Short article originally written for TC HELICON
Looping is Older Than You Think!
Here’s a quick history of the major twists and turns of looping through the decades – says Nuno Miguel Garcia
Repetition is part of life – even looping has emerged again and again with different technological guises.
Visionary composers like Pierre Schaeffer, Olivier Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen, influenced by minimalism and improvisation, wanted to create music that had a different role in our lifes and that occupied a different space.
They experiment with prerecorded music and world sounds on shellac record players. These recorders could play in reverse mode and change the speed at fixed ratios thus permitting octave transposition. The composers experimented with different techniques to alter the original recordings and like this they were creating new pieces of music. In 1948 Pierre Schaeffer recorded the piece “Etude aux chemins de fer” the first composition of this new form, the “Musique Concréte”.
A few years before and clearly ahead of his time, Erik Satie had already similar intencions about creating different music in the same sense. His piece “Musique d`Ameublement”, a piece written for piano, three clarinets and a trombone, is considered by some to be the first composition of “Ambient Music”. It was played by the first time in 1920 in a picture exposition and it should be seen as “…the chair on which you may or may not be seated..” by the composer himself.
With the invention and commercialization of the magnetic tape, in the fifties, these same composers and others like John Cage and Edgard Varèse, started to use tape recorders to compose their music pieces. They would slice the tape, rearrange the different slices, loop them, duplicate them by recording to a second recorder and tune the skices changing the speed of the tape. The first live performances with tape recorders were dull, to have a human pressing a button on a tape recorder was not interesting in any way and independently from the music piece played, the audience was not motivated by the act. In the late fifties composers started to use tape recorders on stage together with other electronic equipment and acoustic instruments, as if they were just another instrument, this got already more interest from audiences in a live performance situation.
“repetition is a form of change” Brian Eno
An important pioneer of tape loops and tape delay/feedback systems is Terry Riley. He became interested in repetitions while listening a recording he made of the Chet Baker quartet playing Miles Davis “So What”. He used the initial part of this track, as the source material for his loops on the recording of the first piece ever based on a tape delay/feedback system, “Music for the Gift” in 1963. On these recording sessions he wanted to create a long and repeated loop, his audio engineer the anonymous inventor of this technique, striped the tape between 2 Revox tape recorders, he feed the signal from the second recorder back to the first, mixing the original with the incoming signal. Varying the intensity of the feedback they could reproduce the sound from an almost perfect unison to a dense chaotic ambient. This was the first time the accumulation technique was used. Riley used to call this system the “Time Lag Accumulator”. He took some time to build is own system in his studio, when he developed the technique, he started playing shows of improvisation all night, solo with his system, some of his biggest compositions were excerpts from these concerts. Steve Reich, who helped Riley to put together in 1964 the first performance of “In C”, found that the most interesting sounds would result from putting to recorders playing the same loop against each other in unison and letting them slowly shift out of phase.
Reich work and in special pieces like “It`s Gonna Rain” introduced Brian Eno to minimalist music, the experimentations that Eno was doing with tape loops toked him to rediscover Rileys system the “Time Lag Accumulator”, this was the starting point on the creation of the later called “Ambient Music”.
“..all of my ambient music I should say, really was based on that kind of principle, on the idea that it’s possible to think of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you..”
Eno invited Robert Fripp from King Crimson to record in his studio where he presented him this system, the result of this session was a classic tape delay recording “”The Heavenly Music Corporation”, in 1979 Fripp used this technique with is band an he began to give solo concerts with a system he called the Frippertronics, his looping techniques got a lot of attention from musicians and it was at this time that the majority of them got in the loop.
Until digital machines became available the Frippertronics was state of the art looping, looping techniques were only used by rock musicians like Frank Zappa or the Beatles that used this technique in the recordings of “Tomorrow never knows” in 1966. With the advance of electronics, it
became possible to develop simple hardware digital loop machines, more affordable and in a way smaller package . They could easily do delays of several seconds and even minutes, it quickly replaced the old technology and looping music became something accessible to many people. Now you have powerful apps that can do all this and much more, like the Voice Jam studio app.
Today a lot of artists build their live shows on performances with looping devices, artist`s like Reggie Watts, Beardyman or Dub Fx use their voice as the only instrument, recording loops in real time building improvised music on the stage and in the studio.
Maybe the future as the present already shows, is to recycle some of these old techniques, the unpredictability of these older systems as the slight off tuning of an analog synth. I guess we will see more inspiring apps, using this older principles to shape and establish new ones. The balance between the unpredictable side of improvisation and the static theory rules, applied to generative music systems.
Nuno Miguel Garcia