From the discovery of a mixtape made by Lou Reed for Andy Warhol (featured in a New York Times article published October 30th), to the tape aesthetics of the Cuban revolution, Judith Peraino and Tom McEnaney discuss the intimacies and ontologies of magnetic tape and the stories behind their articles on tape, music, literature, and audio archives published in the latest issue of the Journal of Musicology (available for reading outside of the paywall for a limited time).
Judith: Your article covers audiobooks, rock bands, distortion, the Cuban Revolution, and the portable Geloso G-257 tape recorder. How are all these things possibly connected?
Tom: Just follow the tapes! The weirdest thing about the tape recorder is how many different ways it’s used by people in different situations in the same year or two. You can have one person use the tape recorder to justify an activist militant denunciation of the government, and say, “This is a true document.” And you can have the very same tape recorder used to invent national rock, rock nacional, in Argentina, mainly through these debates and fights about what’s a clear signal, and what’s distorted. That’s what it seems like in the Rodolfo Walsh case. In his book, ¿Quién Mató a Rosendo?, or Who Killed Rosendo?, he says tape is giving him a faithful representation of what people said. It’s all signal. If you want to make music, what do you do? If you’re the Argentine band Manal, you plug your guitar into that [same tape recorder], and you don’t get voices, you get distortion. And distortion is kind of a sign of new music in Argentina. In Barnet’s case, in Cuba, it was striking to me to find out that while he’s making a documentary testimonial book, right across the street from him, someone is using tape to make electroacoustic music. But I think the Argentine case is pretty comparable to the Warhol case as well, where, again, you have such different uses of tape.
Tom: One thing I’m realizing, I don’t know any sound art by Warhol where sound wasn’t accompanied by a visual. Not his films, and a:a novel doesn’t really fall in that category either. So did he release any sound art in his career?
Judith: Since 1964, when Warhol got his Norelco cassette tape recorder, he was taping everything. His overall sonic project was massive. And he did think of it as a project. Sometimes the tapes had endpoints in books or plays, later in his Interview magazine as interviews. The only pure sound art I know of is that flexi disk in the Index (Book). We get just a glimpse of his sound world, but it’s very meta, because it’s him and the Factory regulars talking about putting together the Index (Book) itself. Mostly he was taping banal sounds of his day, and by extension the sound of his body in the world. So what’s that about? That gets into ontology–the tape as proof of being, or as a way of being in the world.
Judith: None of Warhol’s work would have been like today’s audiobooks. Most people think of audiobooks as the thing we put into the car when we’re on long road trips, keeping us awake. Your article is a deep history of the audiobook, or a forgotten history. Is there any way to make a connection between these revolutionary texts that have all this political meaning and the thing that most people will be thinking of as audiobooks which is their favorite authors reading one of their novels or something that entertains them as they’re going from point A to point B.
Tom: What I love about audio in general is that you can do other things, while continuing to experience sound. I don’t think that’s necessarily just a distracted listening, where we’re not learning anything and we’re not enjoying anything. There’s no reason that you can’t listen to an intense militant takedown of corruption in the government while you’re in the car.
Judith: I think a lot of people probably do these days. All the political audiobooks and podcasts.
Tom: Exactly. So that’s what I was going to say, is that actually we are in a new golden age of radio, which is really the golden age of podcasting, and that’s again why I wanted to go back to these books, which are a different trajectory of audiobook. They’re books that began with audio and turned into printed texts. And now that we have printed text turning into audio, I would love to see more thought and experimentation with the possibilities of that format, connecting the militant political denunciation with an exciting song, with on-the-ground documentary sound, ambient noise, et cetera. I just see the format as fairly impoverished, and that if we remembered these histories, we could do more with the work now.
Judith: Do you think that Barnet achieved this with his music mix? Where music stood for Montejo’s voice in a weird ghostly way?
Tom: That’s a really great question. I think that I like that Barnet decided to foreground some of the thematic conversations of the book, and of the conversations he had with Montejo, by using Yoruba music in that audiobook. On the other hand, as I say in the article, I think it’s a travesty that he never released these tapes of Montejo’s voice, and never did any work with the recordings of Montejo’s voice to share sonically. If he had actually reproduced a dialogue in which he asks the questions that he asked at that time, but in his voice from today, and then gave us the recorded responses from Montejo, that would’ve been a wonderful version of the audiobook now. Not that the book doesn’t matter, the book is extraordinary. But we could have the book and the tapes, the sounds next to each other, and again, just think about all of the meaning of that process that he unfortunately decided to mute.
Tom: For instance, Barnet talks about the rise and fall of pitches in Montejo’s voice and says, “I used the Tesla tape recorder because it could capture all of those shifts.” And my question has always been: Well then why not, if you have these tapes and you have these metaphors of voice and sound that you use to frame those tapes when they come into print, why not edit the tapes and release them so that we can think about how sound carries meaning.
Judith: Yeah. Tapes can become signifiers of truth, and fiction or fantasy, and also sonic expressions of vulnerability. I’m also thinking about this topic through Burroughs, whose concept of tape experiments and splicing are a sonic fantasy of entangled bodies in which one’s intestines are spliced into someone else’s intestines, or how the heartbeat of the other becomes your heartbeat. It’s a total fusion, which he comes to through recording technology and splicing. Dubbing is the only way to make a splice with the cassette format.
Tom: Burroughs is such a touchstone, but I love that your article, through some amazing archival work, finds a new way to talk about dubbing, splicing, and music.
Judith: My big discovery at the Warhol Archives was a mixtape that Lou Reed made for Andy Warhol. Reed’s mixtape is an early example of how cassettes are widely used a little later, which is to create a mix through the dub process. In this case the mix on side one is all drawn from Reed’s own live performances, which he dubbed from different tapes, so that he’s splicing himself together in interesting ways. Side two has songs he wrote for Warhol, based on Warhol’s THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol, and sung from Warhol’s perspective. So I see the cassette as an apparatus for playing out vulnerabilities and intrusions of the self and the other that’s in the air at this time, and a legacy from Burroughs
Tom: Your article is also a mix of different sounds from different archives. How did you get to this project? And can you talk about Bruce Yaw, and the ways your local friendships led you to some of these discoveries?
Judith: The book project is about Warhol and music and musicians in the 1970s. It’s an archival project, so I’ve been doing a lot of digging through many different archives but most intensely, the Warhol archives. I hadn’t really thought about it being a tape-based project but I knew that I had to at some point grapple with Warhol’s enormous audio archive. Rooting around in the tapes from the 1970s, I found one labeled “Philosophy Songs.” No one in the Warhol Archives knew what it was, and it wasn’t described as a Lou Reed tape. It turned out both sides were Lou Reed, and one was a set of unknown songs. I drove the six hours back to Ithaca from Pittsburgh, and I think I went straight to a bar that I frequent. I was hanging out with my bar buddies who are all town folks, not Cornell folks, and saying, “Well, I just found this crazy thing, this tape of unknown Lou Reed songs.” My friend Terry Garahan said, “I know Lou Reed’s bass player. You want me to give him a call?”
Tom: The secrets of upstate New York.
Judith: No kidding. Here’s my advice to all musicologists: Go to your local bars! You never know what will happen. So Terry made the introduction to Bruce Yaw, who was Reed’s bass player in 1975 and ’76, and lived close to Ithaca. This started a two-year relationship of interviewing Bruce, who also gave me access to his personal archive of soundboard and demo tapes, and tour documents. The Warhol Foundation restricts the use of tapes—no transcription or audio clips. Bruce’s audio archive enabled the whole project of this article, because he allowed me to refer to sound with other sounds, and to give a sonic and lived context for the sounding object that has to remain silent and closeted. So that was the gift of a local friendship network, and Bruce, who was a remarkable and generous person.
Tom: It’s an amazing story. Just telling people, “Hey, here is the intimate side that’s behind this intellectual output.” Because I think that so often we read articles as totally divorced from people’s daily lives. Hearing you talk about your friendship with Bruce Yaw shows the intimacy involved in writing an article like this, which is not always available to readers of academic work.
Judith: Since Bruce passed away in September 2019, sadly before the publication of the article, I’ve thought about what it means to be forging this strangely triangulated relationship between two people and the recording devise, and how the recordings I made of Bruce telling me about his life is now a gift back to his family. But his family can also be heard on the interview tapes. There was a beautiful moment I recorded one day: Bruce and I are listening to a soundboard recording, and he is reminiscing about what it was like to be on tour with Lou Reed, and his wife starts to read excerpts from letters that Bruce had written to her from that time, describing where he was, his thoughts about how they played, what traveling with Reed was like. So I have “on tape” this incredible, magical sonic layering of the music, the sound of his wife reading his letters, and his responses.
Tom: That’s incredible: all of those layers of histories and of that kind of public performance of the sounds in the background, but intimate writing in the foreground, and the present unfolding of these different encounters of time. It’s incredible to be able to witness that and to hear it as well. And something that I would imagine, for a family member, that’s a treasure right there, too.