Staaltape, narrative forms and the humble cassette

15/07/2011

Some time ago I started messing around with cassettes again. I also began to seriously consider a release of some new work on cassette. Then I looked into artists who work with cassettes and of course very soon found myself in the virtual company of Rinus van Alebeek.

Rinus is a busy man – just follow the links for yourself (1, 2, 3) to gather an appreciation of the depth and range of his work. He’s all over the place performing, installing, curating, releasing, collaborating, writing, compiling and the rest. I am fascinated with his work and that of his colleagues, with his irrepressible and candid attitude to experimentation, in which he not only involves other artists along the way, but seems to be on a mission to take the sound to the people, for example by way of his kleine fieldrecordings festival and by means of his work with the Diktat ensemble.

After a brief correspondence he very kindly sent me two cassette tapes released on Staaltape. These objets d’art take some unpacking, both literally and metaphorically. First, you have to consider the actual packaging which has handwritten ‘sleeve notes’ in and around the folds and corners of the brown paper wrapping. When I ran my small Sound Café events here in Jedburgh one of the most satisfying aspects of receiving the submissions was the variety, ingenuity, care and attention that artists showed in wrapping up their cd offerings. In the end I exhibited the packaging as part of the show. Here you have the same – you don’t throw anything away – it’s all part of the unfolding offering.

Then we get to the innards – two cassettes tapes, packaged in brown card wrappers with hand drawn illustrations, handwritten notes, track lists and sketches, bits of which were enclosed in a clear plastic bag hand sewn at the top. So here we have Rinus sat in his kitchen, an artisan in the cottage industry mould, devoting time and energy to serve the listener.

The cassettes I received were A Day in the Life described in the online notes as follows:-

This selection of compositions is the result of an invitation I sent out to nine sound artist. I asked them to create a four minute composition that would portray a day in the life of someone or something or them selves.

Various genres come together, from spoken word to fluxus, from field recordings and sound poetry to radiophonica.

Every single track is a portal to an imaginary situation. Oier’s sound track would have made saturday night fever a better movie, Anton’s condensed composition has the lightness of his Parisian roof top apartment and its view over the roofs. Yin Yi’s elegant use of field recordings juxtaposes with Robert Habarc’s working class reality. Manuel’s and Anders’ absurdites seem to complete each other. Barbara and Margarida are the comforting center points of every side. The Berlin based Italian couple Mat Pogo and JD Zazie offer an insight in their daily life.

The actors on this tape are based in different cities around the world.

Side a : Barcelona Paris Brussels Shang Hai Berlin
Side b Buenos Aires Budapest Mexico City Eskilstuna Berlin

There are two aspects to this. First the work, then the whole concept of using cassettes, the whys and the wherefores. I’m not even going to attempt to classify or categorise the works on this cassette, but, contradicting myself somewhat, I have to attempt to describe what you’ll get: musical pieces; straightforward narrations; evidently processed offerings; weird/outrageous/humorous interpretations – Robert Habarc’s For the Love of a Sheep has me baffled yet delighted every time and I can’t stop myself chanting along to Anders Ostberg’s a day in the lives of three buddha electronic praying machines hanging in a tree. Some things you simply cannot fit in a box. Following this loose analogy you could say that the works here leak out at the edges of the box, in much the same way as humans do when you try to get too close a fix on them and their ways.

The concept has truly revolutionary potential – I can imagine a world where communication by means of cassette tape becomes a subversive arm in the people’s arsenal. I also found myself reflecting on the fact that you can’t do this sort of work so easily with the current crop of digital tools on offer in the lonely monadic world of the squished up mp3. Cassettes are quick and dirty – actually that should be clean; the sound quality is absolutely first class, despite what acoustic engineers might say. A physical tape format, cassette plus portable tape machine, allows you for example, to do your bit, then pass on the physical object, the cassette, to the next person as in The Berlin Tape Run. Furthermore from the listener’s point of view (you forget these things) there are two sides to a cassette, so, given that I normally listen to bits of a cassette, I’m never sure which side is which and what I’m going to get – a much more satisfying and clunky uncertainty than the randomisation of the mp3 playlist. And of course, if you’re over a certain age, you will normally have several hundred cassettes lying around the house or the loft, all in various stages of uncertainty.

The second cassette is released on 20 July 2011. You Can Kill a Pig in July is an extended interview with Luis Costa . Based in Nodar, Portugal, Luis runs the Binaural residency programme, of which Rinus is an associate artist. There is reference in Rinus’ writings to the use of sound in his own work as a narrative investigation. Indeed he did at one point turn his back on a successful literary career to follow a different path. Having spent much of my own time and energy inside literature and literary forms, I’ve always been struck by the very close connections between the written word, the spoken word, as in dramatic forms, and the presentation of various recorded sound sources as narrative and rhetorical tools. In terms of strengthening the connections, these Staaltape releases are doing a better job than anything else I’ve heard to date.

This interview with Luis Costa is so much more than a face to face conversation. The topics are of real interest – change in rural society, family history, socio-political tensions in a small community, personnages from the past and present. But there is more and I put this down to a genuine craftsman’s dexterity in knowing how to let the interview run, how to interject, to question and comment, without apeing conventional procedures. We also have the sound of Luis illustrating his narrative by sketching on paper. Of course we don’t see any of this, but we can imagine all the more creatively. There is electronic interference of some sort, perhaps batteries running down on the cassette recorder. We move from place to place and between spaces, savouring the acoustic qualities of each as we go. Captivating, engaging, warm and intimate.

To digress and self refer for a moment, though staying on topic, I’ve been writing to various book festivals asking if they’d be interested in hosting an event of narrative sound works – a loose term but I think you know what I mean – based on the premise that the sonic works would give fresh perspectives on the whole notion of narrativity. No success yet, but a few near misses and I remain optimistic. The kind of work that Rinus and his colleagues are producing would sit at the top of the tree in this respect.

I’d recommend that anyone interested in meaningful and committed contemporary sound art order a selection of these cassette releases now. They’re not digital so they won’t self-replicate at the touch of a button. You get to look after something with a cassette. What gives these plastic boxes their vital charm is also the source of their vulnerability.


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