A Cassette-Based Symphony that Erodes with Time

Installation view of ‘No Sharps, No Flats’ at Transformer Gallery, Washington DC (all images courtesy Transformer Gallery)

WASHINGTON, DC — For the past several weeks, Transformer Gallery has played host to a dissonant symphony. No Sharps, No Flats, a group sound-art show, co-organized by artists Alex Braden, Emily Francisco, and Adam Richard Nelson Hughes, features a sculptural installation made of deconstructed boom boxes. The 30 tape decks, still intact, play recorded compositions by DC-area musicians. A mishmash of genres and sounds, the only thing unifying them is their key of C major. Yet the artists designed the exhibition for discord rather than harmony by allowing the deck motors and tapes to wear out over the course of the exhibition.

The installation is slightly daunting upon first sight. With its disemboweled boom boxes, it’s chaotic and electrically grotesque. A wooden structure with spindly legs, arranged in a rough circle, supports the tape decks and their entangled web of wires. The arrangement looks almost like a trap that’s been set in the middle of the gallery. It sits, silently waiting for you in anticipation to activate it.

You press one of the play buttons — the old kind that click when you push down on them — then you press another, and another. The small gallery fills with noise. It’s not unpleasant, but rather agreeably cacophonic. Perhaps this construction isn’t so scary after all. In fact, it’s kind of playful. Press as many of the 30 play buttons as you want, in any order, at any time — the score is yours to design. For a few minutes, everything is jubilantly loud and you’re delighted with your nonsensical masterpiece.

Installation view of ‘No Sharps, No Flats’ at Transformer Gallery

But then some of the tapes begin to stick, or slow, or stop entirely with an abrupt “tick” as the play button snaps back into its resting position. You press one of the players over and over again, trying to bring back the music, but the button refuses to stay down. Restarted, another tape spools slower than before, creating a warped, melancholic melody that is only an echo of its previous tune. After a while, you stop pressing the buttons and leave. When — if — you go back, you don’t know which buttons you pressed before or in what order; some of them don’t even push down any more after repeated use. Whatever fleeting opus you previously enjoyed is lost forever.

Originally designed to record and keep audio data on Dictaphones, cassette tapes were essentially memory aids until the music industry appropriated them. They have, however, always been a flawed medium given that they degrade with each use and their integrity is susceptible to everything from temperature to tangling. In our digital-centric era wherein data seems an abstract concept, cassettes are a reminder that data can (and does) have a material form that is inherently fragile — it can be stored, damaged, or lost like anything else.

The cassette tape’s fragility has become part of its appeal. In the wake of music streaming services like Spotify, these relics of a bygone but recent era have become nostalgic icons of pre-Millennial existence, when the only way to share music was to make a mix tape. A bastion of sentimentality over utility, the medium also serves as a metaphor for memory itself: sharp and clear in the beginning, but with age and use it becomes fuzzy and warped until it can no longer be replayed.

Installation view of ‘No Sharps, No Flats’ at Transformer Gallery

If the tapes represent the deterioration of the mind, then tape players can be seen as the body. In No Sharps, No Flats, the boom boxes, too, have been corrupted with age. They still work, pretty much, but no one wants them. Once sheathed in hard, shiny plastic and on proud display for sale in Radio Shack windows, the machines have been beat up, forgotten in storage, or scrapped. The artists effectively take aging one visceral step further by reducing the tape players to nothing but their wire skeletons.

It’s clear that the only dangerous trap in No Sharps, No Flats is time, which will eventually get the best of all of us, both humans and machines. Until then, let the music play.

No Sharps, No Flats continues at Transformer Gallery (1404 P Street, NW Washington, DC) through April 30. 

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