Some Kind Of Melody

by Gautam Pemmaraju

If you talk a language they are familiar with you’ll communicate quickly. But in artistic matters ease of communication tends to link itself with lightness of worth. Significant depth often involves a new language.

– Terence Dwyer

This January saw the passing of Stefan Kudelski, the inventor of the Nagra portable magnetic reel-to-reel tape recorder. A revolutionary innovation, the tape recorder became an essential and ubiquitous part of filmmaking, not to mention the surveillance and security industry (Black Orpheus was the first full length film to use a Nagra). It was also widely used for research purposes and as the linked obituary points out, apart from mountain expeditions, the recorder was also carried by the famous oceanographer Jacques Piccard on the Bathyscape Trieste which made the historic 1960 dive to the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench, near Guam. Another notable loss last June was the death of the composer, avant-garde electronic music experimentalist Ilhan Mimaroğlu, whose work as Charlie Mingus’ producer and on Fellini’s Satyricon brought him wider acclaim. Mimaroğlu moved from Istanbul to study musicology and composition at Columbia University under Paul Henry Lang and Douglas More, and later with Vladimir Ussachevsky; he would eventually settle down in New York associating with an interesting network of musicians and composers, including Edgar Varese and Stefan Wolpe. Working with Atlantic Records early on, he set up his own independent label Finnidar in 1971, the intention of which he says in this 1975 audio interview, was to release “the kind of music that they would never touch”, referring to bigger and conventional labels. Releasing recordings of a variety of composers, which included iconoclasts Stockhausen and Cage, he also made an album with Freddie Hubbard in 1971, titled Sing Me A Song of Songmy.

Terence Dwyer suggests an audition of Mimaroğlu’s Bowery Bum in his delightful primer on tape music, Composing With Tape Recorders: Music Concrete For Beginners (1971). The track itself was based on the sounds of rubber bands, and indicates quite excellently, the many kinds of formal, structural ideas that Dwyer outlines pedagogically in his book. From elemental exercises to more complex compositional experiments, Dwyer chattily discusses several thoughts linked to tape music (the SF Tape Music Festival has just concluded), the term that he prefers to music concrete, since it “roll[s] more comfortably off an English tongue” because the latter “seems a clumsy and slightly misleading term” (see also Halim El-Dabh). He starts at the outset in encouraging the reader (and potential practitioner) to approach sounds with openness and attempt to understand “something of the nature of sounds”. Pointedly, he indicates that the scope is “absolutely any sound that takes our fancy” and “one man’s music is another man’s noise”.

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