Materiality of Music Monday

Last week, for some strange reason I started to listen to William Basinski’s Disintegrations Loops (which you can listen to here).

Basinski famously discovered the basis for these recording by accident when he was transferring magnetic tape recorded in the 1980s to a digital format. As the tape ran through the machine, it started to deteriorate and he became fascinated by the gradual disintegration of the music. As he ran the tapes through more and more, the tape continued to fall apart and Basinski continued to transfer the sound of the disintegrating tapes. He was listening to these recording in 2001 while he witnessed the planes crash into the World Trade Center towers in New York. He released the first part of the recordings as an album in 2002 and dedicated them to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The tracks are haunting as you might expect and require both some patience from the listener to hear the detail of the music changing, but also reward playing as a kind of ambient track which feels like it draws the entire world into its plaintive entropy.

(As a vaguely unrelated aside, one of my favorite parts of Bill Evans’ three disk recording of his 1961 classic date at the Village Vanguard in New York is the power failure which caused the tape machine to stop during “Gloria’s Step.” I’ve always wondered how the producer (Orrin Keepnews) of the 2005 complete recording decided how long to pause the playback on the first public release of the song. Perhaps he compared it to other version of “Gloria’s Step” or maybe he counted out the time based on the recorded part of the song. You can hear it here.)  

Of course what we’re hearing here is less the performance itself and more the disintegration of the medium. And this reminds me how much archaeology is visual rather than auditory practice (even though many archaeologists will admit that, say, changes in strata can be heard in the sound of the trowel scraping across the soil or the thump of the pick into the earth). When it comes to documenting spaces, however, we almost always fall back on texts, plans, photographs and the like. In other words, the sound of Basinski’s Disintegration Loops which documents the formation processes encountered by the magnetic tape as it breaks down would fit only awkwardly within traditions of archaeological practice.

This got me thinking about some of the work I did a few years ago with the Wesley College Documentation Project and our plan to use sound to document the space of the now destroyed Corwin Hall recital room. We published some reflections on this over at Epoiesen. I was reminded of this work after reading the chapters from Krysta Ryzewski’s Detroit Remains (2022) that documented the iconic Detroit jazz venue, the Blue Bird Inn, and its influential rock music venue, the Grande Ballroom. Both buildings have undergone significant changes since their prime as active venues with the Grande Ballrooms roof caving in and the Blue Bird Inn’s stage removed. The scale of these changes would obviously be audible in recordings made at either venue. What’s more, because there are earlier live recordings at the Blue Bird Inn (and I have to assume at the Grande Ballroom), it would be interesting to compare a contemporary recording with one from the past. While I understand that microphone placement, equipment, mixing boards, the PA and all sorts of other variables influence how sound is captured in a space, I think some of that could be sussed out based on probability and some historical sleuthing. Capturing the sound of the contemporary space would offer another way to think about how the buildings’ materiality influenced their distinctive character as performance venues. As Ryzewski pointed out, the use of copious quantities of horsehair plaster in the Grande Ballroom contributed to its distinctive sonic characteristics. At the same time, the collapse of the roof and the deterioration of the interior would presumably be audible in a recording. Comparing recordings of the space in its bustling prime with those in the space as near ruin would offer a distinctive perspective on their materiality. More than that, it would be fitting for buildings designed to accommodate performances to be recorded in ways that documented that function. It is telling, for example, that Ryzewski had jazz musicians from Wayne State play on the stage of the Blue Bird Inn. It suggests an understanding that performing once again on the stage could provide insights into the function and character of the space.

I know that I’ve posted on this kind of thing before (even just last week), but it continues to fascinate me!

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