With ARKM Foam’s latest release, Tape/No Tape, the artist utilizes a set up consisting exclusively of tape players/ cassette recorders, producing two pieces of music with brilliant subtlety. Some may refer to this kind of Noise Music as ‘Lowercase’, a genre consisting the amplification of extremely quiet sounds. (Other artists in this genre include Steve Rodin, who helped pioneer this sound with the release of Forms of Paper in 2001 – and album made entirely out of amplified sounds of paper).
Confetti Hellgate, a label ran out of Chatham, MA, released Tape/ No Tape in August of 2013. The cassette features two 15-minute long recordings, both made entirely out of tape machine sounds. One piece incorporates two hand-held Cassette players/ Recorders, amplified with contact microphones. Both machines had tapes inserted, and sounds from the tape machines and the tapes themselves were used. The second piece is made using two table-top recorders, also amplified using contact microphones, however these machines had no tapes in either of them.
With the apparent use of field recordings in the first piece, side one holds a strong interest in several ways. At first listen, one is attempting to make out where all of the sounds are coming from. There is a strange atmosphere on side one, that sounds as if you are caught in some sort of rain forest swarming with bugs and birds, and the atmosphere is made stranger when you realize that most of the sounds are coming from the cassette machines instead of the cassettes. It is a mishmash of lazer beams and bug chirps, of bird song and melting tape. One feels like they are listening to a forest in Thailand that had been contact miked and recorded, only to have a synthesizer explode in the dubbing room. It is truly a bizarre listen and one that contains a multi-layered depth, in part due to the relationship displayed between the tape and the tape machine. At one moment you are trying to tell whether or not the clicking in your ear is a woodpecker or a tape machine being rewound and paused – the next moment you forget what you were thinking of, as you’re pulled into the trance inducing soundscape.
Alternatively, the B Side's soundscape is one of opening and closing spaceship doors, breathing machines sitting next to hospital beds, the clicks and whirs of a bird outside of a window, and vacuum machines heard from a few doors down, muffled by the separating walls . The sounds interlock and interchange to form a structure based in soft, gentle sounds to louder drones – all of this some how created with two table-top tape machines, neither of which contained a cassette tape.
Even though both pieces use cassette players, the second piece sounds very different to the first. It is the juxtaposition between the two that puts both in context. Side A (Tape) is very spastic, the dynamics only in relation to each second that passes. Noises constantly fly around – bends, squeaks, whirs of all kinds. There are points where things do get a bit louder, but when compared to Side B (No Tape), the dynamics are not as careful. Side B has a more clear structure, starting from strange whirs reminiscent of Iron Lungs and soft breathing sounds, eventually developing into larger drones and faster and more percussive metallic clicks. The ending of Side B also is a bit more of a climax as well.
However, where both are different in dynamics, it is truly after listening to both that the main dynamic is felt between the two pieces. This is what is so interesting about Tape/No Tape. There is some sort of journey that one is taken on from a primal, spastic sort of beginning into a more futuristic and inevitable slow-motioned realm, where every sound is precious and taken in. At times, Tape/No Tape reminded me of the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the most humorous way. One can not help but feel the earthy vibe of Side A in relation to the more sci-fi vibe of Side B. Foam initially brings the listener into a realm of music that many other artists attempt to achieve – a depth where one cannot help consider how, (as philosopher Walter Benjamin once famously wondered in 1936 in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction") technology affects how art may or may not be created. And to use the simple tape machine in this regard pushes the depth even further. To explore a sound reproducing machine, using the medium which it was created for (the cassette tape) and to use the same machines, reproducing sound but taking away the medium in which it was created to function with, is to make a discovery in the most simple way, and one which many would tend to ignore. Why not make an entire album using an old technology, almost in the opposite way it was meant to be perceived? It is innovation in the most simple yet brilliant way.
Perhaps Foam was not attempting to make such a statement with Tape/No Tape, but it is not easily ignored when you consider the process of the soundscapes in relation to the sounds themselves. At first I found myself listening to the music, and trying to imagine how ARKM Foam managed to get these bizarre sounds from such minimal equipment. You begin by thinking about how clever the concept is, but over the course of the next few listens, you’re really carried away with the sounds themselves. You forget what it is that is making the music, and the atmosphere takes over, thus making the piece’s far more than a gimmick. Tape/No Tape also has an attitude that is hard to ignore with further listens. It is clear that Foam had spent a lot of time searching for different sounds on these machines, or else the structure would not be so intricate. The fact that drones so clever and complex could be tailored to such equipment, makes one forget that it is tape machines that are creating these sounds. The lack of post-production is impressive as well.
It is hard to tell if ARKM Foam was attempting to create such depth with this release. With a title as self-aware as Tape/No Tape, as well as the youthful approach of the music, it could be that Foam was just making a couple of cool tracks using tape machines. It is ironically this aspect that makes this album so beautiful and deep - to bring the sort of innocence to music where it does not matter what one uses to create sound. He brings back the curiosity that all of us are born with, and applies it in a most curious way on Tape/No Tape. It may not be something caught on to immediately, but with repeated listens, Tape/No Tape will speak with a depth.