Of all the techniques developed by composers in recent years, the tape loop is perhaps the easiest to understand. I once watched a class of junior-high students in Montana practicing this technique quite competently. Just take a length of recording tape, splice the two ends together, thread it through your tape recorder, and listen back to whatever is on the tape as many times as you want. Simple. In fact, it’s so simple that it’s generally taken for granted. Yet this activity strikes me as quite significant. Before the advent of the tape recorder there was no way to hear musical phrases repeated exactly for very long. Biological variations always produced sound variations. But just as the invention of the sine wave generator enabled us to experience a completely steady tone for the first time, the tape loop enabled us to hear any sound repeat itself exactly, over and over. As a loop winds around its endless circle, time itself begins to move in circles, and true stasis can be achieved. Unchanging sounds turn out to be as fascinating to human ears as changing sounds, and this interest in musical stasis no doubt lies at the roots of the whole minimalist movement.
Most composers currently involved in the many forms of repetitive or static music have little interest in tape loops. By now we have found many other ways to achieve similar effects, and certainly the more recent sequencing devices and digital delay systems are less awkward to work with than tape loops. Many now seem to regard the tape loop technique as a cliche. But of course, just when you become convinced that some artistic technique has been worn completely into the ground, someone will usually come along with a new approach and make it work all over again.
Robert Moran found an effective approach to tape loops in the latest version of his music for ‘Through Cloud and Eclipse,’ a theatrical work with shadow puppets that received its first New York presentation at the Kitchen October 9 through 11. The original German-language narration track was maintained, so it was difficult for most of us to become involved in the details of the story, but basically it involved a character searching for the secret of life in a mythological setting. There were not as many puppets in this show as there generally are in the Indonesian shadow puppet shows, on which the style of this work is based, but Donald Case handled his eight or 10 puppets skilfully, and the artists achieved elaborate scenic effects through a creative use of slide projectors. Most of the time, however, I listened to the music.
The loops Moran used were made by conventional instruments without, so far as I could tell, any electronic manipulation. Most of the loops were rather short, consisting of a few vibraphone or marimba notes, a percussive phrase played on prepared piano, or a snatch of some wind or stringed instrument. The repetitive texture provided an overall mood of suspended animation, enhancing the make-believe atmosphere of the drama, but it also suggested rather sharp dramatic contrasts from scene to scene. The texture was never very dense. Generally there were only two or three figures looping around at once. Yet something of interest was always going on.
I recall one section in which a sustained cello figure rocked back and forth between a couple of notes. The figure had such a lovely sound and such precise predictability that it lulled me into not paying very close attention. Only later did I begin to notice that the music had been gradually changing. A trombone, rocking back and forth between the same pitches, had gradually been fading in on another loop. In a later section I was attracted by the reiterations of a particularly vital rhythmic figure. The rhythm was not that complicated, but it took me quite a while to figure out how many beats it had, because accents from another tape loop kept intruding at different points. At other times I found myself listening to some tape loop chase some slightly longer tape loop. Of course, when the shorter loop finally caught up with the longer one, it kept right on chasing until it caught up with the 1980/evan-parkers-free-sax cycle, and the 1980/evan-parkers-free-sax, and the 1980/evan-parkers-free-sax, and the 1980/evan-parkers-free-sax. After a while I would realize that that process was really just another longer loop.
Meanwhile, loops have become important concepts in some nonmusical areas as well. The principles of computer programming have taught us to view many logical processes as loops. Douglas Hofstadter presents Goedel’s incompleteness theorem and other modern philosophical quandaries in terms of recursions and ‘endless loops.’ Economists and statisticians, not to mention synthesizer players, like to loop their outputs back into their inputs. Sometimes I even think that our Western obsession with Progress is being transformed into an obsession with loops. Everything seems to be moving in circles. Or, as Richard Kostelanetz put it in one of his looping poems, ‘... of life copies the poetry of life copies the poetry of life copies the poetry of life copies the poetry of life copies the poetry of life copies the poetry of life copies the poetry of life copies the poetry of life copies the poetry...’