What with Eminem re-releasing The Slim Shady LP on tape this year, the cassette revival has all but wound down. The cassette’s recent re-emergence on the scene as the recording format of choice for independent musicians may be a consequence of long queues for producing new releases at vinyl presses or an urge for an object in an era of streaming. Whatever the case, this dead medium has gained a following all its own (for a second time). And since cassette players aren’t ubiquitous in many households today, cassettes throw up a barrier of entry to casual fans, rewarding elite fans for their effort. It’s little wonder that Marshall Mathers and his mainstream brand handlers would seek access to discerning, in-the-know listeners by coopting their favorite vintage format.
“No Sharps, No Flats,” a sound installation curated by Alex Braden, ejects the cassette from one context and drops it into another one—the art gallery, which is fraught with its own concerns about objecthood and fetishization. Braden’s piece is a series of physically deconstructed boomboxes playing tapes by fresh and established voices from the D.C. music scene. Each tape features a different song, some no more than a few soft notes. The installation is a group piece that requires the contributions of an entire community and the vision of one author.
In the context of a fine-art gallery, “No Sharps, No Flats” is a sound sculpture with its own precedents. Braden, working with Emily Francisco and Adam Richard Nelson Hughes, has stripped away all the outward-facing components of 30 boomboxes, leaving the bare-minimum mechanisms necessary to play cassettes. The artists installed the guts of these deconstructed tape players on a wooden scaffolding about the size of a few small bookcases (but with none of the heft). The project casts sound in the mold of lo-fi, unmonumental sculpture.
Taken one way, “No Sharps, No Flats” is an inversion of Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty-Part Motet,” an installation of Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century Spem in alium. This is a 40-part Renaissance choral piece that Cardiff projects through 40 imperious speakers mounted on stands in an imposing circle. Whereas “The Forty-Part Motet” invites listeners to follow the speakers in a ring around the room in order to take in each individual voice, “No Sharps, No Flats” drags listeners into the center, toward a messy sculpture, where it’s impossible to pick out any specific source in the cacophony.
At Transformer, “No Sharps, No Flats” is an incubator within an incubator, a project that bends many performances toward a singular collective. All of the pieces on the cassettes are played in the key of C (musicians will note the reference in the show’s title), meaning that when the cassettes are all broadcast together, they sound harmonious. It’s as if all 30-odd musicians were playing together in the same noise ensemble.
Yet two days after the show’s opening, the harmony had already frayed. A cassette by Dan Gleason of Young Rapids got snagged in a pile-up of ribboning tape—a familiar nightmare, if not a recent one. Piano pieces by David Klinger and Fiona Kohrman sound great together, but the tape player assigned to Kohrman was showing so much wear that the playback of her recording was falling out of tune. Too many starts and stops rendered some of the tape players unplayable. Justin Zamieroski’s guitar noodling and Julia Hale’s high-pitched sequenced synthesizer drown everyone else out now, but that’s not bound to last.
By the end of the show, assuming any of the tape players are still working, they’re going to sound like a racket. That’s all as it should be: “No Sharps, No Flats” is an argument for embracing entropy as a way to keep things fresh. The democratizing DIY sculptural format rejects virtuosity in favor of a punk ethic of making in the moment. As those gears and gizmos grind away at continuously looping magnetic tape, the title moves further away from the truth. The endgame is a haphazard sculpture that plays in perfect unison.
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