by Conrad Schnitzler
by Gen Ken MontgomeryFrom: The Cassette Mythos, Autonomedia 1990
What is a Cassette Concert?A Cassette Concert is a method of composing and performing electronic music in a dynamic way. It was developed by Conrad Schnitzler in Berlin but is now being used by composers around the world including David Myers and Gen Ken in New York City, David Prescott in Boston, Michael Chocholak in Oregon, Giancarlo Tonuitti in Italy, Serge Leroy in Paris, and Jorg Thomasius in East Berlin. A Cassette Concert consists of a group of recorded cassettes containing single tracks of a larger composition, intended for live performances that can be given anywhere in the world, at any time, by anybody. When these groups of cassettes are played simultaneously, the combined sounds constitute the basic, although variable, form of the composition. The number of cassettes is also variable--from two cassettes in its simplest form, to any number of cassettes physically possible or needed. Most cassettes are recorded in stereo, so for optimal listening each cassette should have its own amplification system, with the speakers placed at opposite ends of the space. However, the realization of a Cassette Concert is flexible and can also be played on separate portable tape machines (stereo or mono) without additional amplification.
The History of Conrad Schnitzler's Cassette ConcertA fan of free jazz, contrasted with listening to Herbert Eimert's Studio 55 in Cologne , Conrad began working with non-keyboard analog synthesizers and amplified acoustic instruments in the late 1960's. He is known as a pioneer of electro-acoustic music, with over thirty records released internationally on both major labels and independent labels, as well as being credited with starting the independent home composing and production movement. As early as 1971 Conrad self-produced his own record, in an edition of one hundred, all with handmade covers. In addition, he was extremely active as a performance artist using music. Conrad was searching for a way to create a larger, more complex sound for his live performances, and since it was impractical to play more than one instrument at a time effectively, and too expensive to own many synthesizers, he began recording particular patches, patterns, or textures of sound on individual cassettes, to be used in tandem with live synthesizer playing. This allowed Con to create a more complex wall of sound, and led to the construction of the " Kassettenorgel " (Cassette Organ). The Kassettenorgel consisted of two large black cabinets containing six stereo tape decks, all internally wired to a stereo output. In performances, Con would select cassettes from suitcases of carefully organized compositional groupings of sounds, and intuitively choose and construct the sound and space he wanted to build.
Although Con wasn't the first artist to use taped cassettes in a live context, his method of cassette playing allowed more spontaneous interaction with the music during the live performance, and this was an increasingly important factor in his work. His command at recording and performing with these tapes brought him to many important performances, including Cafe Einstein in Berlin,The Kitchen in New York City, Le Musee D'Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris, and ARS Electronica in Linz . In many of these performances Conrad attached a belt of walkmen to his body, all wired to a megaphone built into a metal helmet worn on his head. With this added flexibility, Con could give performances at any location in the world, either walking through the space with the sounds coming from his body, or in conjunction with the Kassettenorgel set up in the room. In this way Conrad gave Cassette Concerts in a tremendous variety of settings, with durations from one hour to any number of hours. (There was one Cassette Concert given at the Block Gallery in Berlin that lasted for fifty hours.) This exploration of acoustic-spatial composition had a strong relation to his earlier ideas combining sculpture and music. (Conrad studied sculpture in Dusseldorf with Joseph Beuys .) The Cassette Concert composed with groupings of four cassettes has become almost a standard for Conrad, though there are many exceptions, including Conrad in Sequenza , a concert for two cassettes released in an edition of five hundred by David Elliot's Y.U.R. cassette label in England; Composition fur Sechs Kassetten , a concert for six cassettes released in an edition of ten and sold at Gelbe Music in Berlin; and most recently, The Thousander Program , a work-in-progress Cassette Concert, for one thousand individually-recorded cassettes.Eventually, the Cassette Concert series went well beyond practicality, as each new idea led to new developments in composition and live performance. At the same time, technologies increased to give artists the chance to work with digital synthesizers that featured programming and computer-controlled interface possibilities. For live realization of electronic music, there were definite and somewhat limited schools of thought. There were the academic composers, whose complex mathematical and computer-assisted compositions, unfortunately, could often only be heard by static replaying of a tape, or preprogrammed data bank; or the experimental composers, such as John Cage and LaMonte Young , whose compositions were based on clever and intriguing conceptual ideas but, separated from the notations, often didn't have a musical identity. Then there were the commercially-oriented electronic pop groups or composers, who were working along more conventional lines, programming a skeleton of their songs and then sometimes embellishing these backing tracks with more manageable instrumentation. These methods unfortunately didn't allow for much intuitive work or surprises; but on the other hand, there was a repeatable compositional structure or musical identity. These limitations separated many composer/performers into discrete categories, but the Cassette Concert permitted Conrad to combine the best elements of structured composed music, free music, and conceptual music into a workable, personalized, and identifiable method of both composing and performing live electronic music, namely the Cassette Concert.
Live Electronic MusicAt one time there was a question of the qualitative preference between taped electronics in a performance or live "real time" electronics, but with the advance of sophisticated digital programming, the differences have become only a question of definition, and a slight one at best. It was with these advances that Conrad's Cassette Concerts came of age in breathing new life into live electronic music, and at the same time began to establish a new alternative form of "notation" that would carry this music to future generations, in a dynamic way that conventional recordings of contemporary music couldn't hope to do. Not only were there added possibilities to the performance and reaction of the music, but each individual cassette could be thought of as a musical line of notation to a completed and compositionally structured whole. After all, the traditional form of notation was also a method devised by composers, utilizing the technologies of the times, to leave information and instructions that could be carried out and interpreted by conductors, arrangers, and preservers of music for generations to come. In this way the Cassette Concert gives the opportunity to preserve the inherent dynamics of the composition, as well as giving other participants, besides the composer, the opportunity to interject their subjective interpretation, taste, and creativity into the original composition. The music was very much alive, apart from any static recording or documentation, and this is the intent of the Cassette Concert.
Some of Conrad's Cassette Concerts have been mixed and recorded onto records, cassettes, and CDs, but unlike many other electronic music recordings, these final recordings are not final at all. Each is merely a documentation of a particular mix, at a particular time and place. In the hands of any other conductor, the recordings would be completely different. The differences come from the attenuation and mixing of volumes, the adjustment of equalization, additional and perhaps technologically-updated signal processing of the original sounds, and the placement of the speakers, both in stationary positions and with movement, for spatial diffusion of sound.
There is also the possibility of changing the starting time of the individual cassettes, which alone can bring tremendous variation in the interaction of sounds. At times it is very difficult to start four separate cassette players at precisely the same moment, so these variations are deliberately inherent in the Cassette Concert method of composition. In fact when you change the starting time intervals from thirty seconds to two minutes between cassettes, the variations increase dramatically and proportionally. There is also the opportunity for a conductor to add entirely new lives to the piece, with something from an unrelated Cassette Concert, or something composed or improvised by the conductor, for additional accompaniment and surprises. All interactions are invited, as the audience can become an important creative element to the music. As everyone is an artist, so everyone is a conductor and is free to invent more ideas to relate and interact with the music. The most amazing part is that, despite this seemingly free style of construction, the Cassette Concerts have a very definite cohesive and consistent musical identity (within an obvious range of sensitivity for the music).
Conrad found a way to effectively and successfully compose structured free-flowing music (which would probably sound like a contradiction to someone without an understanding of the Cassette Concert). The Cassette Concert transforms a static recording into an evolving interactive intermedial event, where creativity is passed through the medium to encourage and inspire the inherent creativity of the audience. The aim is to eventually break down the self-imposed barrier between the so-called "active" state of performers, and the "passive" state of the listening public. All forms of creativity are expressed, shared, and encouraged. Who Conducts Cassette Concerts?
As the first authorized conductor of Con's Cassette Concerts, I have had the opportunity to conduct numerous Cassette Concerts in Europe and America since 1986. I've experienced this music in art galleries, rock clubs, churches, radio stations, shopping malls, and cars, at Niagara Falls, and with informal gatherings of friends in kitchens around the world. Every concert has been absolutely unique, depending on the space, the sound equipment, the interaction of the people, and of course my particular mood on that day. It is clear to me that there is life in this music, as well as an inherent call to create. Many people have approached me after the concerts with excited and inspired reactions. Because of my experience and familiarity with conducting Cassette Concerts, I have been conducting the performances at The Dramatic Electronic Music Concert Hall , although eventually others will be invited to participate. Gencon Productions has also released a Cassette Concert through Generations Unlimited , which we hope will promote the awareness of conducting Cassette Concerts around the world. People will be encouraged to explore the possibilities of these Cassette Concerts for themselves, because Art is no secret anymore.
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