DD DAY 2021 Masterclass 4 – working with tape
Marta Salogni & Caro C
Welcome to the transcript from our fourth masterclass/expert talk session for our DD Day 2021 programme. This time we hear from Marta Salogni who is one of the rare contemporary artists to compose and perform with tape. Marta and host Caro C talked about why and how Delia is an inspiration whilst also unpacking a couple of Delia’s works as well as some recent tape based projects by Marta. This was an opportunity to understand more deeply what it is like to work with tape and therefore appreciate even more the genius and dedication of Delias’ work.
With grateful thanks to Arts Council England for supporting this year’s project, whose theme was imagination.
CARO : Welcome to our DD Day 2021, Masterclass Expert Talk number 4 and we are very happy to welcome Marta Salogni.
MARTA: Thank you for having me.
CARO: We are very excited to be able to offer these sessions this year, funded by the Arts Council England. This is a kind of an experiment. It’s partly part of our COVID creative response but I think it’s also turning out to be an interesting way for us to reach people more internationally with our work because we are based here in Manchester in England.
I first met Marta at Synth Fest UK a few years ago when she was doing a demo about her work with tape. I also remember reading an article about you in Sound On Sound magazine, I was very interested to discover your work then, and then I think we just got chatting and realised obviously you’re very inspired by Delia and your work is informed by Delia’s work and other tape composers.
CARO: Then you went on to be the sound designer for Sisters With Transistors which features Delia. I was a researcher for the UK figures on that as well which were Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram. So it felt very right to bring Marta in to this series of conversations. Especially being the rare species of someone still using tape! So lovely to start to unpack some of that with you this evening, Marta.
MARTA: Yes, thank you. The work really brought us together on so many occasions.
MARTA: It feels natural, doesn’t it, and it’s sort of felt natural for me to get into the world of tape and then, thanks to people around me that I was talking to at the time, I then got to come across the works of Delia and that just made me even more passionate and excited about working with tape because suddenly I thought, well, it’s not just my brain that is leading me there, but people before me have gone down that route and have done incredible things. It inspired me and made me feel more confident with what I was doing and it kind of made me even more determined to dive into this world and to know that I wasn’t the only one – it was very powerful.
CARO: It’s quite reassuring isn’t it, to know that there’s that kind of ancestral lineage in a sense of women before us who’ve had to be determined to succeed – with that medium especially, of tape?
MARTA: Yes. It gave me strength and it helped me put my passion into perspective when, for example, I was having difficulties in the understanding how one system worked or how a tape machine worked. It kind of gave me strength in those moments to know that, for example, Delia or Daphne Oram before me would have been there as well and would have spent countless hours getting to know a machine and making mistakes and throwing a lot of tape in the bin. All of that is part of the process and the process involves a lot of patience and that in itself is a method of work that I think is very beneficial for me mentally and, as a process, I really like it. Especially right now in this modern workflow, we often are pushed to do things faster and faster. There is the time in which someone needs to push the accelerator but when it comes down to my compositions I like to do the opposite so I take as much time as I can without feeling too indulgent. I like to really get into the small details and, to me, cutting a tape by hand is part of the composition. It changes how I compose the sound so it’s all part of the creative workflow.
CARO: Yes. How did you end up going down the rabbit hole of tape, were you a musician before? I know you are an award-winning studio producer as well, so how did you decide to commit to tape?
MARTA: Well, it is a medium that, when I started working in studios, it wasn’t as widely used as it was before, so I had always been fascinated by it because I wanted to understand it. When I started working in studios, the transition to digital was already done, so people were recording in Logic or Protools, but not always on tape. It was a choice.
I was really interested in understanding how the world of engineering was before digital. So I started getting to understand tape and the process of recording, magnetic recording. The first tape machines I used were a PR 99, a Revox Mark 3. On that, I started experimenting, first recording on it and understanding how to align it, how to get audio from the machine into the speakers and into the machine, what kind of level of recordings I was looking at. And then I thought, how can I use this in a more creative way? Maybe in a way that is not meant to be used, or that I didn’t know was meant to be used, you know. So I started to experiment with it. I was feeding it back on to itself and then I realised, that’s how they used to do delays before digital delays were invented, simply using it as a send and then on the return, pushing up the feedback, thus creating a feedback. And that’s it. I thought how can I push that? While doing the feedback, all this structure would appear. It was a beauty to me because I thought, wow, this can be used as a compositional tool. I can literally just use this as an instrument, although it’s categorised as a recording device, so it kind of became my joy and mission to make it be regarded as an instrument, rather than just a tool to record.
CARO: That definitely I think is one of the things that defines that era isn’t it, is the recording studio became an instrument itself, it all became musical?
MARTA: Yes. It’s like an instrument itself, a musical instrument, like a mixing desk can be a musical instrument because through it you platy with the sound and then it ends up being completely different from when you started.
Sound is not just made through pianos and acoustic instruments as we know it, and in fact, wasn’t it one of the instruments Delia used just made out of multiple sound generators that would just emit different frequency tones.
CARO: Yes, the chromatic test tone generators in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop!
MARTA: Yes, it’s actually a signal generator that is often used to line up tape machines, for example, to just create pure tones. Obviously, then we map that on to, for example, a keyboard and suddenly we have something that we can play. It’s the way that we use things that make them an instrument. So literally, it’s down to us and the relationship that we have with the medium. I love the fact that it’s a conversation. A tape machine has got moving parts, it heats up the tape. It doesn’t really give you the same result twice. And there are so many variables that makes it so very human and life-like. I like the fact that it’s unpredictable, just like talking with someone, you know, then you might end up learning a lot from that conversation or sometimes it might not go anywhere and you will be bored of it and leave the room in a tantrum because the tape machine doesn’t want to work. So yes, it’s a very human process I think, as human as it can be when dealing with a machine.
CARO: Yes. I imagined they must have their own, I’m not going to use the word personality, but their own little quirks, whether it’s the settings or variations. Even with those machines behind you, do you feel like they have got their own little differences that you would really get to know, like Delia would have got to know those three lined up in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that she used when she did the ‘crash-syncing’ (playing 3 tape machines at the same time)?
MARTA: Yes, definitely, I use different machines for different things. So I would use, for example, two linked up together by a tape to create kind of a combination tape looping system, they call them the Maze. But I would use a Revox with a vary speed to do more arrhythmic delays or I’ll use a Ferrograph when I want to add more tonality because it has bars inside. When we start using something so often, then we start really understanding all of the little differences. So it’s a question of, you know, knowing your instruments and using them so much.
CARO: So how did you learn to really, really advance your compositional techniques with tape? Was it studying or researching the likes of Delia and Daphne Oram and other tape composers who came before you? Or was it people you knew that maybe showed you, gave you help or advice?
MARTA: It was a lot of trial-and-error. My engineering background gave me just enough to understand how a tape machine works, on very basic level. Then it was about me sitting down in a room with a tape machine in front of me and just, you know, almost taking it apart and understanding, OK, if I do this, this happens. I always recorded what I was doing. So I would have the tape machine going through a desk and into Protools so that I could just go back and listen and try to remember what was my process behind the little snippet of audio that I got. Because things just happened and then disappeared, and they never come back, unless you record them.
So, I was literally just experimenting and scratching my head a lot, thinking, this isn’t working. Then suddenly thinking, wow, this is really working, how did I do that?! 50% of the time I knew, 50% I didn’t and then progressively became 80% I knew, you know, 20% I didn’t! And now I’m say like 90% I know and 10% who knows because there’s always a 10% I think that keeps me going and will keep me going forever! So we do not always know. And it’s about the sensitivity that you put behind things I think and the empathy almost I have to give myself in those moments. The understanding, the microscopic changes that you can do, and that can lead you to hugely different outcomes.
Then wanting to push the boundaries, thinking, OK I understand how this tape machine works, I’d like to add another tape machine next to it and share the two tapes. Then we did that and I thought, well how about I add a third and a fourth and a fifth or, how long is a tape loop, how long can I make a tape loop before I lose patience and it doesn’t work anymore?
Just two weeks ago I was in Italy and I was doing a tape installation with Francesco at this venue called Spectro and we did a tape installation, inspired by the biography of Jacques Cousteau and we really wanted to have a long loop but we ran out of tape machines, so we used a copycat – we taped it up and we had a six-metre loop.
MARTA: It’s a lot for the poor copycat which is just meant to have a little looped piece. So we hung it over in the venue and we had to hack the motor adding some rubber bands, the ones they use in like old cassette players, so that one motor would push the other little cogs along and would give it strength and somehow it worked!
I mean there’s a lot of the time it’s like, OK what do I have with me, a rubber band…you know, what you have got and what can work at that time? At some point it stopped working but we had a contact mic and inside there was a loose screw somewhere and it was rattling, so we stuck a mic on it and we used it as an instrument because it suddenly became a percussion instrument. It stopped working as a tape loop, but, you know, you try and do all you can with what you have, especially if what you have is not what you need.
CARO: All that thinking on your feet, solution focused creativity really, that’s the ultimate creativity and imagination which, yes, Delia had ample of that, as of course so do you.
So many questions I want to ask but I’m going to restrain myself for now, as next let’s unpack a couple of examples of Delia’s work that you have chosen that you would like to share. Which one would you like me to share first?
MARTA: Maybe Love Without Sound (by White Noise, released as part of “An Electric Storm” on Island Records, 1969).
CARO: Yes. I will share the audio. I will start from the beginning then.
— Playing Love Without Sound –
swirling echoing ethereal loops of a vocal saying ‘Love Without Sound’ with changing pitches and building harmonies.
CARO: That was the first minute or so of Love Without Sound which was an on ‘An Electric Storm’ which Delia made with as White Noise with David Vorhaus and Brian Hodgson. This was released on Island Records in 1969. We had a whole programme of activities a couple of years ago honouring the 50th anniversary of that album, so we got a wonderful interview with David Vorhaus about how it was made. Why did you choose this one, Marta?
MARTA: This was the first work that I was shown when I got introduced to Delia. I think it must have been David French who said to me, if you are using tape, you must listen to ‘An Electric Storm’ and when I did, this piece was the one which for me was wow, blew my mind because I thought, if this was made in 1968, 1969 and it sounds so modern, production-wise, and these were made only with analogue equipment and mostly tape machines and little weird bits of equipment and machines back then. You know, wow. I mean even in the modern production, these tracks would be really hard to make with digital machines, with all the editing simplicity that we have now, you know, how you can copy and paste things. This will take a genius to make this in the digital world, so I can just imagine, you know, in 1968 and 1969, that’s crazy! I mean that’s incredibly mind-blowing to me. And it made me feel like I want to compose, I want to make this, in my own way, in my own imagination. But the fact that these exist makes me feel validated in my efforts. So that is why it’s very dear to me and I kept listening to it. When you fall in love with a song, that was it for me.
CARO: Yes. David Vorhaus would say how Delia was his teacher, he said he just to see her, how quickly she worked on tape, but also he said it was like a dance, it was very physical how she moved around her tape machines and worked with them. He also talked about how the main vocalist that turns up a lot, actually that’s not the register of his voice but because when they first recorded it on the tape they thought ‘this could be a bit brighter, let’s speed him up” so they sped him up! Which means he kind of has this higher register…
MARTA: This is fascinating to me because I couldn’t understand what kind of voice is it, you couldn’t place it. He could be anyone. I couldn’t really imagine, I couldn’t imagine in my head, I couldn’t give them a face, maybe it made it even more interesting you know.
CARO: Definitely. The other thing about that track in particular was the piece of garbage BBC equipment that created that amazing pitch-shifting echo loop really. Apparently it was a failed BBC research project. David Vorhaus said it would cost £1 million or something in our money nowadays. So what they were trying to do was avoid what they call the howl-round, the feedback that you get through live broadcasts from the speaker to the microphone, microphone to the speakers etc. So they were trying to develop this machine where it would take the frequency of the signal coming from a microphone and send it back through the speakers at a different pitch because then it shouldn’t feed back on itself. You should therefore then avoid the feedback howl-round, that horrible squeak in your ears. It completely failed. They spent ages on it, then they turned up at the Radiophonic Workshop and said, we don’t want this, it’s useless but you might have some fun with it. And that is exactly what they used for that amazing spiralling into the ether kind of echo looping effect that blew everyone away when they heard it. It was like, how did you do that?!
MARTA: I love it that this machine turned out to be this amazing pitch shifting thing. Because if they wanted to create a pitch-shifter, they would never have put this money into it. Just like, a miracle that it happened for once, you know, something good comes out of this sort of situation.
CARO: I know, I can’t help but think of that as a nice anecdote. You have another one that you would like to share with us?
MARTA: Yes, I can never pronounce it but I think it’s Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO.
CARO: Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO. Let’s go for that one then.
— Playing Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO – a durge-like hypnotic breakbeat with reversed and heavily processed intelligible voices.
What is it about this one Marta that particularly caught your imagination?
MARTA: Again, I think it’s how modern it sounded. To me, I heard this and I thought, gosh, someone could just drop it in a club and, it would just go so well and I would go nuts if I heard it on a big system! It has that very hypnotic beat to it. It’s just sounds great, it’s haunting, it’s mysterious, again in just a sort of weird compositional way that makes you wonder how was it made and it does sound very modern to me. If someone did that now, I’d think, this is incredible. But since it was made again, so many years ago, with the technology that meant that you had to splice and cut and tune and record and tape, again, all of it, it’s something that I hope one day I’ll be able to listen back to my own composition and feel this way about it as I feel about this one.
CARO: Yes. This one’s been sampled quite a lot hasn’t it? I think Dutch group Die Antwoorten and quite a few hip-hop bands have used it. Myself and Mandy did an education project in 2 primary schools around Delia’s 80th anniversary, and the kids we played this piece to thought it was contemporary and they said it was sick (which means they liked it) and they were not spooked by it at all actually. They were totally grooving out to it, they could feel the funk in it. This one’s quite interesting isn’t it in terms of the reversed vocals. I think it was for a science fiction play called ‘The Prophet’ and she made this chant which was, Praise to The Master, ‘his wisdom and his reason’, and Delia says she just chose the best bits and the Ziwzih Ziwzih which was his wis, wis, wis, his wisdom and that’s very much of that time, you know, 60s, 70s, George Martin, everyone was doing that, but to turn that into the groove as well is pitching it musically as well is definitely Delia’s musical imagination at work. I think the OO-OO-OO’s however are purely electronic, no humans required!
MARTA: Totally. And also I was reading from a piece that you sent me, the piece with the wobbulator. It’s amazing to me that it sounds like a similar chant and song this instead is completely electronic. That on top of it as well, it has this human quality and tricks the ears to make us think that this is just all one performance but really it isn’t, it’s a reverse. There is some electronic intervention in there. It’s very fascinating.
CARO: How long would you say it took you to learn to be able to use tape seamlessly. I’ve not really used tape before, I’m not of the right era and have been happy to explore more of a digital sort of sonic realm, so I imagine it takes time to get it to be seamless?
MARTA: A tape edit?
CARO: Yes, to create one phrase from two different sources for example.
MARTA: It takes a long time. You put the tape on the tape machine and you need to – say we already recorded the phrase that we want to chop on it – we need to find the point where we want to make the cut and then pick up a pencil, then mark it on the tape so that we take the tape out and we see where it is. And we need this, an editing block and it has different lines, depending on what kind of cross we want to do. If we want something which is, you know, cross fading, then we choose the one which is more slanted. If we want a hard cut we use the one that is kind of vertical. So there is the cut which, unless we’ve done a backup then, that’s it, you know, we are cutting through a word.
CARO: There is no undo!
MARTA: Yes, we need to go back and do it again, so we start and take the other end of the tape. We get these sticky tapes which is the same side as whichever tape we are using, then we pull them together and make sure that they are not overlapping, otherwise we’ll hear a click, we’ll hear artefacts. Once they are neatly together again and we play it back, if it’s not right then we need to undo it and leave more or less space.
Yes, it just takes a long time. I remember, I don’t know whether it was from an interview they said that the corridors of Maida Vale, which were very long, were all covered in tape, because Delia would go through and she, being a mathematician, she would know the equation of how long a piece of tape corresponds to seconds and so she would go, OK, for example for the Doctor Who theme tune, OK, that’s right, that’s too long, or that’s too late, we need to modify it. So that sort of interplay between music, science and art in almost an abstract way and the connection of all these subjects to me is also very fascinating. Mathematician – it’s like of course she was a mathematician! She had this incredibly imaginative mind but also this very strong, you know, maths head.
CARO: Analysis. Analytical skills, yes.
MARTA: Which will make her the perfect brain to be confident in the maths and then go off and do all sorts of crazy stuff with it. You said the notes that she would take would just be a mixture of equations and sort of ideas and graphic scores. It’s just beautiful to see how her mind worked or to imagine how her mind worked.
CARO: So there’s a real intimacy with the material on which you are working. You were going to show us around and introduce us to your tape machines?
MARTA: Yes! I will introduce you to a few of them. So I might start with my first tape machine which is the first tape machine I bought with my own money when I was an assistant after I saw it in a studio. I thought, wow, this is a great one. So, this is the PR 99. It is a Revox Mark 3 and has the vary speed which allows me to create different rhythms and different pitches when I record on to it and to me it’s still my favourite machine and one of the machines that allows me to have the most creative freedom with what I do. Reel-to-reel quarter inch. The first of many which I’ll show you now.
I then started to buy a more domestic tape machine that was used back in the days to maybe record family memories or to record your favourite programme from the radio, listen back to it. I have two here. And I have more hidden away. Because they are broken and I need to fix them. I have about four of them. But I have two of them here and I use them in series like this because I share a tape between them. So the tape goes from the first one and then ends on the second one and I put the first machine in record and the second one on playback.
What that does, when I for example want a signal from my desk and I send it to the system which I just called Maze, because it makes very intricate kind of returns of sound, the source will go to the first machine and then to the second one. And there will be a delay of about ten seconds from this kind of set-up and distance. If I then feed it back on to itself, it will start interplay, for example, if I say “hello” after ten second on I hear “hello” and then if I feed it back on to itself, it starts sometimes putting a hello in-between and the more I feed it back, the more it starts crowding itself. And if you then don’t adjust the feedback, it will start going into this very, very intense feedback loop. So there is a lot to play with there, because if we start, for example, using a vibraphone and playing a melody, the melody will start to come back and the way that I like to use it as a compositional tool while I play or while someone else is playing, for example.
So a musician will start to play a melody, whatever they want, and then we’ll start interplaying with the machine so actually composing with the machine according to what is coming back. And most of the time it’s not perfectly rhythmic, because it’s hard to find a reading with it. The tension can become loose and then we lose a little bit of the pattern, so it’s about really listening out, it’s like improvising with another human but in this case it’s a machine and the machine is not going to slow down. If you slow down, you know, it’s this sort of interplay which I find really interesting. That’s how I use these two machines.
I have this older machine which is what Delia or Daphne (Oram) would have used. It’s a valve model. I used this when I want perhaps maybe more tonality, mid-range quality to what I’m doing. It’s funny because it’s like 30 kilograms but it was sold as a portable machine, when I bought it and lifted it, I was like it’s definitely not portable but it has a handle, so it was advertised as portable.
The latest member of the family is this, which is a 4-track which I haven’t used yet but unfortunately with the pandemic I haven’t been able to play many shows. The ones I played I loved. It’s not very portable. I was going to use it for the premier of ‘Sisters With Transistors’ at the Barbican (London) but unfortunately it couldn’t happen with COVID. I was going to use play-back compositions, a source on tape and then be processing them live with the other tape machines, so everything could stay on tape and be faithful to what I composed in the way that I have to try to replicate what I composed in the studio. It can only be through tape I think.
When I started composing with tape I thought I wanted to do the complete opposite of what my day-to-day work is, which is capturing a performance forever, so I wanted my work to never exist in a recorded form, to be an event and just exist right there in the moment and in the ears of the people that come and listen to it.
When I started performing, I would never perform the same piece twice and at the end of the performance, I will cut up the tape with a razor blade and I would just leave it there on the floor or throw it away. Then the more time I spent in the studio and especially in the past year when we are all forced to spend time inside, then I started to record more and listen back and have a body of work of things that I recorded that I’m not going to destroy this time.
CARO: We’ve got a question here – do you ever rub down the tape? Merlin says, it was mentioned in a previous talk as something Delia might have used to remove a section?
MARTA: Rub down the tape with, I guess, alcohol. Well, Isopropyl is what you can use to clean the heads but it also melts the tape so I guess it’s called a solvent, put something like that on to the tape and yes it will wipe what is on the tape and there are other ways of scratching the oxide on the tape to remove parts. Or I think there’s the possibility of magnets as well. Magnetising or demagnetising a tape with magnets, it would create silence on it. That is what I read. I never tried it so I hope I am not saying something completely wrong. Yes, it’s possible, definitely compositional as well.
CARO: Yes. You’re going to share your pieces that you have made with this set up you just described. Which one would you like me to start with?
MARTA: Internal Logic.
CARO: Do you want to say anything about it?
MARTA: It’s a collaboration and it will be released soon; it’s being printed on to vinyl at the moment but it’s not out yet. It was made with a few things that Tom played. I load them up on my desk and I was doing a live mix with them and also I was sending them to the three machines that I’ve shown, the PR 99 and the two Akais, so this piece, here, the same of the two Akai work, where some instrument was sent to it so they start coming back and they’ll start hearing a saturation when you hear the feedback and it loops itself on to itself, on to itself and you hear the different quality of the sound that that generates.
— Playing Internal Logic – Ambient music
Caro: There’s a lovely warmth in there.
MARTA: Yes. The saturation there at the end is because of the tape that was going around and around and when it perhaps was stretched or it was a lack of tension at that point, it created the different tonalities and this circularity of the sound as in the loops keep coming back in because of the system in place. So the source is starting to interplay with itself late and delayed and delayed in sort of like random times. It creates this cluster of sound.
CARO: Yes. A lovely sonic cluster indeed. Great. You have got this other one “Ping-Pongs”, can you tell us a bit about that before we share an extract?
MARTA: Yes. That is also part of these group of compositions that are going to be recorded, Music for Open Spaces. All were composed either in open spaces, one in Cornwall, Tom and I loaded up the car full of instruments and I loaded up my tape machines and we were in this little rented house overlooking the bay near Land’s End. I set up the same set up I had here and yes, the same thing happened. The sound that he was making – I think I can remember what it was – it was acoustics and it started coming back on to itself and I just sort of started to make this sort of sound in my head, sounded like a Ping-Pong, or many of them, started jumping up and down.
CARO: Another cluster?!
MARTA: Yes, a cluster of Ping-Pong madly going from left-to-right. When I think about this song I think about the colour blue that I could see through the windows and it sort of always feels like something open, something wide and bright. Yes. You can hear it, I think.
— Playing Ping-Pong – a stereo delaying textured piece.
CARO: That reminds me of Suzanne Ciani, she talks about the organic relationship and I really felt that there when you were talking about, you know, you have this kind of organic relationship where the tape machine is in control or the tape machines are in control, however you are constantly responding to them, aren’t you?
MARTA: Yes. I mean, sometimes we resist the urge to go and fix it, you know, when the tape machine was starting to break and like doing all this ccccrr sound. My first thing was, I must make it cleaner, it’s going to go into a massive loud feedback. And then just stepping back and letting it be and letting it do its thing and having confidence in the process is also something that we can learn through composing with tape. There are all the little things that happen in the relationship that you have with the machines.
CARO: What about the RRRs (rolls tongue with R sound) that are in there, the ethereal sounds, are they harmonics or sound that have been inputted into the loop vortex?
MARTA: That’s just harmonics. So the tape brings out all of the little elements on top of the sounds that, when you listen to the sounds and the source, it’s so completely different. So the transformations that happen is like looking at a sound or listening to a sound with different filters, where you see, wow this really shows this sound and, as if it will be like a little bit hairy or smooth or a bit more protected or muffled. It really does transform the source in a way that is mixed and you hear things differently.
CARO: Yes and listen to life differently I should imagine. A couple of comments here. Rita says wonderful piece and asks – with the longer loops do you have glitches where the loop kind of jumps a bit and then you make use of those moments? So I think you have spoken about not necessarily fixing it if it’s not gone where you wanted it to go?
MARTA: Yes, it does happen, especially with the system of the two Akai machines. There have been moments when, since they are not always going completely in sync speed-wise, the tape will start losing its tension so with your finger you just go and lift it. That will cause for a sudden moment of un-tension and it will sound something like “woo,” like a wobble. Because I’ve got the feedback going, the wobble will come back and be incorporated with the sound that I’m doing. So in fact, I’ve been told before that that’s often how you can tell that I am behind the composition, because you can hear the sound going “woo” a little wobble. That happens, for example, with my system when tape loops, as the tape goes round and round and round, you start getting a deterioration and a change of tonality. An example of it is the integration loops by William Basinski when he played out a loop all the way through and the loop started to consume itself until it actually became silent. I find that a beautiful experiment and it touches on many points. That is also another consequence of using the loop. Very long loops. Sometimes you just get what you get. Sometimes it’s not strong enough to actually run it so you need to hack it in one way or another, tension-wise or adding something that strengthens the motor.
CARO: Someone’s also said the “Ping-Pong” has an aquatic sound to it, so they were getting a water feel which is nice. There’s one more project that you would like to share with us, a project with Erland Cooper, do you want to tell us a bit about that before I play the extract?
MARTA: So this project is very special, to me because Erland came to me saying, “I have three loops that I have drowned in the North Sea, buried in Orkney and I’ve tried three loops, so land, air and sea, and I would like you to compose with them and to send them back to me in forms of composition so that I can then use them within my new album, Landfall”. Of course I said yes, I want to hear this, loops that have been in the elements. And, as I received the loops, I load them up on my tape machines because they’ve been in the ground and in the sea and in the air as the tape machine started to heat up. And he brought all this into the studio, the sea and you know, one of them was still wet from the sea. So it was really beautiful poetry.
There was a deterioration that happened because of the state of the loops. They were treated like that and that was the whole point of the composition, to expose these deteriorations as something to be celebrated and it’s composing with the elements and what those elements do to tape. So I composed three pieces with these tapes, then I sent them back to Erland and he put it in the record.
CARO: We’ll play an extra from Cairns. So is this land, sea or air exposed tape?
MARTA: You know, I can’t remember, I think it was air.
CARO: OK. Wonderful.
— Playing Cairns —
CARO: That is lovely. Did all the source materials, if you like, come from the tape or were you also adding in other instrumentation?
MARTA: The tape was one of the instruments and then Erland composed using other sources and other instruments that would, I think, all go hand in hand. I think he kind of painted pictures in the album, divided into various cairns. This sounds like a storm in itself, sounds like the element, it was really a tape loop that was exposed to the elements and that is why it feels very organic in itself.
CARO: Wonderful. Can I get down to practicals, did it damage your tape machine, did your tape machine handle sending all these elements through the play heads and everything?
MARTA: I used a tape machine which I don’t normally use. I was scared of that.
CARO: Yes, one you are not attached to!
MARTA: Yes! Because they were wet so I thought, all sort of things can happen now after I’ve used it. But no, it was just a bit dirty so cleaned it up with some alcohol. It worked out fine. I remember thinking, OK, switch on, stand back! Let’s see what happens next. In fact, with Erland, we worked on his new album which took this whole concept a step further. I recorded it in Scotland alongside brilliant players in Glasgow and now the whole album that he composed and recorded is now in the ground somewhere and it’s composing with nature, and everything but the reel has been deleted so it does not exist in any other form but on the quarter inch reel that is now buried, not buried but planted! And he’s going to release a map of sorts if anyone wants to attempt to find it! I thought it was a brilliant idea to see how it’s a collaboration with the earth and it’s the work of hope and trust in your own work and the work of others and the patience. We’ll see if anyone finds it. I don’t know where it is.
CARO: It’s like a whole other form of geocaching, treasure hunt. Yes.
MARTA: Treasure hunt, yes.
CARO: Marta, can you tell us, your own compositions that you shared there, are they coming out on an album?
MARTA: Yes, they are coming out on an album which will be out on a label and for each track there’ll be a collage done by Morgan who runs the label. It’s a visual representation of the piece. It’s now at the stage of vinyl printing and we’re just waiting to have some test pressing back.
Hopefully then we’ll see about going about releasing it and performing it, I hope. I don’t have a date yet. I do hope it to be sometimes next year.
CARO: Was the label called Hands In The Dark?
MARTA: Yes, Hands In The Dark.
CARO: Great, that is the label Marta’s album will come out on. I can always feel and hear the difference with tape and I always find it comforting! That lower frequency range that’s just so warm, it’s like a sonic hug.
MARTA: Very welcoming and there’s something about it which, I mean, I didn’t grow up with tape, so, it’s not just a question of memories, it’s real, I think, it’s a connection that’s not nostalgic, it’s purely passionate.
CARO: Yes. I wonder if anyone’s got any questions they want to throw at Marta. I might have some here. I’ve got a lovely abstract question which is – let me find it – how do you emotionally handle being abstract in a concrete world?
MARTA: Abstraction is my concrete world, especially being an artist. But I think anyone, we are all artists, some people don’t like that label and might not feel comfortable calling themselves an artist. Imagination is something that saves us from the hardship which are the daily challenges and obstacles which can act as inspirations, creating something can be both escapism from reality but also can be confronting the reality of it.
CARO: For example your Trump Impeachment project.
MARTA: Yes. I was listening to the impeachment trial, the Trump Impeachment trial and, as I was listening to it, I started taping it with a cassette and I heard my tape set-up as well and I sent the cassette, Dictaphone cassette through the Maze and it started interacting with it, the person was talking about whether Americans were expecting it to be a fair trial and the loop started looping the phrase, the answer that says “I think your answer will be no” and that came back and it was like “I think your answer will be no” it kept coming back like a mantra and it felt like it was kind of a chilling moment of feeling OK, I haven’t made this but this feels very poignant and you know, there’s something behind this.
I have made it into a piece and put it online and all of the proceeds I donated to organisations in America that would help anyone who will be affected by, for example, Trump and the policies. I try to do my bit. Most of the time what inspires me I think is, it goes from abstract to very tangible. So in this case, it was political. I find many pieces that I make are ultimately, they do have something behind it, which is a feeling of relevance for the times. Whether that is an escapism as well, that can be politically relevant because we live in an era now in which we, or I at least sometimes, find it hard to escape and find solace. So to find peace is also a very much a political stance and if we can do it through music, through music that can be aggressive as a response to external factor, then it’s all in creation which is a positive use of our energies.
CARO: Yes. Lovely. And sometimes it can be the creativity, your creative power can give you possibly the only power when otherwise you could be quite helpless, whether you are having compassion for a cause or where you are affected by it as well I think.
MARTA: Yes. True. I think it’s very cathartic. Sometimes while composing I can start composing because I’m feeling perhaps quite sad or fragile about something and after the composition, after I’ve made this composition, I feel better about myself or better about the situations because it’s a way of channelling something that is inside. When it’s outside it looks manageable, when it’s inside and is unexplained it can feel very confusing. It’s just a medium. I used to write when I was younger and I felt that that was my medium back then. Then when I started working in music I felt OK this is my medium now. I can’t paint very well but I’m sure that it is the same process with painting, sculpting, walking, running, you know, anything.
CARO: Yes, it’s transformative isn’t it? It transmutes as well. The personal to the universal I think as well can be really precious. There’s a question here – Seb is saying about how you produce lots of bands – what do bands want from you? Do they want to be recorded on analogue tape and, can you describe a bit about your process?
MARTA: That really depends on the band or the artist, but I often think producing something needs empathy and being able to see through the starting point from the track to the ending point and starting to understand the artists’ vision and what they want to achieve and how much they want to be either helped through that or be just let alone to create and then guided a little bit through the process because it’s hard to do it all by yourself.
I think it’s very important to have someone else next to you who can just be a sounding board. My position varies between being very, very involved and up to the point of playing, or being someone who just helps the other person through the very stages of the record, which is the production, recording, the mixing, finishing off, the mastering, listening back to the masters. I guess it’s about understanding the vision, immersing myself in the same inspirations and references and then in terms of actual engineering, how to be able to translate a vision which it can be abstract and can be intangible. So for example if someone tells me “I’d like this vocal to sound like a setting sun on the horizon” then what does that mean in engineering point of view? Then I start thinking, OK, well I feel that you are saying there’s something bright going into darkness, therefore I need to automate the cue going through the filter, progressively taking off the higher frequencies, maybe becoming sterile as it goes into the sea. It’s about interpreting and it’s about actually trusting the person who is talking to you, never disregarding their vision. I think that’s it, it’s a very human process.
I think people come to me because of that. It’s the cooperation I’m interested in. I learn a lot when I’m in that process. It’s what I want to do, I want to learn, I don’t want to feel like I’m not learning. We are both getting things from it and it’s a conversation.
CARO: Yes. Wonderful. Practical question which I was going to ask if we had time. Is it expensive to compose with analogue tape?
MARTA: It is. It might sound like an expensive entry level, to start composing with tape because there is a little bit of equipment that needs purchasing and maintained.
One of the Akais, well they are now going up in price a bit, so be prepared to spend something like around £180 for one and with one you can start composing. A tape on a small reel, plastic reel could cost you about £20, up to £50 depending on what tape you buy. Then with £200 – £250, you have got the tape machine, the tape, and obviously it’s money so you can’t really expect everyone to have £250 to spare. But it is something which will last for a long time. Those machines are from the 1970s so they’ve lasted until now which is the benefit in what you get, if you look after it, it lasts. You are investing in a form of composition which is more tactile and is not just the sound that is loved for, it’s also the process of cutting the tape, cutting the tape, you can buy razor blades, and a block is £10. It’s not bad considering a guitar pedal costs about the same amount of money.
CARO: I was thinking it’s definitely cheaper than going down the analogue or modular synthesiser rabbit hole!
MARTA: These are the cheapest machines I’ve got. A PR 99, the Revox is £600 to £1,000. A Ferrograph is around £100. Of course, it’s about like being patient and looking on eBay and Gumtree and going to see the machine if possible, go to see if it works, asking does it work and do all the buttons work? You can hook it up to the speakers or a pair of headphones and start playing straightaway and actually often they come with used tapes, they are just sold as like “it was in my dad’s attic..”
It’s interesting because I often end up using the tapes to compose snippets of people, other people’s lives and the last tape that I found on a tape machine I think was an older couple talking. It sounds like they were sitting with the windows open in a flat, you could hear the sound of the cars outside. It sounded like their daughter or their niece had pressed the record button without them knowing. They were just talking about, yes, you know, I don’t want that again for dinner and she comes in and says, “you know, I’ve just been recording you”, and they are like, “oh, really!? We didn’t know, please, please don’t record us!”
It’s just so funny because I suddenly was there like a fly on the wall in an apartment in the 1980s, I wasn’t even born in the ’80s in England, I was born in Italy, I was transported and my mind just created this film and I started imagining what would the curtains have looked like, what chair were they sitting on? It’s like a photograph, a sonic photograph.
CARO: Yes, proper theatre of the mind, wonderful. So, we are running out of time so I’m going to ask, this should be hopefully a quick one – Mandy asks, do you ever cut up or use multi-track tape to compose or do you mainly use quarter inch?
MARTA: I use quarter inch in the studio because that’s the machines that I have. I record on to inch tape often when I record an artist. I record multi-track on it, whether that is 16 or 24. I mostly use two-track tapes, two reel and quarter inch. It’s also the cheapest. I have got so much tape. I obviously always recycle tapes, but I might end up cutting so much of it. Cutting two-inch reels starts to become quite expensive! I like the sound of quarter inch to be honest. When I want something very high fidelity, I do use two-inch tape. But that involves a machine which is much bigger and is next door.
CARO: Wonderful. Final question: how much planning composition do you do before you turn to the tape machine?
MARTA: I kind of do it as I go. In the wave of the moment, I listen to something and I think. Obviously I need to think about it before I do anything constructive. I cut certain sections, but it kind of feels like a natural process and if I’m not sure about it I will leave it and sleep on it and in the morning I come back and I listen back and then it’s about committing. And if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. I might have a reason to be wrong later on and the composition might start turning around, becoming something that you didn’t expect. So you have got to be open. There is a percentage of, you know, thinking about it before, pre-meditation and then going and actually doing it, not procrastinating.
CARO: Fantastic, thank you. It’s been so interesting to hear more about how you work with tape and I can really feel like I’m getting more of a feel and insight with how Delia must have worked as well. Yes. Thank you so much for sharing your practice and your passion.
MARTA: Thank you.
CARO: Lots of people saying thank you. Thank you everyone, we have one more masterclass expert talk left next month, that will be our DD Day commissioned artists for this year. And do check out Marta’s work online as well. We have DD Day on its way now, 23rd November, and it will be mainly online and we’ll be publishing the transcripts from these talks as well, so you will be able to read them.
Do check out our website, our Found Sound Friday initiative if you want to get involved with that. We have our shop as well with things like DD Day T-shirts and yes, thank you to our funders and of course thank you to Delia for being an inspiration across-the-board for everyone.