I first met Seungmin Cha back in 2010, a Daegeum (Traditional Korean Bamboo Flute) player who was visiting New York as a recipient of a government funded cultural exchange grant. I had attended her concert at the old Roulette and immediately fell in love with the fragile yet deep sound poetry that was overwhelmingly mesmerizing. When I asked to see the score after the concert, she handed me a stack of papers that was on her music stand saying; “You can keep them if you want. It’s all in my head.” It reminded me of the scene from Amadeus where Salieri meets Mozart for the first time. The score was one of a kind as there were small sections of music cut and pasted into the score. During her stay in New York, she attended as many concerts as she possibly could, meeting and improvising with musicians. I was fortunate enough to have been one of them. As the date set for her departure drew near, she asked my advice on which looping device to buy. She returned home with a suitcase full of gear.
One of the biggest musical innovations of the last century came about when the idea of repeating short musical motives (a practice made popular by minimalist composers: Reich, Riley, Young) was met by technologies that enabled musicians to record and play back instantly. In the 40s tape machines were used by electroacoustic composers (Schaffer, Stockhausen, Varese) as a sound source. In the 60s composers used tape loops to create phasing (same loops played at different speed so what starts out as a unison, slowly drifts apart and phases out of sync and very gradually back into phase). Loop-based music is more about the process rather than the end result. It requires time, energy and most of all patience both by the performers and audiences. One has to be willing to sit through a long performance of a repetitive sounds. Sometimes the transcendental rewards make it all worthwhile. As John Cage once famously said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
I am sitting in a room (1969) by Alvin Lucier is a classic example of loop based music. Here the American experimental composer recites a short text which is recorded and then played back into the room, which gets recorded and played back again and again until the spoken text is no longer audible and we are essentially left with series of resonance frequencies unique to the acoustic properties of the room. He later does the same thing with an orchestra in a concert hall in Exploration of the House (2005) where the same process is repeated with excerpts from Beethoven’s overture The Consecration of the House as source materials. William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loop Series (2002-2003) is another example. In this work, a tape loop slowly decays as it deteriorates each time it passes the tape head, the ferrite detaching from the plastic backing creates more and more gaps and cracks in the music, eventually sound disappears into silence resulting in the death of music.
Loop pedals and computer softwares have replaced tape machines and old samplers making it affordable and convenient for solo artists to create layers of tracks in real time. The mainstream saw comedian and musician Reggie Watts performing on national television using loopers to build a backing track with beatboxing and hums upon which he sings and raps. Multi instrumentalist Bora Yoon uses a looping device to create an ethereal sonic soundscape while Seungmin Cha uses loops to create minimalist backdrop for her solo pieces. These are some of the unique creations one encounters when journeying down the Loop-based rabbit hole. Happy listening!
John Chang is a composer and a guitarist born in Korea, raised in Montreal and now based in New York City. He is founder of Bodies Electric, an electric guitar quartet.