William Basinski - Shortwavemusic [1/4" Tape on 7" Reel]

William Basinski – Shortwavemusic [1/4″ Tape on 7″ Reel]

William Basinski - Shortwavemusic

To begin, it should be noted that this is not a review of the music itself, which would be rather unnecessary given this has already been released twice. First on LP in 1998 and again on CD in 2007; each with their own plethora of responses. For writing to that effect, I would direct you to Tobias Fischer’s review at Tokafi, or another at Brainwashed. As for the packaging of this reissue, Auris Apothecary’s own tidy description is appropriate enough.

I am instead interested here in addressing two issues – why would Auris Apothecary manufacture a second reissue, and why on 1/4″ magnetic tape reel?

Given the proliferation of loop-based music over the last several decades, it is easy to dismiss Basinski’s work as derivative, unambitious or plain boring – I have been as guilty of this as anyone. It is also easy to forget that Basinski was doing this long before most – the work appearing here was originally composed in 1982. Criticism of the artist’s lack of diversity in approach is certainly arguable, if indeed we are to expect significant figures of (post-) modern artistic practice to consistently break new ground. However, criticism of his work as derivative is simply not valid – at least in no greater terms than any other artist’s oeuvre. But more to the point, why is a reissue now particularly relevant to contemporary music practice and consumption?

As has been noted here in previous posts on both Crustacés Tapes‘ methods of postal distribution and the release of yet more archival recordings of Yoshi Wada, there seems to be a growing reactionary vanguard of proponents, promoters and producers of works released through means antithetical to digital music distribution. A cynical view of this may address the ‘collector-class’ who both produce and stockpile such rarities inculcating a sort of artificial monetary value for others as interested in said material, but unwilling or unable to purchase them (often possible only in a window of a few days – whatever the music’s merits, Kevin Drumm‘s self-released cassettes are an absolutely textbook example of this). This argument is true only on a selective basis; for example the proliferation of inexpensive and limited cassette-only releases by the noise, psych and improv communities runs quite contrary to the generalization of this effect.

Another related criticism may come in such methods’ fetish of the object in two regards. First, that the creation of physical artifacts for international distribution is becoming a dated and somewhat environmentally inappropriate means of consumption. While CDs of pop music pressed in the millions and generally kept for a few years are something of an ecological disaster, a small run of reels which will undoubtedly be kept for decades is less so. Additionally, digital arts leave their own rather ugly legacy. The hardware commonly used to stream and collect digital music is some of the most disposable and toxic technology we have – the EPA estimates that 135 million mobile devices were thrown away in the United States in 2010 while smart phones are kept for an average of as little as 9 months.

Second, that releasing a reel is somehow more obscure, and by extension more valid and desirable, than a digital file, CD or even a cassette. This may be valid in some scenarios, but in regards to this release, a reel is actually a rather appropriate. Given that the original recordings were produced as tape experiments, Auris Apothecary seems rather empathetic to the original format and is perhaps offering this is as the penultimate means of recreating of the work. There is something both satisfyingly recursive and eloquent in a format which will deteriorate in the same manner used for its content’s composition.

I would just as readily argue that we do not spend enough time or effort reflecting on how far our means of consumption have come in the recent past, nor on what we have lost on the way here. It is a common refrain for members of the experimental and electroacoustic music community (as I’m sure it is in other artistic disciplines) to criticize the casual and disposable relationship many have with the arts. However, it is entirely the audience’s prerogative to take what they may or may not from such cultural practices. While there is certainly some merit in re-evaluating a paradigm which so readily disposes of formats, methods of playback, genres and music itself, it is as much the responsibility of the producers of content to adapt or respond to new methodology as it is the audiences’ to consume appropriately and ethically.*

The release in question is one example of a reaction to these trends. A return to a medium which requires time to obtain (via mail), effort to play (threading the tape) and, for many, difficulty in finding a device on which to play it; rather than the near-instant gratification of download and digital playback. In essence, the tape medium replicates the physicality and ritualistic temporality of the act of music production itself. This is surely a reiteration of the debates sparked by the revival of vinyl in the past decade, but it is no less valid an argument now.

Call it naive optimism, but I would hope that at least some of the 101 copies ended up in the hands of buyers who do not own reel-to-reel machines and who additionally intend to actually play the work – resulting in, at its easiest, a text to a friend to drop by to borrow their machine (as I found necessary), or at its most difficult, an unusual cold-call to a university music department or a radio station. The very fact that the medium allows for these types of exchanges is one of its greatest strengths. While perhaps not as explicit an approach as Crustacés postal distribution, this format engenders a conscious and purposeful relationship with both the technology used for playback, and the people who, for one arcane reason or another, still have access to said technology. A wholly appropriate exercise given the label’s name.

This is, of course, sold out at the source. William Basinski’s own label, 2062, still supplies copies of the CD – a format which is rapidly gaining the practical obsolescence of the tape reel.

*(This is not to diminish the progress that modern sharing of music, legal or illegal, has made. I don’t want to stray too far into the jungle of intellectual property rights, but I should note that I believe file-sharing (to take only one example) can, especially in an artistic community of small size and extensive geographic scope, help promote and disseminate work otherwise overlooked and provide a network to those seeking a more conscious relationship with sound art and music.)