but what would have seemed like a shoe string budget.

As with any new technology those that used it, eventually began to notice problematic drawbacks, one of the most obvious areas of concern was that of timing. However Jan Williams was a performer who felt the opposite was true, acquiring a sense of timing from the tape machine due to it always moving at the same speed; a set tempo from which to follow. For those who disagreed with this view an alternative idea conceived by Ramon Sender existed. Sender was not initially effected by the timing, rather the nature of the performance; a piece for accordion, projection and tape. With the performance being in almost darkness (to allow the projections to be seen), the accordion player was unable to read a score. For this reason Sender recorded a narrative score to tape giving instruction on where to play and where not to play. This was successful as long as the tape operator remembered which tape was the score and didn't make The Mistake of playing the wrong tape to the audience.

In most cases tape as a performance was very stagnant from an interactive and audience perspective the reason for this lay in the traditional structure of playing music to the public in a concert scenario, where traditionally the viewer would be expected to concentrate on the performer(s) as individuals or as groups. Although Stockhausen did approach these questions with Gesang der Jünglinge, the issues still remained of the performer(s) interaction that in some cases was limited to the pressing play on the tape machine. It was in this climate of thought that bigger more daring ideas began to evolve with the ideas of Stockhausen being projected in large purpose built environments.

A New Form of Sound Disposal

Francois Bayle and his 1974 creation the Acousmonium (GRM) brought the concept of tape diffusion to new levels by including eighty speakers that were placed on stage as if they were an orchestra, each speaker acting as an individual instrument. This purpose built diffusion unit was not merely an oversized speaker arrangement, but an attempt to create a true sonic performance through the use of machine. A similar creation the gmebaphone (GMEB) (created by Christian Clozier in collaboration of studies of P. Boeswillwald) took an opposite approach to an orchestra of speakers, with sound being acoustically distributed into the performed space avoiding located sounds in an attempt to build a total space.

In a normal performance where instruments are used notes would pronominally create the overall sound heard, however the Acousmonium and the gmebaphone were just one of the few steps towards a new way of collective thinking that would eventually see this style of performance being coined with the term Morpho Concert; a genre that concentrated on shape, colour, timbre and elasticity rather than tones

When considering multi diffusion as a performance it was inevitable that eventually a score of some nature would be required so as to enable the performer to remember all the changes that take place. Earle Brown approached this issue by creating a graphical score for Times Five (1963) (4 channel tape piece accompanied by five live instruments). This was not the first time Brown had composed for multi channels, doing so originally with Octet I (1952) and Octet II (1953). Both of these pieces were composed with performance in mind surrounding the audience with the eight speakers used. The material for this piece was obtained by using left over fragments of tape from his place of work 'Project for Music and Magnetic Tape'.

John Cage a close friend of Browns continued to open up further the questions of spatialization in Musicircus, using four microphones points to capture the sound environment in a 360 degree circumference with a TEAC 4 track tape recorder. With this piece Cage seems to ask whether it is possible to musically record the world as it takes place, now that the composer is equipped with a portable studio in the form of a tape machine.

Time to change

Tape music however does not necessarily need to be confined to diffusion. As a musical instrument it has enabled and still does offer innovative ways of distributing music either as a single sound source or in unison with other tape machines/humans. These additions to the composer's arsenal of ideas also offers the possibilities of timing to be approached in a totally new and radical ways; allowing asynchronous approaches to be incorporated into serious composition.

Traditional notation has always required a beat from which a performing time line evolves (when the last bar has finished the piece has finished). Cage broke away from the dogma of traditionalism with the introduction of non-interactive performances; one piece that used this approach was his performance piece Birdcage. Birdcage was a collection of bird sounds, ambient sounds and a personal inclusion singing 'Mureau', that in a performance required twelve tape machines all left to play unattended. The result of this format leads to a staged show where multiple timbres are juxtaposed in an asynchronous way; People were also allowed to roam around while this took place creating an exhibition of the performance Although requiring interaction Lukeas Foss expanded on this unpredictable approach further by bringing the idea of an interactive game to a performance titled MAP (1971), using tape as a sound source from which performers performed their part in the game.

Stockhausen however realized the rewards that could be made from recording live with the result being the piece Mikrophonie I, He would first record through a microphone, and then replay the recording(s) at different times, superimposing layers of sounds on top of one another. This approach would create unique transformations and delays (a popular technique of tape) that would differ with each new performance, this piece could also be viewed as live manipulative synthesis but without the aid of synthesizers. The idea of unique performances was also imbedded into Cage's Fontana mix for tape. By using a graph and a set of ten pre-printed transparent sheets, Cage was able to create a performance whereby as long as the basic rules were followed any material or instrument could perform the piece.


At first tape must have been judged as just a further extension of the record player, however as Varèse proved in the piece Poem Electronique tape had the potential to go far beyond the realms of the record. Unfortunately after its arrival in 1964 the Moog synthesizer became the quick fix answer of the day for exotic timbres. Thankfully before this intervention the SFTMC and Once groups would display the possibilities of creation via tape while interacting with just about anything. For those such as Cage and Davidosvsky who perused tape as the new performance media, a world was opened up that is today only just being realized and manipulated as computers break the boundaries of limitation set out by the technologies before it. Stockhausen also asked questions of the meaning of a live performance, that today is overlooked in favour of tried and tested formulas. One can therefore only imagine that at some point the concert will once again focus itself on the same questions asked by tape, only this time those that seek innovation from performance will be equipped with tools to bring the imaginary analysis of Mary Ashley to life. Only then will the modern performer embark on discovering the downfalls of his/her modern equivalent, the computer.

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