Many view cassette players as relics of a bygone era of Members Only jackets and ozone-depleting hairspray, but for experimental musician Gregg Kowalsky, they’re a source of sonic inspiration. Tape Chants, the Oakland, Calif.–based artist’s latest effort, fits well with his label’s “out” music catalog. With its sine waves, oscillators, and analog loops, it’s hard to imagine anyone making out to Tape Chants in the back of a Firebird. Kowalsky’s avant-garde bona fides include a master’s degree in electronic music and recording media and performances at various chin-stroking European music festivals and art installations. His previous Kranky release, Through the Cardial Window, was well received in the hermetic world of experimental music, winning him accolades from prominent underground journals such as The Wire and Dusted. But why, exactly, would anyone want to listen to music made from mixer feedback and pitch-altered cassette recorders? Because it’s actually really good. Kowalsky’s compositions invite a kind of luxuriating uncommon to the instant gratification of the MP3 age; to truly appreciate what’s going on here, you need to check yourself out of Twitter, Facebook, or whatever else and just zone out to Tape Chants’ gorgeous brain baths. Kowalsky is hardly a New Ager on an inward bliss trip; his compositions are deliberate and occasionally unsettling. “VIII,” for example, sounds like something from one of those horror movie scenes where a supernatural presence is discovered by cranking up the volume on a recording of an otherwise empty room. “IX” is similarly haunting, with random piano notes that sound as though they’re emanating from the ballroom of a sunken ocean liner. Yet, unlike those dark, ambient albums popular with the black T-shirt brigade and vivisectionists, Tape Chants isn’t oppressive. That is, unless you want it to be—listening to Kowalsky’s work is kind of like having your own aural mood ring.At its core, Tape Chants is a piece of modern contextual art that will either make an impression or go right over your head. As interesting as it is, the record likely pales in comparison to the live experience, which features Kowalsky’s skilled placement of 10 or so cassette recorders and boomboxes around the performance space. These are adjusted in real time, via amplitude tweaks, for a lo-fi, surround-sound experience. If that sounds to you less like music and more like something out of the CIA interrogation manual, skip it—but if you’ve got a broader aural palette, it can be deeply rewarding.
Gregg Kowalsky performs with Ben Bracken at the Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring on June 15.