Medium/Message: Music and Medium

A new series! I have at least two posts planned for this series, and hopefully I’ll come up with more in the future. The idea is to highlight art that is inseparable from the medium used to record and/or distribute it. As far as this post is concerned, I want to discuss creative uses of the media that a consumer would purchase. Particularly, music or musical experiences that couldn’t exist outside of the medium they were made for. Certainly various technologies and media have had convenience features like CD zero-indices being used for skippable track intros or records being sided out of order for automatic record changers. But some creative folks have really exploited features of specific media for far more interesting purposes. I personally find this extremely compelling; I hesitate to say it elevates an art form when the reality is a bit more complicated. It’s the creation of something new, merging form and medium into a uniquely intertwined experience. And while the end result may be a bit gimmicky, it is also often something with some level of transience or interactivity.

Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (Commodore 64 Software)

I’m starting with this one because it’s a bit of a stretch. Honestly, I thought I had three perfect fits for this post picked out, but could only dig the following two out of my brain. Maybe this was the third all along, stretch or not. At any rate, in 1973, an eighteen-year-old Mike Oldfield released an album that, among other things, launched Virgin Records. Tubular Bells took the world by storm, and Oldfield… took note of that, following the album with multiple live recordings and sequels. But one of the weirdest things to come out of this was 1986’s Commodore 64 rendition of the album. ROM sites are constantly moving around, but you can pretty much get the whole picture from this recording on YouTube.

This gets interesting to me as it intersects with 8-bit computing. The C64 was about as much of a staple as one could imagine a computer to be in American homes at the time. Among other things, it had the SID chip, a groundbreaking sound chip that (without digging too deep) combined analog and digital stages for a sound that remains unique to this day. This lead to some absolute bangers for video game sound design, but it also seemingly gave Mike Oldfield and the team at Computer Rentals Limited the confidence to create an interactive, fully synthesized and computer-controlled rendition of Tubular Bells.

So, despite this being a bit of a stretch, this is where I think we have a novel usage of medium, likely the first of its kind. Home music visualizers already existed, like the failed Atari Video Music device, and commercial music videos had already leaned on computer animation. And while the C64 version of Tubular Bells feels like something out of the demoscene – it isn’t1; it was a commercially available, Oldfield-approved product. To my knowledge, this was the first time all of these things came together – a commercial release of software for a popular device with an interesting and capable sound chip that offered up a rendition of an album with interactive visualization elements. While you can’t do much, you can change tracks, alter the colors, switch between disparate dots and lines, and alter symmetry. This wasn’t possible with even the fanciest of video formats, LaserDisc; it was only possible to combine known visuals with known audio and incorporate interactivity using software. The idea didn’t really take off, but the C64 version of Tubular Bells represents a unique meshing of viable product on a medium and tech optimism.

GESCOM – Mini Disc (MiniDisc)

Unlike the obviously Compact Disc-based CD-R(W), MiniDisc was designed from the ground up to be a consumer-rewritable format. Rewritable discs were available from the outset, and they differed significantly from rewritable CD-RWs. Many of these differences don’t matter for the purposes of this post, but one that does is that recording was done much more akin to how we think of rewritable computer media. That is to say, recording doesn’t need to be done in a tidy, serial manner; bits and boops of a track can be all over the physical disc. This means that buffering was built in to the spec, a requirement of every player. And this means that every player also offered, for the first time, a guarantee of gapless random access.

Mini Disc by GESCOM (a side project of Autechre that released… this one album) exploited this very fact. The idea was that every track could… sort of kind of lead into every other track. You’d pop in the MD, set it to random, and hear a different experience every time. This would be possible with a CD if gaps were accepted, but… for a project like this, they simply aren’t. And weren’t. And so, Mini Disc was a release that could only exist on its namesake. Nowadays, file-based music playback is utterly commonplace, and gapless isn’t so hard to find. Mini Disc is, thus, available for download these days, but at the time… this was a feature that was basically unique to MD.

Various Artists – RRR-100, RRR-500, and RRR-1000 by RRRecords (Vinyl record)

The typical way that a vinyl record works is that audio information is stored in a single long groove that runs in a continuous spiral from the outer edge of the disc toward the center. The fact that the stylus just ‘rides’ ambivalently in the groove can be exploited, however. It already is in some of the basic convenience mechanisms that make records usable, like the locked groove at the end that keeps the stylus from careening into the label and/or spindle, and the widely-spaced areas that make the breaks between tracks visible. But other, more creative things can be exploited here as well, like multiple spiral grooves running in parallel with each other, or in the case of RRR-100, RRR-500, and RRR-1000, a ton of locked grooves containing short looping samples in lieu of a traditional spiral.

RRRecords released three of these: RRR-100 has 100 loops on a 7″ and RRR-500 and RRR-1000 have 500 and 1000 loops respectively on 12″s. These weren’t studio beats meant for DJs to use or anything along those lines, but weird little noise and industrial type tracks, each made by a different artist2. Some of these artists were quite prominent; among (hundreds) others, Merzbow, Aube, and Terry Riley made appearances. Due to the sheer density of tracks on the record, knowing what you’re listening to is nearly impossible, despite having a tracklisting. Any given needle drop is, to an extent, random because of this. This instant access to quasi-randomness3 and the ability to have hundreds of short loops was basically unique to the vinyl record format at the time. Sure, locked loops could exist on earlier formats that use similar groove-riding like wax cylinders, but it would’ve been far sillier than this already silly trio of records. While, much like Mini Disc, the concept could be replicated digitally… I don’t believe these ever saw a release outside of vinyl.

  1. This disparity has come up before and while I get it, I have to say that calling this ‘a demo, but not scene’ is the funniest fucking thing I’ve heard in a while. ↩︎
  2. Well, RRR-1000 was slightly less ambitious, with 20 artists contributing 50 grooves each. ↩︎
  3. As opposed to, say, randomly fast-forwarding a tape. ↩︎