octobrrrre 25, 2013.
[ Summary: ]
... - ... - About the some things that are certain - Papier Machine, Derrida and other toxic byproducts - All the way to Neptune and back (that makes 8 light hours) - On Re/Vival - Just to justify (many, many, many a 1000 more words) - The cassetteer and the DJ - It's a poor man's thang - Why to love retro-chic poppers and hipsters - Did I say there is no Hell? - Audio slates - Frank Zappa's '200 Motels' and a Christmas dinner at granny's - Not a one but a many - "Unto emptiness shalt thou return" - ... - ...
This much is certain: the fiftieth anniversary of the audio compact cassette did not go unnoticed.
Many a mainstream medium jumped at the occasion, and shone its light on the demise and current re-vival of the small rectangular plastic boxes with sounds 'etched' upon plastic ribbons wound around small plastic wheels.
There were sóóó many articles that at some point I lost track.
(Insert remark ☞
on the equivalence - metaphorical - of magnetic audio tape with the ribbon of a typewriter; all typed text, in a very literal way, got recorded onto a type writer's ribbon; this was particularly striking in the case of professional electric writing machines like those manufactured by IBM; many of these used plastic carbon film ribbons held within a cassette, that was 'played' only once, from beginning to end; the IBM type writer's cassette recorded every single symbol that was typed, and it was pretty easy afterwards to reconstitute the written text from the ribbon, on which the typed characters could be seen as light outlines against the dark ribbon background. When Philips presented Lou Ottens's tape to the world, the typewriter of course still was the predominant mechanical writing tool. I, for one, only *really* began to use text editing software on the computer towards the end of the 1980s; all of this then of course reminds one of Papier Machine, a collection of Jacques Derrida's prose poems [tongue-in-cheek; take this as a joke] that I only read a handful of years ago but whose title can not but be not related to Presse Papier, the unorthodox name of my late 1970's unorthodox Amsterdam popband.)
[ Most tapes in cassettes - if unwound - will be about 86 (C60) or 130 (C90) meters long; onto one side a magnetic emulsion has been glued, which often - because of its audio quality enhancing properties - contains chromium dioxide, the mass production of which "yielded toxic by-products of which Japanese manufacturers had great difficulty properly disposing". ( * ) ]
Re-vival, of course, is relative.
Here's another certainty, and we all know it. The cassette, like the vinyl platter, is no longer a means for music mass consumption. The days that pop music hit-albums sold many millions not only on vinyl, but also in the pre-recorded cassette format (as well as being illegally copied onto blank cassette tapes another many, many million more times) will not come back.
This fact notwithstanding, in the mere fifty years of its existence, our world was flooded with cassettes. The quantity of compact cassettes produced world wide in the five decades since its introduction according to an authoritative estimation is said to have been roughly between the 50 and 100 billion (= 1011): that makes an estimated average of more than ten cassette tapes, or more than ten hours of recorded sound and music, for every single human being alive. If, for argument's sake, we stick to the max, and assume, for simplicity's sake, that all of them were C60's, then we could've spliced the past 50 years of cassette tape into one meta-mega tape, measuring 8.55 billion kilometers.
It would take, ladies and gentlemen readers, a spark of light - almost - 8 hours to travel from one end to the other; we could - almost - stretch this meta-tape all the way from here to Neptune and back again; playing it would take about 11.4 million years: if we hit play now, the meta-cassette's playback will not stop before the time that the ring of debris around Mars has crashed upon the surface of that very planet. And then finally imagine: almost all of the music we'd hear coming from our meta-tape would be that of a mindboggling number of copies of Michael Jackson albums and similar top selling pop chart hits, endlessly repeating ... So, did I say there is no Hell? ... ... ( ** )
The current & much publicized world wide nostalgia and retro-chic driven vintage and vanity cassette album production, by a jolly bunch of alternative poppers, indie-rockers, sweet hipsters and, also, by a number of less-fringe acts that - most of them for retro and nostalgia's sakes - want to be in on the trend as well -- (now don't get me wrong: I love them all! I love them for noppers and for having their fun; and I dearly hope they'll persist; in having their fun, I mean) -- will only add digits to the far, far right end of this astronomical number. Which means that, essentially, in the near and far future this number is unlikely to change by very much.
How many of these billions of tapes ended up in the streets, in landfills and other garbage repositories? (Yes, I am a specialist! Insert some lines ☞
on the infamous Found Tapes Exhibition...) My gut estimation: half of them. The bulk of the remaining half consists in the tapes that are kept, unused, in closets, cellars and attics, but that will surely 'end up in the gutter' within the next couple of decades or so. Is it possible to imagine the sheer volume, the quantity of this waste? ( *** )
It were these and such things that over the summer months often crossed my mind, sleepily dreaming on my solitary stretch of Ré-beach, where I was trying to boost my somewhat ailing health.
Lou Ottens never strayed very far...
In its heydays, also the average household user considered cassettes to be audio slates. They were erasable. They were transparent. An audio cassette served multiple purposes. One could replace their content over and over again. Everybody knew how to erase and re-record a pre-recorded tape by covering its write protection notches with a little piece of Scotch. Have a peek at the cassette in the picture above. It's an item that I recently picked up from the pavement not far from where I live. As witnessed by its labels, this leftover from a garage sale originally was a copy of a United Artists cassette album release of the soundtrack to Frank Zappa's masterly but still largely underrated 200 Motels. Finding an original cassette copy of whatever Zappa album would be something to rejoice in. But all of the Zappa music that the tape once contained had been erased. It was replaced by an impromptu collage of bits and pieces of main stream rock music recorded from French public radio. Which then in turn - somewhere towards the end of the tape's second side and as witnessed by the sticker the tape's previous owner stuck onto it (the handwriting is feminine; the sticker's presence indicates that the recording must have been of some sort of special interest to her; it reads "Repas Noël Papy et Mamy") had given way to a microphone recording apparently made during a Christmas dinner at someone's grandparents' place.
"I guess it is no wonder," my thoughts went and wandered, "that the cassette invokes a sense of nostalgia that is so much stronger than the one brought on by the vinyl record. Never mind the technical superiority of the vinyl as a sound carrier; never mind the esthetic superiority of its perfectly round ribbled flatness; of the so very simple geometry and fine topology, which is the same as that of a donut. Other than scratching it, carving your name and a heart into it with a Swiss knife, as if it were the trunk of tree, cutting, breaking or melting it, there is little that you can do to make a piece of vinyl 'your own'."
"The sounding spiral that it keeps is immutable," the ocean's waves whispered.
"It is that Edison had not yet invented the gramophone," I soflty sang back to them. "God would surely have preferred recording a vinyl record over cutting his words into stone..."
With a cassette tape things are different.
Whether pre-recorded or not, at heart the cassette is and remains an empty container that can be filled with whatever you want. And cassettes are deconstructable. You can take them apart and put them back together again.
Unlike a vinyl record, a cassette - and the French have just the right word for it - is a machin, with many distinct components. It is not a one, it is a many. And merely one among these many is the actually sound carrier.
It comes with a geometry and topology that is nothing like that of the vinyl record.
The magnetic tape is a line; it is a very long and thin plastic thread wound around a plastic wheel. It is an unreservedly modifiable, malleable and flexible - because essentially empty - space. It is crosslinkable, cuttable, inversible, knottable. Its malleability is the reason that so many people love the cassette. They remember the many ways in which they used it. And there were these many ways to use it, because it came to them, essentially, as a blank. It made the cassette a perfect canvas for your memories: given any single one of the 100 billion audio compact cassettes that over these past fifty years have been made, nothingness lies just around the corner...
"For empty thou art and unto emptiness shalt thou return." ( **** )
- to be continued -
notes __ ::
(*) Source for this: Wikipedia entry on chromium dioxide, retrieved September 23rd, 2013. [ ^ ]
(**) For more, utterly useless but fun, cassette volume calculations, see the second part of the SoundBlog's Back to Berlin (2007) series, and some recent SoundBlog tweets. That the ring of debris around Mars will hit the surface of that planet in about 11 million years, is one of the far future facts that can be found on Wikipedia (retrieved September 23rd 2013) [ ^ ]
(***) This is of course not typical for the audio cassette. [ ^ ]
(****) Cf. Genesis 3:19. [ ^ ]
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