For a number of semesters, I invited composition students to explore the idea of using the mixtape as a lens for envisioning a writing assignment about themselves. Initially called “The Mixtape Project,” this auto-ethnographical assignment employed philosophies from various scholars, but focused on Jared Ball and his concept of the mixtape as “emancipatory journalism.” In I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto, Ball pushed readers to imagine the mixtape as a counter-systematic soundbombing, circumventing elements of traditional record industry copyright practices (2011).
Essentially, a DJ could use a myriad of songs from different artists and labels to curate a mixtape with a desired theme and overarching message, then distribute the mixtape as a “for promotional use only” artifact. Throughout the 1980s, but predominantly in the 1990s and early 2000s, many DJs used mixtapes as the medium to promote their DJ brands and generate income. It wasn’t long before labels began to give hip-hop DJs record deals to release “album-style” mixtapes where the DJs record original content from artists made specifically for the DJ album (see DJ Clue, Funkmaster Flex, Tony Touch). This idea evolved into producer-based compilation albums, best depicted today by global icon DJ Khalid. Rappers also hopped on the mixtape wave, using the medium to jump-start their careers, create a “street buzz” around their music, and ultimately gauge the success of certain songs to craft and promote upcoming albums.
The assignment revolved around mixtape framework in the earlier portion of my teaching career. Most recently, I began to realize as my students evolve (and I simultaneously age), that the “mixtape” – a sonic artifact distributed on cassette tape or CD – is becoming more remote to students. This thinking led to revising the assignment with a more contemporary twist. Thus, “The Playlist Project” was born: the first in a set of four major writing projects in a first-year writing classroom. The ultimate goal of the assignment was to immediately disrupt students’ relationships with academic writing, and to help them (re)envision the ways they embrace some of the cultural capital they value in college classrooms. Be clear, this was a particular type of mental break for students, a shift that was welcomed yet also uncomfortable for them.
“I Get It How I Live It”: Framing and Foregrounding the Assignment Set-Up
The course started with readings on plagiarism, intertextuality, and the hip-hop DJ’s use of sampling, curating, and storytelling. Next were readings by hip-hop artists describing their creative process and detailing their artistic choices sonically. These early readings helped pivot students from their stereotypical notions of what college writing courses – and writing assignments – looked like, and how they could enter scholarly discourse around composing. This conversation was foregrounded in students’ knowledge that they bring with them into the new academic space in the college classroom. My goal was to really focus on student-centered learning and culturally relevant pedagogy; ideally, if you are immersed in hip-hop music and culture, I want you to share that knowledge with the class. This sharing begins to create a community of thinking peers instead of a classroom with an English professor and a bunch of students who have to take the course “cuz it’s required in the Gen Ed, so I can’t take anything else ‘til I pass this!”
My research is entrenched in both hip-hop pedagogy and culture, specifically looking at the DJ as 21st century new media reader and writer. I liken my role as instructor to that of the DJ: a tastemaker and curator for the ways we understand sonic sources we know, and couple them with new and necessary soundbites that become critical to the cutting edge of the learning we need. I’ve engaged in the craft of DJing for more than half of my life, and use DJ practices as pedagogical strategies in my classroom environments.
The outcome of this curatorial moment was “the Playlist Project.” Students were asked to create their own playlists, which served as mixtapes that either “described the writer as a person” or “depicted the soundtrack to the writer’s perfect day.” This assignment was due during Week 6 of a 16-week semester, and was the first major writing assignment within the course. The assignment called for two specific parts: an actual playlist of the songs and an essay which served as a meta-text, describing not only the songs, but also the reasons why the songs were chosen and sequenced in a specific order. As an example, the guiding text we used was a DJ mixtape I created called “Heavy Airplay, All Day.”
“Heavy Airplay, All Day with No Chorus”: DJ Mixtape by Todd Craig
My playlist was a DJ-crafted tribute to a family friend who passed away in the summer of 2017: Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, Jr. Hearing the news of his untimely death reverberated through my psyche on that warm June afternoon; I remember meeting Prodigy when I was 15 years old. Many avid hip-hop listeners not only know Prodigy as one of the signature vocalists of the 1990s New York hip-hop sound, but also as one of the premier lyricists responsible for a shift in sonic content from emcees in New York and globally. His voice is one of the most sampled in hip-hop music.
One of the most anticipated moments of the mid 1990’s was the release of Prodigy’s first solo album, H.N.I.C. P was already shaking the industry with his lethal and bone-chilling visuals in his verses. But everyone knew he was on his way to dominance upon hearing the single “Keep it Thoro.” On this Alchemist-produced record, P basically broke industry rules in regards to typical hip-hop song construction; his verses were longer than the traditional 16-bar count, and the song had no chorus.
He returned to hip-hop basics: hard-hitting rhymes with undeniable visuals served atop a sonic landscape that kept everyone’s head nodding. P ends the song with the classic line “and I don’t care about what you sold/ that shit is trash/ bang this – cuz I guarantee that you bought it/ heavy airplay all day with no chorus/ I keep it thoro” (Prodigy 2000).
It was only right for me to create a tribute mixtape for Prodigy. And it felt right to start the Fall 2017 semester with the Playlist Project that used a shared text that celebrated and honored his memory. It highlighted the soundtrack to my perfect day: having my friend back to rewind all the memories that come with every song.
“I Got a New Flex and I Think I Like It”: (Re)inventing Mixtape Sensibilities in the Comp Classroom
The Playlist Project was aimed at achieving three different outcomes. The first goal was to invite students to use audio sources to envision a soundscape that explains a thread of logic. These sonic sources would hold as much value in our academic space as text-based sources, and would allow them to (re)envision what “evidence-based academic writing” looks like. Thus, students could utilize their own cultural capital to negotiate sound sources of their choosing.
The second was to get students to use DJ framework to think about sorting, sequencing and organization in writing. In our class discussions, one of the critical objectives was to get students to understand the sequencing of divergent sound sources could drastically alter the story one is trying to tell. Overall aspects of mood, tone, and pacing all become critical components of how a message is expressed in writing, but it becomes even more evident when thinking about the sonic sources used by a DJ. Each song – a source in and of itself – is a piece of a puzzle that constructs a picture and tells a story. Starting with one source can create a completely different effect if it is reconfigured to sit in the middle or the end. Explaining these sonic choices in text-based writing would be the second step in the assignment.
Finally, students would engage in editing by joining both sound and text based on a theme they have selected. Again, sequencing becomes a critical DJ tool translated into the comp classroom. Using this pedagogical strategy echoes the ideas of using DJ techniques such as “blends” and “drops” as viable teaching tools (see Jennings and Petchauer 2017). Students would need to critically think through an important question: in creating the playlist, how does one manipulate and (re)configure sound to create a sonic landscape that “writes” its own unique story?
“But Does It Go In the Club?”: Outcomes and Initial Findings of The Playlist Project
The first iteration of the Playlist Project bore mixed results. Students found it difficult to think of this project as one whole assignment consisting of three different parts. Instead, they envisioned each of the three different pieces as isolated assignments. So the playlist was one part of the assignment. They picked the songs they liked, however ordering and sequencing to convey a logical theme or argument fell from the forefront of their composing. The essay then became its own piece divorced from the organic creation of the playlist. Thus, students weren’t “engaged in telling the story of the playlist.” Instead, students were making a playlist, then summarizing why their playlists contained certain songs.
For students who were more successful integrating the elements of the assignment, we were able to have rich and fruitful classroom conversations about both selection and sequencing. For example, one student chose the theme of “the Soundtrack to the Perfect Day.” Within that theme, the student chose the song “XO TOUR Llif3” by Lil Uzi Vert.
In the song’s hook, he croons “push me to the edge/ all my friends are dead/ push me to the edge/ all my friends are dead” (Vert 2017). When this song came up in class discussion, we were able to have a formative conversation around the idea that a perfect day entailed all of someone’s friends being “dead.” This also sparked a conversation about the double meaning of the quote; it didn’t stem from traditional print-based sources, but instead arose from a student-generated idea based in the cultural capital of the classroom community. In this moment, I was able to learn more from students about the meteoric rise in relevance of both the artist and the song which seemed to depict an extreme darkness.
“Big Big Tings a Gwaan”: Future Tweaks and Goals for The Playlist Project
Moving forward with this assignment, I have considered breaking the assignment up into three pieces for more introductory composition courses: constructing the playlist, sequencing the playlist, and writing the meta-text. In this configuration, the meta-text would truly become the afterthought (instead of the forethought) of the sonic creation. As well, more in-depth soundwriting could emanate from the playlist construction, manipulation, (re)sequencing and editing. I also plan to use the assignment with a more advanced-level composition course to gauge if the assignment unfolds differently. Using an upper-level course to attain the trajectory of the assignment may be helpful in walking backwards to calibrate the assignment for students in introductory-level classes.
Another objective will be to move away from just a “playlist” and back into a “digital mixtape” format, where the playlist songs and sequencing become the fodder for a one-track, “one-take” DJ-inspired mixtape. While students don’t have to be DJs, creating a singular sonic moment digitally may imbed students in marrying the idea of soundwriting to depicting that sonic work in a meta-text. This work may also engage students in constructing sonic meta-texts, thereby submersing themselves in soundwriting practices. This work can be done in Audacity, GarageBand and any other software students are familiar with and comfortable using.
Featured Image: By Flickr User Gemma Zoey (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Dr. Todd Craig is a native of Queens, New York: a product of Ravenswood and Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City. He is a writer, educator and DJ whose career meshes his love of writing, teaching and music. Craig’s research examines the hip-hop DJ as twenty-first century new media reader and writer, and investigates the modes and practices of the DJ as creating the discursive elements of DJ rhetoric and literacy. Craig’s publications include the multimodal novel tor’cha, a short story in Staten Island Noir and essays in textbooks and scholarly journals including Across Cultures: A Reader for Writers, Fiction International, Radical Teacher and Modern Language Studies. He was guest editor of Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education for the special issue “Straight Outta English” (2017). Craig is currently working on his full-length manuscript entitled “K for the Way”: DJ Literacy and Rhetoric for Comp 2.0 and Beyond. Dr. Craig has taught English Composition within the City University of New York for over fifteen years. Presently, Craig is an Associate Professor of English at Medgar Evers College, where he serves as the Composition Coordinator and City University of New York Writing Discipline Council co-chair.
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Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations– Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments– Jentery Sayers
The term mixtape most commonly refers to homemade cassette compilations of music created by individuals for their own listening pleasure or that of friends and loved ones. The practice which rose to widespread prominence in the 1980s often has deeply personal connotations and is frequently associated with attempts to woo a prospective partner (romantic or otherwise). As Dean Wareham, of the band Galaxie 500 states, in Thurston Moore’s Mix-Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, “it takes time and effort to put a mix tape together. The time spent implies an emotional connection with the recipient. It might be a desire to go to bed, or to share ideas. The message of the tape might be: I love you. I think about you all the time. Listen to how I feel about you” (28).
Alongside this ‘private’ history of the mixtape there exists a more public manifestation of the form where artists, most prominently within hip-hop, have utilised the mixtape format to the extent that it becomes a genre, akin to but distinct from the LP. As Andrew “Fig” Figueroa has previously noted here in SO!, the mixtape has remained a constant component of Hip Hop culture, frequently constituting, “a rapper’s first attempt to show the world their skills and who they are, more often than not, performing original lyrics over sampled/borrowed instrumentals that complement their style and vision.” From the early mixtapes of DJs such as Grandmaster Flash in the late ’70s and early ’80s, to those of DJ Screw in the ’90s and contemporary artists such as Kendrick Lamar, the hip-hop mixtape has morphed across media, from cassette to CDR to digital, but has remained a platform via which the sound and message of artists are recorded, copied, distributed and disseminated independent of the networks and mechanics of the music and entertainment industries. In this context mixtapes offer, as Paul Hegarty states in his essay, The Hallucinatory Life of Tapes (2007), “a way around the culture industry, a re-appropriation of the means of production.”
More recently the mixtape has been touted by corporations such as Spotify and Apple as an antecedent to the curated playlists which have become an increasingly prominent factor within the contemporary music industry. Alongside this the cassette has reemerged as a format, predominantly for independent and experimental artists and labels. The mixtape has also reemerged as a creative form in experimental music practice – part composition, part compilation, this contemporary manifestation of the mixtape is located somewhere between sound art and the DJ mix.
This article explores these current manifestations of the mixtape. It analyses Spotify’s curated playlists and identifies some of the worrying factors that emerge from the ‘playlistification’ of recorded music. It goes on to discuss contemporary cassette culture and the contemporary mixtape identifying a set of characteristics which warrant the use of the term “mixtape” and distinguish it from forms such as the playlist. These characteristics, I suggest, may be adopted as strategies to address some of the contemporary crises in how we create, distribute, listen to, and consume music.
The mixtape has been presented as something of a forerunner to the music industry’s current streaming and subscription model and, in particular, of the curated playlists which Spotify sees as its, “answer to product innovation.” For Kieran Fenby-Hulse, writing in Networked Music Cultures: Contemporary Approaches, Emerging Issues, “the mixtape’s aura has underpinned the development of music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music” (174). Spotify’s corporate literature makes this connection explicitly via multiple references to mixtapes. The press release announcing the launch of its Discover Weekly playlist, for example, promises, “our best-ever recommendations delivered to you as a weekly mixtape of fresh music,” stating, “It’s like having your best friend make you a personalised mixtape every single week.”
Where the mixtape’s audience of one however, is the favoured other, friend, loved one, lover, Spotify’s curated and algorithmic playlists shift the focus inward. They are not created by someone for another, nor gifted to someone by another. They are created algorithmically for me and me alone. The promise of Spotify is that of “every playlist tuned just to you every single week.” Spotify delivers on this promise via its vast accumulation and exploitation of user data. The labour of the Spotify playlist thus is not the labour of love often associated with the mixtape, but rather it is an example of the increasingly prominent practice of corporations and service providers benefiting from unremunerated fan labour via, as Patrick Burkart notes in an essay entitled Music in the Cloud and the Digital Sublime , commodification of the “comments, playlists, recommendations, news, reviews, and behavioral profiles,” of music fans.
Analysis of Spotify For Brands’ corporate literature provides more insight into how Spotify utilises this data. Amongst millennials, for example, Spotify identifies “seven key audio streaming moments for marketers to tap into” – working, chilling, chores, gaming, partying and driving – and advises that “for marketers, this is a chance to reach millennials through a medium they trust and see as a positive enhancer or tool.” Spotify’s party playlists thus are an opportunity for brands to “think about enhancing the party moment by learning your audience’s favorite genres and subgenres and matching the beat” or “think audio for connected speakers and mobile display ads for that obsessive DJ always checking on their next song to further drive your message.” Spotify’s party playlists also seek to dispense with the unexpected juxtapositions and sonic clashes that have formed such a vital and valued component of DJ/sampling culture and the amateurism, imperfections, and crude edits of their supposed mixtape forebear. Thus ‘the mix,’ what Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) refers to as the process whereby “different voices and visions constantly collide and cross-fertilize one another” is replaced with promises of “professionally beat-matched music [where] every song blends smoothly with the next.” The hybrid of the mix thus is homogenised in the playlist.
In seeking to provide a music mix that is smooth, adaptable and perfectly transitioned, Spotify’s mood based playlists (“Your Coffee Break,” “Sad Songs,” “Songs To Sing In The Car”) are more closely aligned with the aura of Muzak and the Muzak Corporation than with that of the “mixtape” (a comparison previously made by Liz Pelly in her article The Problem with Muzak). The Muzak Corporation provided background music for the workplace from the 1920s and public spaces such as hotel elevators and shopping malls from the 1940s onwards aiming, as Brandon Labelle states in Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life, to provide “a form of environmental conditioning to aid in the general mood of the populace.” (173)
Spotify’s promise of smoothly blended sound, for example, recalls Muzak’s mission, as quoted in Joseph Lanza’s, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and Other Moodsong, to eliminate, “factors that distract attention – change of tempo, loud brasses, [and] vocals.”(48) Spotify’s stated desire, “to be the soundtrack of our life, […] to deliver music based on who we are, what we’re doing, and how we’re feeling moment by moment, day by day,” assigns a utilitarian function to its archive of recorded sound, recasting it, like Muzak, as quoted by Lanza again, as, “functional music,”(43) or, “stimulus progression program.” (49)
Cassette and the Contemporary Mixtape
Alongside the commercial playlists’ channeling of the mixtape’s aura there has been a reemergence of cassette, and the mixtape itself, as creative media. Cassette has become a prominent format for a host of underground labels attracted by its low manufacturing and distribution costs as well as its aesthetic qualities. Labels such as The Tapeworm, Opal Tapes, Fort Evil Fruit, and Nyege Nyege Tapes release short-run cassettes (typically 100-150 copies) encompassing noise, field recording, improv, drone, ambience, modular electronics, psychedelia and there ‘out there’ sounds. As Paul Condon of Fort Evil Fruit explains, “producing vinyl is prohibitively expensive and CDs often feel like landfill nowadays. The cassette format is a low-cost means of presenting albums as beautiful physical artifacts when they might otherwise only exist as downloads.”
As well as the economy and physicality of cassette, many enthusiasts are attracted by its sonic characteristics. The tendency of cassettes towards distortion, saturation and phasing are for many positive characteristics. Gruff Rhys of the band Super Furry Animals, for example, has observed that “listening to a cassette tape is not an exact science. Some cassette players play them a little faster. Others distort and phrase the music, changing the sound on the cassette forever.”
Since 2013 the experimental electronic duo Demdike Stare have released a series of cassette only limited edition mixtapes which form a body of work both linked to and distinct from their “official” album and EP releases. Whittaker of the duo has said of their aesthetic that, “Demdike Stare is all about records and the archive of aural culture from the last 50 years.” Where the Spotify playlist seeks to reconfigure the musical archive as functional or background music, artists such as Demdike Stare may be said to explore the recombinant potential of the archive as a vast body of aural culture which can be utilised to create hybrid works spanning temporal and cultural barriers. This reconfiguration of the aural archive arguably attains its most direct distillation on the duo’s mixtapes. These releases combine and overlay original and sampled sound in such a manner that the distinction between one and the other is obscured. They create a hybrid sound world in which sounds from multiple genres, cultures and timeframes overlap and interact, demonstrating what Joseph Standard in Wire magazine has described as, Demdike’s ability to employ sampling “as a means to release the hidden potential they detected in obscure and forgotten records.”
Dissecting 2013’s The Weight of Culture, unsubscribedblog detects:
a wave of static which quickly recedes to usher in a fine piece of Ethio-jazz from Mulatu Astatke…..a burst of the brief Les Soucoupes Volantes Vertes by French electronic prog band Heldon….a minimal rhythm track…overlaid with radio interference, muted voices, cymbals and all manner of audio artefacts before being subsumed by a wavering drone, vinyl static, plucked strings and finger bells.
While The Weight of Culture may be likened to a DJ mix (though one which exists distinct from the rhythm based, dance floor focused requirements which often determine the content of that form) elsewhere Demdike’s mixtapes serve as companion pieces to, or re-imaginings of their more mainstream releases (though again distinct from the more common forms of the remix or dub album). Circulation (2017) is “an hour-long mixtape/sketchbook of ideas and influences for…[their] Wonderland album, contrasting its heavily rhythmic stylings with this largely ambient-affair comprising archival tracks, bespoke edits and re-contextualised classics.” The Feedback Loop (2018) meanwhile reassembles elements of the catalogue of Italian improv collective Il Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza into a new collage composition and performance. As the duo themselves explain:
Tasked by the Festival Nuova Consonanza for a live performance at their 53rd Edition, with the remaining gruppo members in attendance, (Ennio Morricone, Giancarlo Schiaffini, Giovanni Piazza, Alessandro Sbordoni) we apprehensively dived into our collections for pieces by Gruppo and it’s members in order to create this homage. Using samplers, synths and effects we looped and layered chosen sections to create new pieces which we had to then play in front of the mighty Il Gruppo, captured here for posterity.
The German electronic composer Hainbach also reimagines the mixtape as a recombinant performance/composition hybrid. His YouTube series of C45 Lo-Fi Ambient mixtapes utilises his own self-made cassette loops, manipulated using modified cassette recorders and custom technology, and mixed amongst those of artists drawn from the contemporary underground cassette scene. The artist describes the first of these, C45 #1 | Lo-Fi Ambient Mixtape, as, “a grungy, half-speed lo-fi mix I made in one take with two cassette recorders, the Koma Electronics Fieldkit and a delay.”
What Hainbach calls mixtapes are audio visual records of live studio performances with the artist documenting the creation of the piece via video. They contain a participatory element and viewers/listeners are invited to send their own tapes to be, “mangled,” while the techniques and equipment employed are detailed in videos such as Tape Ambient Music Techniques | Making Of C45, and modification specs for some of the equipment used, such as Gijs Gieskes’ modified walkman are also available online.
Defining the Mixtape
Analysis of these works, along with more historical forms of the mixtape, suggests a set of characteristics which may be said to warrant the use of the term mixtape, even in a context wherein there is no engagement with the original material form of the medium, the cassette tape, which gave rise to the term.
- Hybridity: The mixtape is a uniquely hybrid form, part composition, part compilation. It combines elements from multiple sources, media and timeframes and frequently blurs lines between read and write cultures, or cultural consumption and production.
- Distribution: Mixtapes are distributed via non-mainstream methods. This may be via personal exchange, mail order, download from non corporate/commercial websites, purchase from merch stands at gigs, or via non-mainstream formats (in which category the cassette tape may now be placed).
- Intervention: The creator of a mixtape must be able to intervene in the recording process and to attain control over what is heard, to affect where sounds begin and end, to overlay material, and to combine elements from multiple sources.
- Labour: The creation of a mixtape involves an investment of labour at least equal to that required to listen to it in full. This time, effort, and investment of labour differentiates the mixtape from the playlist, mix CD, or disc drive filled with MP3s, often created simply by dragging and dropping file references from one window to another or via algorithmic selection.
Why set parameters around the mixtape as a genre? These characteristics may also form a series of strategies to counteract contemporary crises in how we create, distribute, listen to, and consume music – some of which are identified in the consideration of Spotify playlists within this article. The creation of hybrid works which are not easily defined or categorised, for example, might push back against the drive to assign a utilitarian function to music – to reframe it as something that happens in the background while we chill or do our chores. It might also serve as a form of resistance to the homogenisation of music and of DJ culture while also giving rise to new forms and practices.
Consideration of how and by whom music is distributed could help sustain a culture that supports independent artists and labels as opposed to corporations, brands and their marketing teams. Maintaining the ability to intervene in and act upon recorded sound sustains the ability to ‘play’ with sound and retains the potential for new forms in the lineage of the mixtape, or genres such as turntablism to emerge. Awareness of how the labour of musicians and music lovers is utilised and of who benefits from it may also serve to diminish the capacity for the exploitation of this labour.
Featured Image: “Untitled” by Flickr user Jenna Post (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Mike Glennon is a Dublin based composer, audio visual artist and academic. His compositions and audiovisual works have featured in digital arts exhibitions and at music and film festivals in locations including the Venice, Paris, New Orleans and Dublin. He has been commissioned as a composer by organisations including the National Museum of Ireland and Dublin City Council. As a member of the band the 202s his music has been released to positive critical notice across Europe by Harmonia Mundi / Le Son du Maquis making him labelmates with artists including Cluster, Faust and A Certain Ratio. Mike is currently a PhD Research Scholar in the Graduate School of Creative Arts & Media (GradCAM) at the Dublin Institute of Technology where his research focuses upon the aesthetics of post-digital electronic music. He recently premiered new work stemming from his research at the Research Pavilion of the Venice Biennale thanks to the support of Culture Ireland.
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Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora–Christopher Chien
In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule–Linda Stone, “Conscious Computing”
I begin with an epigraph from Linda Stone, who coined the phrase ‘continuous partial attention’ to describe our mental state in the digital age. The passive cousin of multi-tasking, continuous partial attention is a reaction to our constantly connected lifestyles in which everything is happening right now and where value is increasingly equated with our ability to digest it all. Almost everything we do has the potential to be interrupted, be it by an email, a text or a tweet; often we will give only partial attention to any one thing in anticipation of the next thing that will require our attention. In this internal fight for mental attention, listening to music has been seriously impacted.
The digital era has seen more music releases than ever before. Unfortunately, the massive influx of quantity is by no means a measure of how we are engaging with said music. iPhones and similar devices, for which music players have become mere features, enable listening to become a thing of partial attention. From allowing the shuffle or random modes to choose music selections for you, or even streaming music algorithms to calculate things you might like, to listening while playing Angry Birds or reading your Twitter stream, less commitment is made to the act of listening, and as such only a portion of our working memory is committed to the experience. Without working memory actively processing musical information, it is less likely to be stored for the long term, particularly if other information is continuously vying for space and attention.
These days video games sell better than music. Despite being a digital product, games are able to instill memories (even of the music) into one’s consciousness, because the game interface allows our sensory memories to work together in an active manner with the medium. Iconic memory stores visual cues from the game, echoic memory takes the audible cues from the game and the haptic memory is engaged in controlling game play. There is only so much more which can be done while playing a video game. If something were to interrupt game play, the game would be paused to address the new information rather than giving it partial attention. This is quite different from music which plays a background role in so much of our lives even when we are actively putting music on we tend to only engage it with partial attention.
When I began thinking about turning Concrète Sound System into a record label, one of my main goals was to create works that could engage the audience in active musical experiences that could create long term memories. I felt that as important as the music would be, it would take something material to create these memories, a physical product more evocative of earlier moments in recording history than the CD, its most recent gasp. I wondered if, by creatively evoking the physical object, the listener could be engaged in an active manner that would enable the memory of music and its power to persist through the everyday waves of digital noise.
The first mass duplicated audio medium was the Gold Moulded Edison Cylinder at the turn of the twentieth century. Imagine two cylinder copies of one of these recording today, as musical objects. Each of them would have over a hundred years of physical history. From the wear of the cases to the condition of the wax based on the temperature in which they were stored, each of these cylinders would be unique musical objects, with completely different histories, despite having the same origin. It is reasonable to assume that if the cylinders were played today on the same playback device, despite the fact that the compositions and performances are exactly the same, the differences between the recordings would be audible.
Even without a century of history, there would likely be audible differences between the cylinders. If one cylinder was the first copy made, and another the 150th –master cylinders of Gold Moulded Edison Cylinders could only produce 150 copies reliably–the physical wear in the process of reproduction would leave its own imprint, making each of those copies distinct musical objects. In the analog world, as the technology improved the differences between copies decreased substantially. Cassettes were manufactured in batches of ten to hundreds of thousands without audible differences. But even in circulations so high, over time each of those analog copies took on their own identity and collected their own memories.
The listener as an active agent contributed to the development of these unique musical objects. After a purchase, any number of variables played into the ritual of the first experience of the music. Was there a way to listen upon walking out of the store? Were there liner notes or lyric sheets inside? Would you read those prior to listening or as you listen? Where would you listen? Through headphones? The listening chair in front of the hi-fi stereo? Or on the boombox with some friends? All of these possibilities shaped memories as musical objects that defined the music consumption culture of the past.
For example, I bought the debut 2Pac album 2Pacalypse Now on cassette the day it was released. I loved the album so much I kept it in regular rotation in my Walkman for months until finally the tape popped. Rather than go out and buy a new copy I decided to perform a surgery. It was in a screwless reel case which meant I couldn’t just open it up to retrieve the ends of the tape trapped inside, but rather had to crack the reel case open and transplant the reels into a new body. So, my copy of the 2Pacalypse Now cassette is now inside of a clear reel holder with no visual markings. It also has a piece of tape that was used to splice it back together, which makes an audible warp when played back. I can pretty much be sure that there is no other copy of 2Pacalypse which sounds exactly like mine. While this probably detracts from the resale value of the cassette (not that I’d sell it), it is imbued with a personal history that is priceless.
Cassettes, in particular, played a significant role in the attachment of physical memories to music beyond the recordings they held. They gave birth to the mixtape. The taper community was born from personal tape recorders that allowed concert-goers to record performances they attended, and, prior to the rise of peer to peer sharing online, these communities were trading tapes internationally via regular postal mail. European jazz and rock concerts were finding their way back to the states and South Bronx hip-hop performances were traveling with the military in Asia. All of these instances required a physical commitment with which came memories that inherently became their own musical objects.
Needless to say the nature of musical exchange has changed with the rise of the digital age of music. This is not to say that memories as musical objects have gone away, but they are being taken for granted as the objects lose their physicality. I remember going to The Wiz on 96th Street with $10 to spend on music. I spent at least ten minutes trying to decide between Sid and B-Tonn and Arabian Prince. I ended up with Arabian Prince and have regretted it since I got home and listened that day, as I never found Sid and B-Tonn for sale again. Today I could download both in the time it took me to walk to the train station. After skimming through the first few songs of Arabian Prince I could decide it was not for me and drag drop it in the trash where the memory of it would disappear with the files. No matter how I felt about the music then, the memory of it is a permanent fixture in my mind because of the physical actions it took to listen.
The first release for Concrète Sound System, Schrödinger’s Cassette, tackled this issue head on by presenting the audience with its own paradox, an update of physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous Thought Experiment, where the ultimate fate of the cassette inside is left up to the individual. Schrödinger’s Cassette sought to take listeners out of digital modes of consumption by using an analog medium to evoke the physical. The cassette release trend has been growing over the last few years, almost in parallel to the rise of the digital music and speaking to the need to separate music from our digital lives and to a desire to work harder for it. At the minimum, listening to a cassette requires having a cassette player, and acquiring one these days takes commitment. Unlike digital media, listeners cannot instantly skip a song on a cassette or put a favorite on repeat. It takes physical manipulation of the medium to move through its songs and doing so is a time investment. All these limitations make the cassette a medium that is best for linear listening, from beginning to end (unless you physically cut, rearrange, and splice it yourself).
Schrödinger’s Cassette took the required commitment a step further by encasing the cassette itself in industrial grade concrete. This required the user to actively crack the concrete (or the french concrète meaning ‘real’, from which the label derives its name) in order to listen to the music. The paradox is that, depending on the listener’s method for cracking, harm could be done to the cassette that might render it ‘unlistenable’. Upon receiving one of these pieces, the listener holds in their hands a musical object which they must physically act upon in order to create an unrepeatable musical event. Schrödinger’s Cassette has a look, a sound (if shaken you can hear the cassette reels), a feel, a smell, and a taste as well (though I wouldn’t advise it). All of the senses can be actively focused on the object and, as such, the whole of one’s working memory is engaged in the discernment of the object’s musical contents.
For many, Schrödinger’s Cassette was taken as a work of art and left uncracked. The Wire magazine successfully cracked one edition open, revealing a portion of the musical contents on their regular radio program. For those that decided not to crack it, digital versions were made available so that they could listen, though this option was only made available after the listener spent some time with their physical object. In this way, the music from the project, a compilation called Between the Cracks, was directly connected to physical memories spurred by a material presence.
Triggering active memory during the consumption of music through physical objects need not be this complex. Old medium such as vinyl and cassette releases inherently have the physical properties required without the concrete or much else. Perhaps for this reason they show new signs of life despite the rise of digital. No matter how much our reality is augmented by our digital lives, we still inhabit those bodies that we bring with us, and, as far as the memories those bodies carry with them go, physicality rules.
Featured Image: Wax Cylinders in the Library of Congress, Image by Flickr User Photo Phiend
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He is a regular guest contributor to theCreate Digital Music website, and maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta is a regular presenter for the Rhythm Incursions Podcast series with his monthly showRIPL. As an artist, he is a founding member of the live electronic music collectiveConcrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012.