march 23, 2013.
In August of this year it is 50 years ago that at the Internationale Funkausstellung in Berlin (de) the Dutch multinational Philips Electronics Inc. introduced the compact cassette to the world. It's the cassette's golden jubilee. Already last year there have been a few nostalgia laden 'celebrations' of the tiny-tape-in-a-box's 50th anniversary. These were informed by the fact that the compact cassette was invented in 1962 and they were of course premature. Birth does not come about at the moment of conception. It occurs when the something or someone that was conceived is put into the world. For the compact cassette this happened in 1963, in Berlin. Here's a handy formula that will help you remember:
2013 = C50
As the director of the R & D team that developed these things at Philips, the inventor of the compact cassette (and, b.t.w., twenty years later also of the compact disc) was a Dutchman: ir. Lou Ottens, now retired and in his mid-eighties. I have told you about Lou before, here and there over the past couple of years, in which the compact cassette, from being among the consumer goods that everybody is using on a daily basis (many, many billions of them were produced and sold), at lightning's speed descended into the domains of hipster & cult & retro-snob objects; and boomed in that of noise, sound, music & art making in several of its multiple guises. In the former, but too often also in the latter, it currently seems to be predominantly revered for the image it provides.
All dead things become image.
Most that is written and said about the cassette these days, especially in more mainstream media outlets, is drenched in nostalgia for 'the poor cousin of vinyl', and for (mainly girl-)friends' hearts conquered via longingly compiled and hand decorated mix tapes.
None of them, no-body, pays any attention to Lou.
But not us!
We do remember Lou!
Have a closer look at the masthead picture of this page. It is the détournement of an advertisement for Opel cans (sic, * ). A couple of weeks ago the ad was all over Paris. The apparent idea behind it is to brand Opel vehicles as retro-hip, by associating the German automobiles (or at least this particular model, the Adam) with the retro-hip of ghetto blasters and compact cassettes. In front of the yellow Adam we see a pile of some two or three hundred (unboxed) cassette tapes. Behind the yellow Adam a wall of ghetto blasters has been erected (an image and 'retro-sculpture', b.t.w., that over the past couple of years emerged as the heart of a number of different sound art installations). And the girl sitting on the left, with kind of a blank, or pensive, look? Is she the artist? The creator/creative who conceived of this composition/installation for Opel and piles of very hip 'old and obsolete' analogue audio stuff, that so brilliantly reflects our consumerist Zeitgeist? [In the original poster the girl is not holding a paintbrush; I photoshopped it; it was, of course, also not the advertising agency that wrote 'Lang Leve Lou Ottens!' on a piece of plastic. It was me who stuck the plastic on the glass plate of the billboard with the advertisement, and then stepped back to take a picture of the result; the glass plate accounts for the reflection of the tree that you see. Nobody removed the piece of plastic, which remained stuck to the billboard until, after a week or so, the advert was replaced by a next one. (☞ Download a copy of the picture to use as your Desktop Image)]
Lou Ottens has never been a household name, and I doubt it ever will be. Even though UK police forces continue to use millions of cassette tapes to record and duplicate interviews with crime suspects, in 2011 the Concise Oxford English Dictionary removed the term cassette tape. Most of the billions of tapes that once were sold and used, now are, or eventually will be, dumped. But, hey! You know that we always need a scapegoat. We need someone to blame. And who better to blame for the cassette's blessing and curse than Lou Ottens? I also really like the sound (and connotations) of his name. Which is why, wavering between sarcasm and seriousness, I will say and continue to say: Lang Leve Lou Ottens! (Long Live Lou Ottens!)
Thanks to the enthousiasm, dedication and network of Rinus van Alebeek, on Sunday the 17th of March, another side of Lou's invention was highlighted in what must have been this year's first (and transatlantic) 2013 = C50 event. Being cheap, easy to handle and blank, Ottens's cassette was soon adopted as a medium and means for musical and artistic expression. Most notably by divers groups of 'lo or no budget' artists, non-artists and anti-artists, by musicians, non-musicians and anti-musicians, who took (or re-invented, and re-re-invented) pretty much all techniques, concepts and ideas of the post-WWII avant-garde, and applied and diverted them in the self-organized, self-supporting and largely non-academic context of folklore (D.I.Y) post-experimentalism: a meandering mix of electronics, (more or less) free improvisation, tape collage (plunderphonics), sound poetry, musique concrète and radiophonics, that for some forty years has been thriving in an 'international underground of experimental music'. Though this is far from a conscious intention, it is keeping 'post-WWII avant-garde' alive as a genre, despite - or should I rather say: thanks to - little or no conceptual development.
(Historically, it is like a fixed point).
Along with other obsolete (especially) analog media and vintage equipment, in these D.I.Y. contexts the audio cassette continues to be much beloved. As a medium for publication and distribution, but also as a performer's tool and instrument. I have been using cassettes and dictaphones for more than 40 years, and began using them actively as instruments and tools for composition and performance about 14 years ago. Until, say, 5,6 years ago, that was not yet a very common thing to do; but the retro-hip aura that the cassette and the cassette player since have obtained, has made their use (or at least their visual appearance) in current 'experimental' (music) performances almost obligatory.
Whatever. Maybe among other things, but aren't we cassetteurs? Let's be proud of it! We've got all the reason in the world to chant a Lang Leve Lou Ottens!...
Sunday March 17th's 2013 = C50 saw a number of fine cassetteurs tipping their hats to Lou. As of 4 pm Aki Onda, G Lucas Crane (aka nonhorse), Rinus van Alebeek and Emmanuel Rébus gathered in the Silent Barn on Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn, NY, for an afternoon and evening of tape celebration. Of course they did a series of presentations and live performances. But there also was an indoor market where visitors could see and buy cassette releases by local tape labels; there were (I would have loved to see these) Pixelvision tape screenings, that is of video recorded onto compact cassette with a toy black-and-white camcorder marketed by Fisher-Price in the late 1980s; and one had the opportunity to sit or lay and listen to the Tellus tapes, a classic subscription only audio cassette magazine, published between 1983 and 1993 by Joseph Nechvatal, Claudia Gold and Carol Parkinson, that documented the work of (mainly) New York sound and music experimentalists active in those years. Not even to mention the tape themed hors d'oeuvres, in which I would not at all have been surprised to find Rébus's hand.
For a Parisian prelude to the happenings in Brooklyn, Anton Mobin had invited Blenno und die Wurstbrücke and myself over to his Maïzing Studio on the sixth floor of an apartment building in the 20th Parisian arrondissement, where we did a four and a half hour cassette only show, live on web radio KKWNE. It was fun, informal and relaxed. We talked cassettes, we threw cassettes, we licked cassettes, we laughed cassettes, we bunged cassettes, we ate, drank & we smoked cassettes, we cried cassettes, we cranked cassettes, and we played cassettes, including about two hours of my inimitable 24/7 Found Tapes Exhibition web stream. We watched and listened to a Lang Leve Lou Ottens! uTube playlist that I had compiled. It contains a found tape clip made from Brooklyn footage (recorded while biking with Matt Roberts around the Williamsburg neighborhood during the 2007 Conflux Festival), a clip made in Brussels during a residency at Reclycart, also in 2007; and a clip of my reading of the story of Penelope's tapes, shot especially for this occasion. Anton did an improvised mix/mash of four tapes, one for each of the four protagonists that meanwhile were arriving and/or setting up at Brooklyn's Silent Barn... (I knew they were arriving, when at 21h15 Parisian time - that was 4h15 pm in Brooklyn - I received an email from Rinus reading: "I am outside at the door on brunswick ave 603. can i come in, please? it'scold"...) Blenno had brought two of his custom dictaphone/banana-contraptions, which he put to good use in a couple of solo sets, duet-ing with Anton, and - all together now - in two 'broken dictaphones' trio performances.
To get an impression of how the cassetteurs in Paris sounded that evening, listen to the following 13 minutes extract of the 4,5 hours KKWNE emission, with - mainly - two trio improvisations, some singing, and some bytes of Blenno's solo sounds.
There is, of course, a lot more to be said about the cassette's upsides and its downsides. In bits and pieces, incomplete and abridged, in the course of this year much will end up on the langlevelouottens tumblr, to eventually re-emerge in due time as part (or non-part) of The Ultimate Essay on Cassettes and other Audio Fetishes.
What is the shortest sound between two ears?
More to come.
Happy with a brilliant preamble.
Lang Leve Lou Ottens!
Blenno - "Ma première cassette s'est mal passé. Il faut un petit touché, et je ne l'avais pas encore. Faut pas que les filles se moquent, justement... Et toi? Ta première cassette?"
Harold - "Ma première cassette était vierge"
[Debrief @KKWNE C50, March 17th, 2013]
tags: cassette, 2013=C50, Lou Ottens
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