REVIEW: Stephen Cornford – Six Tape Machines

September 16th, 2013 |  Published in Blog, Reviews

Six Tape MachinesStephen Cornford – Six Tape Machines

This was the first release of what became a very productive year for Mr. Cornford. A year taking in releases on Consumer Waste (out now) and 3 Leaves (forthcoming) not to mention installation work, an audiovisual performance piece for projectors, and more besides. Six Tape Machines though is an older piece, only now getting its release. Based, as per the title, on recordings of tape machines, it recalls his earlier, and probably best known piece Binatone Galaxy; the latter an installation for self-amplifying tape machines that spawned a cd on Senufo Editions and received much well deserved attention in both incarnations. But for all the thematic similarities, the results on Six Tape Machines are very different.

Binatone Galaxy was, in its time structure, quite flat. Being made up of excerpted recordings of an installation, the work of construction was located in the objects rather than the recordings. On record little development or compositional decision was in evidence, but nor was it felt lacking; what we heard was just a moment to moment, point by point, presence of sound. It was a brittle constellation, rhyming the cosmic aspirations of Xenakis’ Concret PH both in its pointillist detail and in its potential endlessness. A crucial difference though: where Xenakis located his cosmos in burning charcoal, evoking a heavy, material metaphysic of energy and earth-process, Cornford’s “Galaxy” is simply the model name of a consumer cassette machine, the rattling plastic cogs of which generate their own teeming infinity, though carry more prosaic, personal, and everyday associations.

Six Tape Machines’ associations are similarly earthbound, and only slightly less everyday. The piece draws its materials from the reel to reel tape machines once beloved of home-recordists and audio professionals; machines fundamental to the development of electronic music. These cultural association are, as in much of Cornford’s work, important, but neither comprehensive nor determinative. Concept informs process rather than defines results. So, here, the only processing of the recorded machine sounds comes from re-recording and manipulation via the very same tape machines which provide source material – a characteristically hermetic approach, which results in a satisfying integration of the tactile and conceptual. Fittingly, the sound is enveloping, warm and organically suggestive of domestic interiors – far more so than Binatone’s brittle signature – carrying a surprising emotionality without losing anything of the detail or objectivity of the earlier piece.

Another contrast to Binatone is that Six Tape Machines allows a little more in the way of composition and drama to creep in. Here, structural decisions are audible by way of crossfades, cuts and dropouts. At times the forms that result from this even recall the electroacoustic tradition to which the piece’s subjects are fundamental. But, by the standards of that primarily transformative tradition, here composition and manipulation proceed in the most restrained of manners; limited to the setting up of certain longform symmetries; the entry and exit of beautifully captured, self-sufficient stretches of sound. At every point, the machines’ chance harmonies and surprisingly diverse machine rhythms are retained. The focus here is the source material, the sound of the machines, their processes; and interventions serve to frame and articulate that. In this way, and insofar as it references the world of electroacoustic music, Six Tape Machines, counterpoints and corrects rather than retreads a tradition which has often been keen to efface its material conditions in favour of an ego-inflating rhetoric of the isolation and transformation of immaterial sound.


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September 16th, 2013 | by | Published in Blog, Reviews