"We do not know who invented the wheel, but
we do know who invented the subroutine: it was
Stanley Gill during his early days at Cambridge."
(from: "Alien Brains like Nasmak",
fanzine edited by Nigel Jacklin - 1981)
december 02, 2010.
When 'Philips Electronics Inc.' just before the turn of the century (a little more than a hundred years after its initial foundation) became the 'Royal Philips Electronic Inc.', the multinational Dutch electronics corporation began its retreat from Strijp-S, a 28 ha area at the north-west of the center of Eindhoven in the south of the Netherlands. The company moved its headquarters up north, back to Amsterdam, the place where Gerard Philips (a first cousin of Karl Marx) lived when he had the original idea of building a light bulb factory.
Until then, Strijp-S was known in Eindhoven as 'the forbidden city'. Every day thousands of people entered the large area, right in the middle of town, to go to work. And when work was done they came out again. But for every one else, the area was sealed off. To go in and to go out one had to have a pass, or special permission. Mere curious mortals, or just those who'd like to take a short cut from the one to the other side, were not allowed to pass.
I once entered this 'forbidden city', a long time ago, when in the very, very early 1970s along with a group of other young European science prodigies, for a week I was Philips' guest. We were given a tour of the area, with special attention for the oldest building, that used to house the the NatLab. Later on we were served tea and cakes, and we were invited to make our choice of Philips goodies that were spread out for us on a long table. I never understood what its precise relation to Philips was, but it is there that I picked up one of my very first long playing records: a Dutch edition of the Rolling Stones' first studio album, recorded in 1964.
Back home in Maastricht,
for a while I played it a lot.
On a Philips gramophone.
Now, some forty years later, the gates are open. The streets have been given names, and the city has reclaimed this once 'forbidden' part of town. Currently the monumental industrial area is still but at the very beginning of a long and surely slow and ambitious process of transformation, that should make of Strijp-S the creative heart of Eindhoven.
Last year I went to Strijp-S for the Future of the Lab meeting organized by the Baltan Laboratories, who not only in name reflect the history of their surroundings. 'Baltan' (an inversion of 'NatLab') of course comes from 'Kid Baltan', which was the moniker used by Dick Raaijmakers and Tom Dissevelt, who in 1957 - at the Philips NatLab - came up with the world's first ever attempt at popular electronic music: Song of the Second Moon. ( * ) In the early 1960s there came an end to this seminal Dutch work in electronic music in Eindhoven, as 'Philips itself felt that this research was little more than just "fooling around"...'
On friday november 26th I joined Oscar Smit and Brian Dommisse, two colleagues from the Vinyl Magazine days, for what became my third visit to Strijp-S. This time the occasion was the STRP-festival, a mega music, art & technology event that, ever since its first edition in 2006, finds its yearly, appropriate setting in the old Philips buildings of Strijp-S.
The three of us were invited to partake in STRP's Rewind, which yearly highlights a different technological innovation that originated in Eindhoven and/or at Philips. This year the looking back was to the compact cassette, and organized by Worm, from Rotterdam. Now Worm in turn had turned to Kapotte Muziek & Korm Plastic's Frans de Waard, who then in turn proposed us to come and contribute to Hisss, kind of an improvised documentary 'musical' with many guests reminiscing about cassettes along with "grandpa compact", sitting with a rug over his knees near the fireside, nodding and smoking a pipe. All that was to take place in a space baptized the 'Light Café', in the Klokgebouw from 1928 (which used to be the Philite factory, a bakelite production plant.)
"L'idée est bonne!" That was what my French driving instructor used to shout each time I almost crashed his Clio somewhere in the turmoil of Parisian traffic. Unfortunately also the hissss documentary tape memory musical was prone to crash. The vast (and at the programmed time of the evening pretty much deserted) former Philips factory hall did little suit the intimacy of fireside memories. Nevertheless, Oscar Smit (Vinyl Magazine's tape-guru & the foremost Dutch specialist of independent experimental any-wave underground cassette releases of the late 1970s and the 1980s) set out to explain the cumbersomeness of preparing, mastering and distributing his noteworthy Xmas Carols cassette compilations in the days before internet and mp3. Then Trumpet Tapes' Brian Dommisse enthusiastically presented, backed by a series of WikiLeak-like documents, the intriguing and funny story of how Trumpet, in 1982, managed to release Doxa Sinistra's Via del Latte C60 packed inside a sealed blank milk carton.
And I brought along an old cassette as
well. A very specific one, for a number of very specific reasons:
- Thirty years ago at about this very time of the year (that's reason 1) I got a letter from a young Englishman. His name was Nigel. Nigel Jacklin. He wrote me that he liked a lot the new Dutch experimental and electronic pop music of that time, bands like the Minny Pops, like Truus' (Truss) Plus Instruments, like Nasmak, and like the band that I was then in, the Young Lions. He asked if it would be okay for him to come over to meet me and the band in Amsterdam around Christmas. Well, that was okay. I made plans for Nigel, who also performed, recorded and released cassette tapes under the name of "Alien Brains".
- It was a few weeks ago that in Paris in my s(nail)mail I found a copy of the first issue of a brand new 'noise culture magazine', As Loud As Possible, with an extensive study of "the non-careers" of Alien Brains and a couple of other "early eighties UK outfits" That's reason 2. (Please do remind me to come back to ALAP in a future SB entry.)
- Nigel also wrote in his letter, or maybe in a next one, that he wanted to bring a Throbbing Gristle video. But when he dropped by at Genesis P. Orridge's to get a copy, the - then - man had told him to "just piss off". I couldn't help being reminded of that minuscule (almost non-) fact when, the day before going to STRP, I heard the news of Peter Christopherson's untimely demise. That is reason 3.
- Another reason (number 4) was that I had just received an email from Richard Rupenus asking some details on the recordings on one of the rarest among the (all extremely rare) "Alien Brains" cassette releases, Der Blaunk Teps. Most, or maybe even all, of the material on that particular tape was recorded by Nigel when he stayed with Nasmak in Nuenen, near Eindhoven, some time earlier in 1980.
- To answer Richard's question, I dug up and listened to my copy of Der Blaunk Teps. On my particular copy of that particular Alien Brains' cassette there's little signal (left?), but an awful lot of hissss. That, then, was the fifth and final reason for bringing Der Blaunk Teps to STRP, along with a copy of Alien Brains like Nasmak, the xeroxed fanzine that Nigel made after his Christmas trip to Holland.
The paragraph above was the cassette memory that I took for the evening. I recounted it (in Dutch and without microphone) more or less as you find it written , for those that were close enough to be able to hear it. I finished (in English) with some lines from "Alien Brains like Nasmak":
"1979, from june to september, under various other names & information, Alien Brains made one recording - of passing lorries, cars and people - but it seems to have been lost [...] I sat near the cooker and heated the knife. I melted my name in the plastic surround. I cut the foam clean through and melted it, until it smelt too much, and it hurt me when I realised, so I ran and you could smell it everywhere that evening [...] We do not know who invented the wheel, but we do know who invented the subroutine: it was Stanley Gill during his early days at Cambridge."
Then, of course I played a fragment from Der Blaunk Teps. Being
the conceptual purist that (sometimes) I am, I played it on one of my Sony
dictaphones. Now given the extreme low signal on the tape, and the tiny
loudspeaker of the dictaphone, in the big old Philips factory hall one could really
not hear a thing, not even a hint of a hissss. More so as in STRP 1, just a couple
of meters away, a major & loud concert had just begun, featuring
(first) Sleigh Bells, and (second) M.I.A. Anyway, it was not those fine
musicians' fault that they were programmed to perform next to my playing a near-to-no-volume
1980s cassette's hissss. I handed the dictaphone around
so that, head-on-speaker, at least some of the curious among the onlookers could
lend Der Blaunk Teps an ear for a couple of seconds.
For the SB-viewers, though, there's no need to worry: you are on the internet! The full 320 hissssy seconds that you missed out on, are here to be had for absolutely free, as this SB-edition's podcast, the 43rd in our ongoing, universally acclaimed and highly collectible series of digitally encoded, too little heard sounds: download or listen to the 5+ minute extract from Der Blaunk Teps's A-side by by (right-)clicking this here link ...
stopped there and then. I think. Or rather: it fizzled out like a damp squib.
While sounds playing back from cassettes were echoing through the 'Light
Café', backed by the heavy sub-bass beats that came bouncing over from the ongoing
concert on the other side of the wall. What would come next? Did anyone
know? Maybe someone did. But that someone did not tell. We all felt a bit lost there,
in the Light Café. A good thing then, that we were among good friends and
acquaintances: lost together, you're a bit found as well.
It was a surprise to descry Colin Ponthot's Monster Happy Tape dangling from the Light Café's ceiling. Also big baby monster looked lost & ignored in its dark corner next to the door, the tape heads for reading it dangling alongside the densely entangled strands of cassette tape, in many different shades of brown.
It was not that nobody cared. It was simply the case that nobody actually seemed to know that something, anything was going on. But there was, and it was definitely worthwhile. There was not only us hissssing that evening, but the good people of Worm had also invited some wonderful tape artists to come perform there at STRP, each of which puts to use this analog medium (that, as will you know, was developed by Philips in the early 1960s) in a different and personal manner.
And, as far as tape performances go, the tables available at the Light Café to put one's gear on, were amazing, as you may gather from the pictures below (click them to see bigger).
I was happy to see and hear Adam Thomas (Preslav, in the top left photograph), whose passage & lounge performance at last month's Basel Shift festival I had missed. Adam used his many tapes to weave wonderfully abstract fields of sounds, that were a nice fit for the gloomy obscurity of the Light Café's vacancy, but definitely deserved a lot more than the merely in passing attention they were given this evening.
Next up was Alexis Malbert (Tapetronic, top right photograph), who last summer was part of the line up of our Estafette Rue Cassette in Paris (still awaiting its release on cassette and an in-depth report in this very blog) and some weeks later joined Blenno und die Wurst-Brücke and myself on a very hot summer sunday in the Povera Park stall in front of the Viroflay Maison des Arts et des Loisirs. Alexis' music is very different from the slow ambient drones that most other tape (only) performers produce. He uses his modified tape machines to create a noisy & hooky, up-tempo beat based mix of weirdo sounds, which - remarkably, blitz like and as out of nowhere - succeeded in conjuring up a small crowd of youngsters dancing around his table. That's the power of 4/4 ... Alexis masters his machines and knows how to be smart without pretense. Tapetronic is lots of fun!
It was good also to meet Wouter van Veldhoven again. In 2006 Wouter was part of our Raudio_Live@de_Kunstvlaai line-up, in the Amsterdam Westergasfabriek, where in his performance he used no less than six vintage reel-to-reel machines. Meanwhile, Wouter has learned that this is but little practical. Let alone the fact that such 'vintage' set-ups are pretty unstable and prone to all sorts of defects. At STRP Wouter was far more compact. I liked the way he had added a second set of tape heads to an Akai tape machine, on a metal strip fixed to its top, enabling him to live tape-'Frippertronic' without the need to bring along 2 machines. Among the acoustic instruments that Wouter used as source for his Frippertronic loops were two of my favorites: a toy piano and a melodica. In the picture (bottom left) you see that indeed STRP's tables were large enough to sit on. It nicely illustrates Wouter's very calm and meditative loop-based set.
Aki Onda (picture bottom right) had the good luck that at the time his performance started, the M.I.A. concert next door had stopped, and finally something of an audience came entering the Light Café. The bulk of them, though, remained more interested in the offers of the Café's bar than in Aki, stoic as always, posing and scrroutchzzing his walkmen...
The K7/HISS evening imagined by Worm for STRP, in the vestiges of the former heart of the capitalist industrial empire that was responsible for the compact cassette of which, according to an authoritative estimate ( ** ), in its almost 50 year reign something between 50 and 100 billion (blank and pre-recorded) copies were sold, but that now rapidly is becoming obsolete, had all the right ingredients that could have made it into a major and memorable event. It was the right place. But surely not the right space, and maybe also not the right time. And thus somehow all of them fine ingredients did not manage to come and work together.
It therefore could happen that what, as far as I am concerned, should have been the very pivot of the event, managed to pass completely unnoticed by almost all of us. I did see an old man, far older than myself, curiously looking around the Light Café at some point. The man had already long left the place, though, when I got to know that I had just missed the one in a life time opportunity to shake hands with Ir. Lou Ottens.
Lou Ottens now is 83 years old. It is but little known that Lou Ottens is the inventor of the compact cassette. (As a matter of fact, he also invented the compact disc, the CD.) Of course he did not do this alone and all by himself, but in 1960, in the 'vieux media days', he was the man who led the Philips R & D group that was charged with the development of tape recorders and gramophones. Ottens' group took up the development of a 'tape in a box', improving upon the, much larger and not very stable 1/4-inch tape cartridges that, somewhat earlier, had been introduced by RCA. As dimensions of what would become Philips' version of the cassette tape, Ottens used the size of a small piece of wood that fit into his pocket: the tape had to be suitable for use in a 'pocket recorder'. It also asked for a smaller tape size: not the standard 1/4 inch tape used by RCA, but only 0.15 inch wide.
Lou Ottens and his group started the development of the compact cassette in 1961. The finished product was introduced in august 1963 at the Internationale Funkausstellung in Berlin. It was an instant hit.
[ added March 21st, 2013: Lang Leve Lou Ottens! ]
All about all that we all know all.
notes __ ::
(*) The early Dutch electronic music produced at the Philips Research Laboratories is available on a 4CD set, edited in 2004 by Kees Hazelaar and Basta Music under the title Popular Electronics. [ ^ ]
(**) In: We hadden geen andere keus dan digitaal gaan. Ir. Lou Ottens ontwikkelde bij Philips de cassette en de CD. Tekst: Fanta Voogd. De Ingenieur, jaargang 119, nr. 20/21 (21-12-2007), pag. 66-71 (in Dutch). [ ^ ]
tags: Eindhoven, Philips, strp, cassettes, Alien Brains
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