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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. 

Margaret Carrigan

Margaret Carrigan is a New York-based writer with a penchant for art, architecture, cats, cooking, and 20-minute YouTube yoga videos. She holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She didn't do well on the LSAT,...

22 replies on “A Cassette-Based Symphony that Erodes with Time”

  1. Could be an interesting show, but the review is so taken with the machinery (a millenial, as stated) that absolutely no assessment is made of the sound on the tapes, and an ill informed (read: unexperienced) take on the machines to boot. When a tape player clicks and stops it’s because the tape needs to be flipped, not because it’s broken. It’s even possible one of the decks had a speed adjustment on it that you triggered to make the tape speed slow. It’s less likely the deck just magically changed speed. I’m glad to see sound work being reviewed here, but as with any other medium, it would do to have a working knowledge of the material and discourse. Thanks for your work and research, but please review the sound in a sound art show, not just the technology!

    And a side note, it’s okay and proper to use the first person pronoun when describing your experience, rather than attempting to universalize it using ‘one’.

    1. It’s also ok and proper to not use the first-person pronoun when describing an experience. Both forms are fine, understandable. What’s not ok, however, is being a pedantic ass/fascist enforcer of colloquial writing.

      Additionally, did you even read the story homie?

      1. I guess I forgot which pedantic form was telling me what my experience was going to be when I went back to add that note, my mistake. My concern there still stands. Using ‘you’ when describing an experience isn’t colloquial, it’s imposing and assumptive. Especially when I felt like that assumption is that no one has ever actually used a tape player…

        1. This is so interesting to me! I chose to use “you” for the reasons you outlined above, as a way of strage-ifying cassette usage, to make it seem more long ago and novel than it is.

          1. which I don’t mean glibly. this work is entirely predicated on individual experience. I felt it would be more interesting for readers to have to imagine themselves pressing the buttons and whatnot than reading about me pressing buttons.

          2. Until we imagine the fun you’re having with it and then it’s stepping into another’s shoes which is even better, imho. I love everything about this. This is what the net was designed for. I’m even older now. DAMN IT. I pressed my own buttons.

          3. I’ve got no problem with journalist taking artistic license so long as we’re in on it. See the skeleton story for perspective. Good job. This is awesome and makes the trouble with archeological “outliers” as an argument so much more clear than anyone could inorganically. Thank you, Hyperallergic. and Maggie!

          4. This is awesome. You’ve aged the machinery for the artist by being so genuine about it. Well done.

            And I feel really old now.

    2. Interesting points, Ryan! I agree that sound should be reviewed in sound art review and perhaps I should have elaborated on “cacophonic” and “jubilant.” To be clear, though, as a rather old millennial I did actually use cassettes back in the day, so I can say with some authority that a few buttons did indeed pop back up prior to the tape’s end. I don’t know if there were any speed adjustments, but since the artists explicitly stated they were interested in how the machines would break down over the course of the exhibition, I assumed there were none. Additionally, their interest in the machines is was prompted by deeper consideration of them rather than just the sound.

  2. As long as you use them correctly and keep your player clean, cassettes work fine and sound better than anything coming out of a computer. I have cassette tapes that are 30 years old that play and sound righteous. My husband just found two “factory” cassettes (manufactured by the record company, not home-taped) in a thrift store yesterday that are from the 1970s that play loud and clear.

    Making it more difficult than it has to be sounds like an effort to exoticize the whole thing; fine, as long as the added drama isn’t being used to prop up a “thin” show. I wouldn’t make this accusation without visiting the show in person, of course. It’s difficult to review (or assess, as a reader) something that relies on sound in a print article.

    1. The tapes are not the machines – I believe the piece is about the deterioration of machines, not the cog within the machine. Cogs won’t do much at all if they’re not moving in a box. Including sound very good.

  3. Dissonance from decaying mechanical apparatus — isn’t this awfully retro? I mean, it’s been done a few (thousand) times, no? It doesn’t seem very exciting. Maybe as a home project for the decaying-machinery buff, sure, but in a gallery?

    1. The best part is right here, m’thinks. (a colloquialism we old folks use) But hearing it would be really great I agree with pitpua.

      1. Well, I’ve got a decaying cassette deck, only half of it works, and a couple of boxes of decaying cassettes. Plus there’s me…. ‘That which the eye sees is burning. That which sees through the eye is burning. The eye itself is burning.’ (Mr. Shakyamuni in one of his moods.)

  4. Interesting, certainly. But William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops are all you really need.

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