Sunday, July 23, 2017

Have the record companies lost the origianl LP artwork?

I was absent-mindedly browsing in a record store yesterday, somewhat bemused by so many of the racks being full of re-issues of 70s LPs, all around £20, boasting in many cases heavy weight vinyl, but nearly all with terrible reproductions of the original artwork. One wonders if during the CD phase record companies lost or threw out the original LP artwork? Perhaps they scanned it all to save space, and used some low resolution, or maybe it is contemporary printing techniques? Whatever the cause, many LP re-issues have a bootleg quality as if the sleeve was copied not from the original artwork but an old LP sleeve. The colours are forced (a little like colour photocopies - remember those) and the images ever so slightly out of focus. For something that is meant to be all about the tangible, many are poor. Why should I care? After all I'm not in the market for vinyl re-issues of old Floyd LPs. Well it feeds into a sense that vinyl and the resurgent stores they support are a kind of simulacra. Standing at the racks and flicking through, I feel like I'm re-enacting a ritual from the back in the 1970s when records were the medium. The LPs all shrink wrapped (which the originals never were) and with their dodgy artwork make the original mass produced items seem like originals, itself a pleasing twist on Benjamin and Baudrillard.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Snatch Tapes - Cassette Roulette

Originally published on the (now defunct) Snatch Tapes website in the early 2000s.

Punk unleashed in its wake a wave of Do It Yourself (DIY) creativity. Recording and releasing records was no longer under the sole control of the record industry. Now anyone could (to paraphrase Sniffin' Glue) learn three chords, form a band, and if they could grub together a few hundred quid put out a single. Thousands did just that, and with John Peel willing to play many of the records on his late night Radio 1 show, and Rough Trade in Notting Hill happy to distribute them a whole new DIY scene began to flourish.

Punk though was about brevity; the kind of soloing associated with progressive bands like Yes was anathema, and short and sharp was the preferred cut. Quirky and playful as many of the bands played on John Peel were, they stuck pretty tightly to the orthodoxies of the traditional verse/chorus song structure, and the classic line up of guitar, bass and drums. Punk was a breath of fresh air after the years of self-indulgent excess, but in its way it was also quietly conventional.

Here and there in the cracks and on the margins another tendency was taking form, that of DIY electronic and experimental music. Influenced by a range of sources including Kraftwerk, Eno, the Radiophonic Workshop and Throbbing Gristle, young men (and some young women) up and down the UK began fiddling with old tape machines, oscillators, and radios; plugging the output into the input of any piece of circuitry they could lay their hand on just to see what might happen.

The blips, bloops and cacophonous sonorities produced by such antics didn't sit well with most of the new independent labels, and the few hundred quid needed to put out a record oneself was often a few hundred quid more than most DIY experimenters had (not surprising as many were still at school or college), and so people began looking for another medium on which to release their musical excursions. The answer turned out to be the humble cassette tape.

Cassettes had been around since the1960s and had with vinyl been a form of mainstream music distribution since the 1970s. The cassette though was always considered sonically and aesthetically inferior to vinyl. Despite all studio recordings being made on tape (albeit it 1/4 inch or multi-track tape running at much higher speeds) a cassette tape was considered by many to be a cheap copy of the 'real thing'. That you could record tapes at home yourself somehow distanced them from the authority of a recording made in a studio and then cut and pressed in a factory. However by the mid 1970s the quality of cassette machines had improved enormously, and though they would never rival the frequency range of vinyl they offered a good quality sound recording and playback medium.

Prior to punk, bands had used cassette to make 'demo' tapes that they would then hawk round the major record labels in a bid to get a recording deal. Few though considered their tapes to be the finished item; they were rough drafts waiting for the major studio magic to be performed on them so they could be turned into shiny records.

For those on the musical margins the perceived disadvantages of the cassette arguably made it a natural medium. Using cassettes meant there were minimal mastering or printing costs (the tape cover being often as not a photocopied or hand made collage). One could duplicate a handful of cassettes at home or if there was more demand nip round to somewhere like Better Badges, which had a high, speed machine and make 50 copies. Tapes could be easily sent in jiffy bags through the post. A tape could be recorded at the weekend and then be winging its way around the country by Wednesday of the following week.

Word of mouth was all-important and a small network of people swapping or selling tapes soon emerged. With the exception of Rough Trade, most record shops refused to stock DIY cassettes, and so distribution was almost exclusively by post. Picking up on the burgeoning scene the main music papers, NME and Sounds began to run cassette friendly features, namely Garageland and DIY Corner, which added a further spur to activity. A number of cassette labels appeared including Deleted Records, Fuck Off Records, and of course my own Snatch Tapes. Most 'labels' though were run from a bedroom or squat and so somewhat lampooned the very idea of the corporate branded company. Radio silence however was maintained, as DIY tapes were never considered 'proper' releases and as such denied airplay even, on the John Peel show.

So would the cassette fundamentally alter the mechanics of the music industry? For a short wishful thinking utopian period in 1980 it looked like a possibility that the tape might just tilt the balance of power in favour of both the musician and the listener. Cassettes though would be a victim of their own success. Soon there were so many releases each week that Garageland and DIY Corner could have been expanded to fill several pages in each music paper. Given the reliance on major label advertising this was never going to happen. Cassettes were an alternative economy that didn't ultimately suit labels, record shops or the music press.

In the UK the DIY cassette peaked sometime in 1982 and slowly slipped (or should that be seeped) back into the margins from whence it had come. During the next decade the tape though became an established format for industrial music. Just as industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle were going their separate ways in 1981, a number of young artists began putting out their own industrial music cassettes.

By the late 1990s it was to be another DIY revolution that would rekindle interest in the cassette. Forgotten except by the keenest of aficionados most DIY tapes were by now lost or sitting unloved in old shoeboxes in attics. The Internet though allowed people to set up discussion forums, blogs and websites in which information could be easily shared across the globe about these obscure recordings. Gradually a number of recordings began to be re-issued on both vinyl and CD. The label, which has undertaken the most comprehensive re-issue programme, is Vinyl on Demand (VOD). VOD also has an online gallery with a large selection of cassette covers and artwork from the period. A number of blogs such as Mutant Sounds, No Longer Forgotten Music and Thing on the Doorstep continue to unearth and digitise old tapes indeed not since the early 1980s has so much tape music been readily available.

Addendum 2017.
The above piece originally written in the early 2000s seems from a time almost as far away as the original DIY cassette scene itself. Since writing it almost everything of merit from the original Snatch Tapes and indeed every other tape label has been re-issued, firstly on CD and then perhaps ironically on the resurgent vinyl format. Vinyl on Demand in particular have through a series of box sets and single LPs released works by many of the people who appeared on Snatch Tapes such as Alien Brains, Sea of Wires, Storm Bugs. The cassette itself has even had a resurgence both as a tangible alternative to the ubiquitous MP3 and once again as a financially affordable alternative to the increasingly expensive vinyl format. Mutant Sounds has long since stopped after a period of public aural education by means of posting on a daily basis untold gems from the musical margins. An association with the guys behind the label even led to not a re-issue but the release of new material in the form of the Hollow Gravity LP in 2012.         

Friday, June 02, 2017

Upsetting the Synaesthetic - The Arbitrary Function in Visual Music

Proposition: to counter the synaesthetic, and thus create dialectic in visual music an arbitrary function must be introduced.

Of all the senses, it is sight and sound that work most in tandem, so it is perhaps not surprising that moving images and audio are inherently attracted to one another. At the slightest hint of simultaneity the two adhere, a tendency noted with some anxiety by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov in their 1928 ‘Statement’ on sound, written just as a reliable method for reproducing sync was being introduced in cinema. The Russian filmmakers were concerned about the sight of synchronised lips, and the sound of dialogue producing a theatrical self-contained cinema, something they sought to counter by the use of asynchronous combinations of sound and image. Asynchronism is often misunderstood as audio and vision being in some way out of sync, but what was being proposed is a form of juxtaposition, rather than of sound merely reinforcing image.  

The problem of adhesion is if anything more acute in visual music, for synchronising abstract imagery and music doesn’t create a hermetically sealed story world, but rather potentially the suggestion of a literal equation of the two media. Reflecting this, numerous papers on visual music have titles such as 'seeing sound, hearing colour'.

The tendency to equate sound and image, and specifically pitch and colour is as old as visual music itself: from Louis Bertrand Castel’s “ocular harpsichord for the eyes” built in the 1700s (a keyboard above which were 60 small windows, each with different coloured-glass and a small curtain, which as the player depressed the relevant key would open), through to Rimington, Scriabin and Whitney. Such synasethetic combinations claim not just equation but an underpinning ‘natural’ harmonic relationship between visual and musical forms. Arguably the history of visual music has been dogged by a search for such quasi-spiritual correlation.

So why is this problematic?  Firstly an absolute or natural correlation would require consensus on the precise nature of the relationships, and even Castel changed his mind several times during his many of years of working on his ocular harpsichord as to what hue should match with what pitch. From a mathematical perspective, the principles of western musical notation and harmony do no lend themselves to a systematic translation into a colour wheel, and in any case western musical harmony is only one method for organising sound.

Technicalities aside, the core issue is that the quest for absolute synaesthetic correlation is at odds with achieving dialectic tension in the audio-visual relationship. In synaesthesia, it is not so much sensory interplay that is encouraged, as a form of submersion and sublimation, an immersive running together of the senses, thereby reducing the audience’s potential participation in making meaning. Such synaesthetic inclinations have recently been given impetus within contemporary visual music practice, where digital technologies have opened up myriad new ways of combining sound and image. 

If Eisenstein (et al) sought to upset audio-visual adhesion in narrative film by the use of asynchronism, then what is proposed is that in visual music to offset literalness and a tendency towards immersive synaesthesia, another technique,must be deployed, the arbitrary.

The arbitrary does not denote simple randomness, but rather a changing and reciprocal choreography between the audio and the visual, which recognises, and even embraces the potential for adhesion and equation, but that either then foregrounds these relationships as arbitrary rather than essential, or uses arbitrary elements to problematise the correlations and hence offset the synaesthetic.

The Three Methods
There are three principle ways of introducing the arbitrary. Firstly one can allow adhesion to take place but then willfully multiply the number of audio-visual equations. This process is facilitated by digital mapping, so at its simplest, if say an equation of pitch and colour is created in one part of a work, such that as the frequency rises the hue changes, this can be offset elsewhere, by mapping pitch to changes in form, or some other visual parameter. By shifting and changing the mapping, the arbitrary nature of the audio-visual correlation is foregrounded, and revealed, as the audience find themselves making first one equation and then another.

The second arbitrary function involves questioning causality and can be applied to either abstract or representational imagery, but arguably works best with the latter. In narrative cinema on-screen action or activity is typically perceived as having a causal relationship with the sound one hears. A car pulls up, the engine stops, the door opens and closes, footsteps on the gravel, etc. Indeed sound without an accompanying visual source is often used as a way of creating dramatic tension, building to the moment when the two become united. We hear the sound of footsteps approaching a door before it opens to reveal who is coming through.  In visual music one can question or upset this causal relationship, such that the audience asks, is the image or action producing the sound, or is the soundtrack in some way generating or producing the image? Again digital technology allows us to do this in various ways, for example by either using the same data stream or algorithms to manipulate both image and audio, or by scanning the moving image to produce the soundtrack (in a manner not dissimilar to optical sound in film). So it is the action of the frame, rather than the action in the frame that is the causal link.

The third arbitrary approach is looser and closer to asynchronism, as in this model, moving images are not synchronised note for note with music or sounds, but married with syncopated musical rhythms. Each retains its own channel and identity and the arbitrary element comes in the open-ended nature of this correspondence, there is no beat-by-beat or 4/4 dynamics, locking the audio-visual relationship, but rather flashes of momentary adhesion, possibly taking place at different tempi and at different points within the frame. As such there may be many possible moments of adhesion or of equation. 

This third approach requires no special digital technology and can be seen in the films of Len Lye and his use of Cuban dance band rhythms, and Malcolm Le Grice’s Berlin Horse (1970) with its looping imagery counterpointed by by Brian Eno's piano loops.  The choice of image and music is quite particular however, as though some adhesion and equation will happen if one combines just about any music and moving imagery, without careful selection and counterpointing, the effect can be to diminish rather than enhance both audio-visual elements. Whilst digital technology is not required in this third method, it nonetheless can facilitate the making of syncopated moving images and audio. 

The three methods are not exclusive and elements from the three approaches may be combined.

To follow - practice based examples

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The VCS3, a West Coast Syntheszier?

Wendy Carlos’s Switched-on-Bach (1968) popularised the idea of the synthesizer, and along with other early Moog players such as Keith Emerson helped shape the perception of it as a keyboard instrument;  taking a device potentially capable of producing all manner of previously unheard sounds, and turning into it a form of expanded piano/organ. Compounding this was the Moog philosophy, which favours a form of subtractive synthesis, in which the signal chain takes ‘raw’ oscillator waves from a VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator), and then filters them via voltage controlled filer (the VCF) and then amplifies them (VCA) to produce the classic ‘warm’ analogue Moog sound.

Such a linear signal chain, VCO-VCF-VCA which in the form of the Minimoog became predetermined or hard wired, has all but become synonymous with analogue synthesis, and there are numerous variations on the theme, all with their fans and their detractors, often arguing over the merits of their respective filters. Ever since synthesizers produced by Roland, Yamaha, Korg have followed this model with little real variation, making it as easy as possible for the keyboard player to access a small palette of sounds such as, ‘screaming leads’, ‘deep basses’ and so on, but offering little scope for more adventurous sonic experiments.

In contrast the British built VCS3 and the briefcase version the Synthi A, used by many popular artists in the early to mid 1970s including: Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Hawkwind, Jean Michelle Jarre etc, does not come with a built in keyboard (though a separate unit is available), and has a unique pin matrix system that allows great flexibility in terms of patching the various components together. Though the classic Moog chain is possible, it is not predetermined, and the matrix system together with the wide-ranging oscillators, ring modulator, and quirky trapezoid envelope gnerator encourages experimentation. This is indeed how it was initially used – often to provide explicitly electronic sounds rather than imitations of conventional instruments or the classic filter swept Moog sound.

In this way the VCS3 can be aligned with the philosophy of West Coast synthesizers builders such as Buchla and Serge. In the West Coast philosophy one starts with what is called a complex oscillator, whose output is waveshaped rather than filtered to produce different timbres. Early Buchla’s didn't have a filter as such. FM synthesis, and much more sophisticated envelope or slope generators that can be re-triggered and act as a form of LFO, all play a part in the West Coast sound, much favoured by composers such as Morton Subotnick and Suzanne Ciani. Buchla’s were expensive but developed a niche and loyal following, and there was little imperative to try and compete with the success of Moog let alone the Japanese manufacturers who cam along in the late 1970s.

The VCS3 offers many of features of the West Coast synthesizer but in a reduced form. The oscillators' waveshapes can be swept to produce different timbres, but by hand, to access the CV control one needs to modify the standard model. The trapezoid generator can re-trigger but offers less scope than Buchla or Serge envelopes or slope generators. FM synthesis and hard sync are possible, though again the latter requires modification. In short the VCS3 has all the makings and potential of West Coast synthesis, with the added flexibility of the patch matrix, but by comparison is limited in various ways.

Having been taken up enthusiastically by many popular music artists (as per the list above) in the early 1970s and also being found in many UK university studios (such as Goldsmiths and Morley College) and radio stations such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and WDR (Studio für elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks) both of which ordered the large Synthi 100, EMS who produced the VCS3 were initially very successful, but a lack of an either East or West coast philosophy hindered development.

In the mainstream, many bands by the mid 1970s moved away from the VCS3 to the Minimoog, or kept the former as a special FX unit whilst the latter would be used to play lead lines. The more experimental university and radio station studios were not that dissimilar. The Goldsmiths studio was by the late 1970s acquiring a Roland system 100, the Radiophonic workshop added Yamaha equipment.

EMS seemed unsure how to respond, a prototype Synthi P was produced with more stable oscillators and a few refinements, but it never went into production and was neither an answer to the Minimoog, or sufficiently different to the Synthi A such that people would have replaced their existing kit. Had EMS embraced the West Coast philosophy and developed its oscillators and trapezoid generators, allying these with the pin matrix and Zinovieff’s investigation of computer controlled circuits then it could have had a future as Buchla had, instead EMS went bankrupt in 1979.

This was not the end of EMS as after changing hands a number of times Robin Wood a former employee now produces very limited quantities of VCS3s from his Cornwall base. As a compact synthesizer it still offers much greater scope for experimentation than most commercial synths, and the modifications listed above can be added when ordering. Nonetheless the basic oscillator and trapezoid designs are unchanged from the model produced in the 1970s, whereas Buchla continued to develop and expand, inventing new components up to his death, the VCS3 has been frozen in time.  More recently new companies such as Make Noise and Pittsburgh Modular have begun to produce synthesizers that combine elements of East and West Coast philosophies.  The VCS3 matrix routing remains unique, and with enhanced oscillators and digital control, EMS could if so inclined produce a British contemporary synthesizer that was a worthy heir to the VCS3.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


Back in 1990/91 I shot a few reels of Standard 8 film, making much use of in-camera superimposition. Footage shot at the old London Filmmakers Co-op can be seen in another post, but a reel was also shot in the woods near my then flat in New Eltham. There are numerous sections where the film became light fogged with flashes of yellow and red. 'Flares' takes a very short section from the beginning of the reel, and loops it three times.  Loops two and three are a little shorter causing them to slip in and out of sync with each other as they repeat. Placed side by side, rather as with the Chronocuts, elements seem to move from one frame to the other, in particular the light fogged 'Flares'. Unlike the Chroncuts which maintain a fixed time interval, the different loop lengths causes the 'Flares' to dance about somewhat unpredictably.   The soundtrack was produced by reworking some Max/MSP/Jitter moving image to sound patches I made for 'Fleshtones'. Here the changing luminosity produces a series of notes which are then fed to a software vocoder and tweaked in real time creating a chord each time the light changes. As the piece progresses more overlays of both sound and image were added. The whole process is (aside from the footage) entirely digital and I was keen to avoid  the piece fetishising analogue aberrations, in the way pop videos include self-consciously scratchy Super 8 as a stylistic device.  "Flares" seems to escape retro nostalgia through the linkage of the variations in the footage to the mechanism of sound production. What we hear is clearly not optical sound but a digital process which as such declares its material (in as much as digital ever can) and thus acknowledges the digitised footage as source or sample rather than as badge of analogue authenticity.

Flares from Philip Sanderson on Vimeo.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Cut-up incantations over different grades of electronic mudslide

Review in the May issue of the Wire magazine of No No No No, a download release that came out late last year. 

Philip Sanderson was first musically active as part of the duo Storm Bugs on the early 1980s cassette scene, a DIY scene predicated on cheap reproduction, and the Bandcamp era offers such micro-cultures an ideal second life (for now.) So as well as making the original output of Storm Bugs’ Snatch Tapes label available, it’s also given Sanderson an outlet for a run of new tapes. No No No No, on which Sanderson mutters cut-up incantations over different grades of electronic mudslide, doesn’t sound out of place in 2017 either; like Mordant Music, Ship Canal or Hacker Farm, it’s a very English sound. Made with the means to hand, and completely unafraid of grime or decay; these are sounds left out of the fridge, pulled out from under sofas, disinterred from lofts with a dusting of fibreglass. Sam Davies 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

History of the London Filmmakers Co-op (in French)

In the early 1990s I was rooting round in the the LFMC cupboard and came across a somewhat unloved wind-up Kodak Standard 8 camera. Unlike Super 8, Standard 8 can be passed through the camera several times to create superimpositions. If you underexpose the first layer you get a degree of latensification, enhancing the shadow areas ins subsequent layers. In practice with the Standard 8 camera I was using it is all a little hit and miss but does work as can be seen in the water ripples half way through. The footage was shot mostly in and around the Gloucester Avenue LFMC building and on the Regent Canal next door. There were also some shots from my then home in Forest Hill and even a touch of Whitewall Creek down in Strood. The footage was transferred to Umatic and then to digital in the late 90s. I still have the reel of film so should get a decent transfer done sometime. The tongue in cheek soundtrack is contemporary.  

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

I Haven't Stopped Dancing Yet

In narrative film, synchronised sound is linked causally to onscreen action or dialogue. Even when the source of the sound is not immediately visible such as approaching footsteps behind a door, the dynamic is such that the short term absence of the visual is designed to create anticipation that is then dramatically and visually resolved on screen by the sound source becoming visible. The addition of wild track sound, such as say birdsong on a country scene helps to further cement the hermetically sealed narrative construct, papering over edits and providing continuity between disparate shots. Add in music and one has a self- contained story world.

Outside of this narrative go round filmmakers such as Guy Sherwin in his optical film series including Railings (1977) and Musical Stairs (1977) use the footage itself transferred onto the optical track as a sound source. It becomes literally the manipulated image of the railings and the stairs that produces the sound rather than the representation of onscreen action. This process helps to break open the hermetically sealed sound and image film world.

I have been experimenting for sometime, across a number of pieces with using digital techniques that mirror and extend these optical sound experiments. In the case of I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet (2017) an image taken back in the early 80s when visiting my parents in Kent is manipulated in various ways. The image flips from side to side and twists in a crude and humorous approximation of dancing. Unlike optical sound here it is the data from the digital manipulations of the image that are then numerically turned into audio. So when the image flips from side to side a steady rhythm is created but then as the image is stretched one gets a sound similar to that from a scratched record. Humour aside all of this helps the viewer question audio-visual causality. Is the man dancing to the music or being danced by it? In practice it is somewhere between the two.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Towards an Asynchronous Cinema

One of the things that happened in 2016 was I finally got to complete my PhD. I say finally as I had been umming and ahhing over doing one for some years; initially wanting to do a practice based PhD, but never quite finding the right supervisor or setting. A chance conversation with Michael Szpakowski at a screening of Kerry Baldry's One minute programme at Furtherfield led to Westminster University where Michael was completing a PhD by publication. The publications being not texts in the traditional sense, but videos made in the last ten years. This seemed an ideal pathway and I signed up as well.

For a PhD by publication, alongside the work, one writes a paper of anywhere between 12 and 60,000 words.  Reflecting on one's own practice turned out to be tricky, talking about one's work in the third person as if one were reviewing it is best avoided, and locating the videos in a critical context informed by other artists' moving image pieces can both exaggerate their influence and/or appear as if one is trying to insert oneself into the canon. For example a strong parallel with my own use of sound  is John Smith's The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) and this is cited at numerous points in the thesis. However it would be very hard to make any work if one was constantly referring back to some seminal piece, rather a number of influences and ideas tend to circulate, often in some unspoken way in one's brain before morphing into a new idea/piece. So the thesis in part makes explicit what was at the time implicit or internalised.    

Theoretically I found myself being drawn back to the Eisenstein (et al) Statement on Sound (1928) and the dangers of adhesion between sound and image as potential illusionist mutual reinforcement. It was not Eisenstein however, but one of the other signatories to the Statement, Pudovkin and his nuanced use of asynchronism in a document a year later which proved more useful. For Pudovkin asynchronism implies a careful jaxtaposition of soudn and image not wilful non-synchronisation. Key to this is that the asynchronous use of sound is punctuated with moments of adhesion, creating a push-pull dynamic that questions causality between the visual and the auditory and leads to dialectic. 

In the coming year I shall try and unpack and extend some of the ideas in the thesis, for now here is a link to the paper.