Gino Robair is former editor of EM

Tape, Ephemera, Loss, and Memories

cassette.jpg

Recently, a performance of mine was released on cassette (yes, analog cassette—the preferred format of the ’80s). It was an extremely limited edition (less than 50) and it sold out immediately. That surprised me… until I listened back to it.

Yes, there’s hiss—you can’t miss it. More importantly, there is a combination of wow, flutter, and crunchiness that warmed my heart. All the worst things about the cassette format as a playback medium were the best things for this new release in terms of sound quality. Although the live performance was from ’09, it sounded as if it was recorded in the ’50s—in a good way.

I have yet to find a plug-in that does lo-fi like this.

Particularly sexy was the way this inexpensively duped tape changed the sound of my cymbals: they have a distinct warble that I love. Maybe the Dolby circuit in my player adds to the weirdness. I’m not sure if I can recreate the effect digitally, but I’m going to try. But at least I know one way to get it: use an obsolete storage medium as a filtering device.

Have you listened to a cassette tape lately? After a few years away from the format, it was a breath of fresh ears. It has its own sound, like vinyl does. I certainly don’t want to return to a time when that was the preferred delivery platform for indie artists, but I do like hearing it again, working with it, releasing the odd bit of sound art on it.

And I’m not alone. Check out the list of 101 Cassette Labels from 2008. The intro is worth reading, if that’s all you have time for, because it offers a glimpse into why artists choose the format.

Like many musicians who worked in the ’70s and ’80s, I still have boxes of cassettes (not to mention DATs and tape reels). Although a few of the cassettes are major-label releases, the vast majority are of indie musicians, obscure music, or my own projects and demos. Music back then didn’t really sound like it does on cassette, did it?

Although part of me is tired of lugging the boxes around from place to place, the archivist in me gets excited when I run across some forgotten artifact of my youthful musical interests—a tape of a gamelan performance, some modular synth experiment, a recording made on a vacation in Morocco. For me, it’s as compelling as looking at sepia prints of my grandparent’s Italian hometown.

But this brought to mind the bigger issue of what we leave behind in our everyday lives. Things that, in the moment, seem trivial and of little value, but which may have value decades from now.

This weekend the idea was amplified for me when I discovered Liza Kirwin’s excellent book Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations (2010, Princeton Architectural Press). Thanks to Kirwin’s imaginative curation, this isn’t some boring academic exercise featuring Picasso’s grocery list. Instead, you get a glimpse into the thought process of some of the most creative people of the last two centuries through a variety of off-the-cuff meanderings. For example, one artist sketched a picture of all the things he needed to pack for a trip. Sure, a few of the artists were aware that everything they put down on a notepad would be scrutinized by future generations. But the majority of the ephemera in this book is raw, unfiltered thought-process, which can be inspiring and insightful to see.

So what will be the detritus that we leave behind?

Certainly, every tweet you post is being archived. But what about all the email you dash off on a daily basis. Some of it you might enjoy re-reading in a couple of decades. No doubt Google is storing a record of it for its Gmail users, whether they like it or not. Perhaps everything we type online is being saved in some form or another and will eventually become searchable.

But now that everything you do is filtered through an iPhone app or some other portable device, what will future generations be able to find out about us based on what we leave behind. How are you going to make notes in the margins of your books when you’re using a Kindle or iPad? Who even uses a pencil and paper anymore to pass along a memo or jot down an idea?

I ask this of my fellow content producers (composers, videographers, choreographers): where are the notes about your work? Will someone be able to see them when you’re gone. All of those quick, Flip camera shots that you’ve put up on YouTube of your rehearsals and events—do you have them saved somewhere? YouTube, Vimeo, and the entire paradigm of free Web-based media storage won’t be around forever. Think of the gig photos posted on Facebook or MySpace. Do you have those backed up on something besides your boot drive? Doesn’t matter, you say? Here’s one reason.

A close friend of mine was killed a few years ago in an accident. Suddenly, a loved one is gone, and there is a mad scramble by all of his friends and family for tangible memories, both personal and of his work. Even the casual shots backstage or on the road take on importance. But where did we put them? I know I had some in email attachments that I saved to my local disk two computers ago—gone. The PDFs of flyers and posters—Were those saved to flash-drive, CD-R, or DVD-R? No. Cassette and CD recordings remain. Printed scores? A few, but only from his notebooks. If he used a notation program, those scores were never found. None of us were prepared to have so little to hang on to. As time passes, we feel like we hardly knew him.

It’s an odd time we live in. We have the technology to document and store nearly every moment of our lives, but the artifacts are as ephemeral as ever.

Yet, I recommend that you document everything: rehearsals, gigs, parties, events. Buy a cheap digital recorder and use it as much as possible. Better yet, get something that shoots video, as well, so you can see how your friends and partners look, now, while they’re here. Then, back it up on a format, such as DVD, that will survive your next computer crash (yes, it’s coming). That way, you and your friends will have something to watch and listen to when you want to remember what it was like in the Good Old Days.

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