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University Liege, 2013.

Loops , Memories and Meanings.

I’m not looking for balance, I’m making a negative case. The issues are complex but I just want to draw particular attention to implications that are usually ignored or glossed over since, I think, the short loop – the obvious loop – is a key to the knottier question of the loop in general, which in turn speaks to the wider social phenomenon of an accelerating loss of presence.



First I should clarify what I mean by a loop:

To be consciously performed, or recognised, repetition requires recall because, for us, repetition is a function of memory. But it’s an inescapable fact that human memory is by its nature profoundly unreliable so - whatever our intentions - acts of repetition are inevitably realized as a chain of uncontrollable mutations. I can say it this way: since all human action is locked into a present that is always immediately lost and can never be recovered, repetition is inevitably a process of creative reconstruction because, although we may try to repeat something, there’s no way to know whether we have failed or succeeded since there’s never anything left of any original to which our rendition might be compared. At least there wasn’t until sound recording delivered the loop. No kind of re-performance, a loop is a mindless, mechanical re-iteration; an artefact, not an activity. Since their discovery, loops have quietly colonisied the aural arts, releasing in the process a powerful corrosive that has progressively unsettled all of our inherited experiential, existential and theoretical musical routines.

In this short talk, I want to argue that loops change us because, even though they may sound like the riffs and repetitions of traditional music, they are not. Loops are the walking dead - and it’s this side of their personality that I want us to be more aware of.


It’s 1875 - and what do we think we know about the ontology of sound? We know it has no substance; we know it has no permanence; we know it does have duration and quality, and we know that we encounter it as an event or a process but never as a thing. And since we know that sound exists only in the present, we also know that any sense we may have of its articulation or continuity must - in fact – be an artefact of psychic, or somatic, memory.

That’s my first statement: music, narrative and structure are perceived and created only through the action of memory. And when that memory is biological, then repetition is necessarily re-creation since, if I remember a tune and sing it again, I am bound by nature to rebuild it, because that’s the way biological memory works.  And it has, in part at least, been through this faulty mechanism that music - in the absence of writing –lived and evolved, since the immediate context of our recollections makes us instinctively bias our reconstruction to the aesthetic benefit of the situation we are remembering in[1]. This is why - in every form of music mediated by biological memory - forgetting has been a vital engine of change. It is also why, in a universe of immediate presence, although there may be endless repetitions there can never be loops because, so long as human agency is involved, the same thing is always going to be different. As Heraclitus has it: ‘no man can step twice into the same river.’

Loops, on the other hand, are the expression of an altogether different form of memory: an inhuman form. Where biological systems are creative but unreliable, mechanical or electronic systems are mindless but unerringly accurate.

And this makes them spookily fascinating.[2]


Although loops occurred, mostly accidentally - from the beginning of recording history, in general they were regarded as unwanted malfunctions and avoided or ignored.  I think it’s fair to say that intentional – and aesthticised - loops only appeared in the sonic arts at around the same time that multiples appeared in the visual arts - that is, in the early 1960s. And certainly there were superficial resemblances between the two since both lived through accumulated iterations of the same event or object. Multiples, however, have their root in simultaneous presentation, while loops work through a disruptive sequentiality. Space is the medium of the multiple, time the medium of the loop. And while multiples open our sense of space, loops close our sense of time.

It’s this closing that sets my alarm bells ringing.

Welcome aboard this short flight into the future and the first fully automated and pilotless service. Please relax, ladies and gentlemen, this plane is protected by no fewer than nine failsafe systems and nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…

Now we know we’re in trouble.

It’s hard not to notice, isn’t it, that the iconography of the loop – especially in its short form - is infused with a sense of madness, futility and death? A camera panning from a corpse on the floor to a gramophone needle stuck in an endless groove; that beat-up truck with its locked steering wheel trundling around in a mindless circle at the end of Werner Herzog’s Strozzek; Vincent Van Gogh’s depiction of The Exercise Yard with its hopeless ring of prisoners grimly trudging around in an endless loop… to quote the Chorus in TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion: ‘We do not like to walk out of a door and find ourselves back in the same room’

What that stuck record seems to express instinctively is the fact that while time rolls forward for the living, the dead remain frozen in the past. Unable to move on, they are powerless to act and now can only be acted upon. You could say that a loop marks the point at which an infinity of possibilities collapses into one, mindless, inevitability. And while the real world goes on about its business, whatever gets trapped in a loop goes nowhere. As Ludwig Wittgenstein observed: ‘a wheel that turns and nothing turns with it, is not part of the mechanism’.


Loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop.

If you repeat anything for long enough, it quickly disintegrates into meaningless noise. And since our brains are programmed to blank out information that doesn’t change – apart from pain – that information will quietly cease to be significant. So, at first, a loop is an irritant and then it becomes a kind of disorientating drone; finally it turns into a species of semiotic silence.

Such is the ontology of the death loop.

Let’s call the death loop an extreme case, because of course loops come in many forms. I’ve concentrated on the obvious - because its obvious - but the picture becomes both more complicated and more instructive if we take one step back. After all, whenever we listen to any recording, we are listening to a loop because, without exception, recordings are, by definition, sonic revenants brought technologically back to a simulacrum of life. Even if that’s not how we think of them; generally we feel very positive about recordings: we think they have changed our lives for the better because they have made it possible for us to have instant access to any sounds we want, whenever, wherever and as many times as we want them. More than that, recordings have finally given sound a history and have made that history universally available. Far from thinking of them as dead things, we think of them recordings as miraculous extensions of life. So perhaps it’s worth probing a little further into the ontological implications of the power to record?


A sound is an event. That means it unfolds in time. A picture or a novel is an object. That means it exists in space. The visual arts, therefore, concentrate on the construction of things – the building of fixed objects independent of their authors’ bodies. Writers and painters construct rafts to ferry their creations across time and take as read the continuing accessibility of those works to be studied, copied and consulted. In these media, artists produce in full awareness of the permanence of their work.

Musicians and composers, on the other hand, orientate themselves toward the production of events; their goal is to aestheticise finite but precious durations of shared time. For them, performance and body are inseparable and they produce in the full awareness that nothing of what they do will survive its execution – other than in the form of unreliable echoes precariously embedded in the memories of whatever witnesses are physically present.

So far, so straightforward - until 1877 when the transubstantiation of sound into a species of object effected by the invention of sound recording, brought the sonic arts to a kind of parity with the visual arts. Unlike a performance, a recording is an object. And it will endure.[3] I agree it’s not an ordinary object because its existence is temporal rather than spatial. So let’s call it an event-object.

With the advent of the event-object sound could - for the very first time in human history - be approached – and, more importantly, be thought about - as a material; as a thing that could be moulded, free of the flow of time, until it was ready to be frozen into a permanent work, a work which, like a painting, could then be copied, consulted and accumulated. And it’s this enormous benefit that informs the general understanding of what recording means, and not the rather academic and theoretical recognition of its deadness and existential absence. Of course, there have been Cassandras who - like Plato in the face of writing - warn of its destructive influence, but in general it’s hard to see past the obvious benefits that recordings bring in their train. But today, as recordings accumulate beyond enumeration and as the legions of the dead begin conspicuously to outnumber the living, some of their more dubious and antisocial effects are beginning slowly to be felt. Should we worry? Aren’t novels just as dead as recordings? Hasn’t reading been a solitary activity for thousands of years? Is there anyone here who misses epic storytelling ? Of course not, because that world is lost and long forgotten. But the social reality of what Christopher Small called musicking[4] is still very much with us - and we are still able to see, as Plato saw in the early years of writing, exactly what is being lost as well as what is being gained as we adapt ourselves to the demands of the new technology.

In fact, for millennia, musicking played a pre-eminent part in the expression and re-entrenchment of social being, since it works intrinsically through entrainment which is about as linked as human beings get. Indeed, until recently entrainment was thought to be a uniquely human biological adaptation: since only we, it was said, can hear or see a rhythm and lock into it, only we move in time, keep in step and align ourselves to things that are not ourselves, to arrive, collectively, at shared operating tempi that unite and bind us [as a species][5]. The efficacy of conversations and the practicalities of physical navigation, for instance, are built on such consensual rhythms - of which music and dance form our most harmonious and evolved expression. Hence, of course, their central place in the practice of ritual, religion and virtually all formal and informal social ceremonial.

It is this loss of social engagement – mirroring the solipsisms of the i-phone, the i-pad, the i-pod, the computer and the myriad selfish pleasures that today’s flesh is heir to – that our collective intelligence is beginning now to register. It’s clear for instance, that recordings have played a significant role in the fragmentation endemic in contemporary life. It’s in the nature of recordings, after all, that there's nobody there. Added to which the instant availability of recordings on demand leaves little sense of occasion attached to the musical experience, while their perfectibility has led to invidious comparisons with live performances. And since we can turn recordings on and off at will - and pick and choose what we listen to - there is increasingly less call to exercise the already too rare generosity of aesthetic hospitality.


In the course of the last half-century, I have watched the Western world steadily move away from what was still – in the late 1960s - a fairly integrated musical culture, the broad contours of which would have been familiar to any generally interested citizen. Today, by contrast, we face an impenetrable thicket of specialised subcultures, most of which we know nothing about and will never encounter even by accident. So, yes – there is much more information - and much, much more music - out there, but it’s already so much that nobody can keep up even with a fraction of it. And in the face of such excess our focus tends to narrow since the same is easy to access and is duplicated endlessly, while the different is obscured and silenced underneath a chaos of noise. This is no reason to come over all luddite, but neither is it something we can safely ignore. If we are going to jump into a volcano let’s do it  - like Empedocles - knowing what we are up to, rather than just because we’re too lazy to look where we’re going. Don’t get me wrong. I love recordings. And the world is better place because of them. But there’s no dodging the fact that they represent an army of the dead. For now, it’s an army we still control, so it’s more like an army of zombies, that is, dead things that are doing our bidding. And certainly, for composers and performers, recording has appeared as an almost unprecedented  boon. I can now craft sounding objects without the now-or-never breath of time setting fire to my shirt; I can compose with my own performances - in fact I can compose with anybody’s performances - or even with the wind and the rain and the sound of traffic[6]. In the span of a few decades, recording has created entirely novel aesthetic fields such as sound art, soundscape, electronic and concrete musics, installations and plunderphonia - immeasurably expanding our aesthetic horizons. Music, once the only sonic art, is now just one of many - all of which flow from the ability to capture and petrify sound.

So the things that are great about recordings – that they are unable to forget and unable to adapt - are also what is dangerous in them: I’ll hit my instrument one way in cathedral and another way in the living room, but the recorded me just bashes on regardless of where it is. Recordings are a one-way street: we listen to them while they remain completely deaf to us.  We have to listen on their terms, not ours; and we can exercise choice but not influence. But it remains a very benign form of dictatorship with extraordinary offsetting benefits. And since we control the on-off switch, recording is a loop that I am happy wholeheartedly to embrace. While being mindful. We should still approach recordings with an awareness of their dual nature and the recognition that they are reorganizing our minds and our culture. The less cognisant we are of that, the more the changes will go their way, which is the way of absence.  


Nevertheless, I think recordings per se, while they come with caveats, are hardly the death loops of popular iconography. And neither is simple repetition, which forms the basis of most jazz, rock, and popular music.  So what is it about these short, regular, unmodified, mechanical reiterations that I find not only intellectually but viscerally bothersome? I think it’s the way they throw their deadness in my face. Riffs and beats are human repetitions and they speak to the present – loops are not and do not. In fact, loops willfully ignore the present, and everybody in it.

Perhaps that’s why so many of the early loop explorers - while still investigating the unique possibilities of the new phenomenon, worked so hard to undermine their essential loopness? I think of Steve Reich’s tape phasing pieces, in which two identical loops – either of which would quickly become intensely boring if heard alone – are marginally offset to produce a constantly modulating and engaging river of sound; or Alvin Lussier’s I am sitting in a Room, which uses room acoustics and tape degradation to similar effect; or the work of Pierre Shaeffer and Harry Chamberlin, who looped single sounds, not so much to repeat as to extend them, turning short percussive noises into longer, unusual, pitches; or Terry Riley, who piled loops on top of one another to create constantly modulating textures. The list is long.[7]

The naked, brutal, looping that concerns me here only came later, when the deadness of loops ceased to be a quality to be undermined and became – like deafening volume or quantized rhythms – a thing to be accepted and embraced for what it was.

And strangest of all in some ways was the way that, from the late 1970s onwards, loops came to dominate dance music. Late disco, techno, house, rave, hip-hop and their endless variations and tributaries were all built on the back of loops.[8] As a spur to dancing it seemed that the young and the would-be young preferred their music to be mechanical, inhuman and unforgiving. Certainly, that’s what brought them back together en masse to the dance-floor. Not rock, not salsa, not African pop, not bands of any sort or any of the many musics performed by human beings - but automated, programmed beats - with or without a human topping. I can’t believe this is accidental. There seems to me to be a clear shift away from the old socialised desire to be part of a mutual enrichment of time - which is what happens when musicians play for dancers – to the desire to be held in a spinning cage somewhere outside the rush of time; a cage from which, as individuals, we are unable, temporarily, to shake free. Indeed, the more we shake the more helplessly we become embedded. The attraction seems no longer to experience human-to-human entrainment, but rather human-to-machine entrainment. That is to say, not to adjust, locally, to one another  in unique configurations, but to be entrained at a distance to a universal template. In this, the brutalism of loops seems not to be incidental but instrumental since, from the human side, the goal is not socialization or musical appreciation, but a kind of controlled obliteration.


One possibility is that priming the psychic immune system to survive in a world made by zombies and computers might require such a lethal cocktail of deafening jackhammer precision and relentless repetition. But at this point, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish malady from cure.

[1] Hence genuine aural folk music (if any still exists) is always contemporary music. Jon Rose, personal correspondence.

[2] It was, after all, a stuck record that reportedly led Pierre Schaeffer to the mediations and experiments that came to fruit in the invention of Musique Concrete – a discipline in which loops came to play a prominent and important role.


[3] Subject to the availability of reproduction technology, durability of materials and, if necessary copying or transferring to new media.


[4]To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing. We might at times even extend its meaning to what the person is doing who takes the tickets at the door or the hefty men who shift the piano and the drums or the roadies who set up the instruments and carry out the sound checks or the cleaners who clean up after everyone else has gone. They, too, are all contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance’. Christopher Small; Musicking.

[5] More recent research has shown that some birds and a scattering of other animals, elephants, for instance, also exhibit this ability, in particular those capable of vocal mimicry, which may be a precondition for rhythmic entrainment. Research is still at a relatively early stage.

[6] Or you can. There’s no time to go into this here but recording conspires – amongst many other options it hold out – with the Cagean notion that it is the listener and not the composer who should make the music. This overturns all communicative norms, and conspires in its turn with a gradual shift, accelerating as the century progresses, away from the simple acceptance of the primacy of social meaning and toward an exaggerated sense of equality of choice.  Leaving  aleatorics – an obvious relinquishment of meaning – aside, here is a deeper, and so far generally ignored, implication: in an interview, Cage said that he recorded a walk in the park, which he listened to over and over again for weeks. It became a composition for him, in the sense that he knew what was coming next – he could sing along. I other words, recordings provide the means by which a listener alone can turn the most unintentional and random of sounds into a composition, just by listening repeatedly until the sound carves itself into memory. No intentional or communicative input is required. I still hear musicologists authoritatively asserting that musical effects work through the operation of subverting expectation: we are led to anticipate X and we hear Y. But in the age of loops, this is manifest nonsense: its musical affect works precisely because we do know exactly what’s coming next.


[7] Though it is significant that these were still analogue loops, as faulty and fallible as the technologies that drove them: records are scratchy and don’t always jump at the same spot; tapes deteriorate and fluctuate: nothing runs at a perfect speed - and the content of a loop is an impression taken directly from its source: linear and continuous, like a face pressed into wax. The new loops, the improved loops, are digital, flawless and have no moving parts - and the sounds they reiterate are no longer direct impressions but scan-based analyses, coded in ones and zeros, that constitute a recipe – a set of instructions – that programme the electronic reconstruction of the sound analysed. A digital file, curiously, is more like a score: a set of instructions - except that now no human interpreter is required to sonify them. Like a biological memory, a digital memory doesn’t take an impression but reconstructs what it remembers, only with no human input – infallible and mindless.  


[8] The four to the floor beat, at 120 bpm cuts the loop time down to 500Ms. That’s enough to drive you mad.



As I recall, there were many conversations; a lot of them centred around "free", but I noticed that although - or because - we could do what we liked, no one much cared. How free we were was only a perspective - another was that to be ignored might be as draining, and as effectively neutralizing, as being proscribed. The relative luxury we experienced of being at no physical risk seemed to come at the cost of a kind of immateriality, while, in those places where stepping outside the boundaries of what was officially acceptable brought serious existential consequences. The kind of consequences that could affect your entire life, even your physical freedom. Refusal to conform appeared to carry considerably more weight, on both sides of the artist-state divide. In fact, the evident bother misfits gave the apparat was one of the things that made what they did matter so much - one of those rare instances of power that police and politicians occasionally - and usually inadvertently - lend their critics. Artists knew that there were at least two minorities who would take them very seriously indeed, in spite of the fact that they might be restricted to, say, only two concerts a year, both of them unofficial and both to an invited, private, audience - a circumstance that might appear from the outside to indicate a terrible defeat. But the immense resonance those two concerts had - the extent to which they could really matter - tells another story altogether. There were certainly musicians from the anything-goes 'free-world' who would have given almost anything to be taken as seriously as that. On the other hand, how many of them would have been prepared to pay the price? That's the strength of difficulty. To be brutal, such high costs act as a filter, a powerful environmental mechanism that eliminates all but the most serious, or the most driven, of artists: the ones who are unable not to do what they have to do.

In order to agree to pay, there has first to be some compensating satisfaction. Money is easy to understand, or fame. But what kind of satisfaction is there that can compensate someone for being harassed, censured, ostracized, even imprisoned? For most sensible get-along sort of people, the answer is none. Likewise for those with fame, cash or career in mind: in fact anyone unable to understand that it might be unthinkable not to put your nose out of joint for music or art. Or solidarity.

In a way, then, one could argue that the E-W art fracture didn't just run along the line of freedom and proscription (as Westerners tended to see it), but equally, and maybe more essentially, along the line of need and cost. This is the line where the unwilling step back the minute the price goes up too much. In fact I suspect this probably constitutes an evolutionary mechanism since it's universal; only the nature of the obstacles confronted actually varies according to circumstance. Fifteen years ago, we could divide around which of these fractures exercised us most. Today the first has gone: all overt opposition has evaporated and, along with it, the clarity and focus it once engendered. Now all of us have to deal with indifference and market forces. Nothing is proscribed any longer, it's just ignored.


The E-W border was porous - but in one direction only; it was more like osmosis than diffusion, with information flowing essentially West to East and not back.

On my first visit to Prague, I remember being amazed at how informed about Western culture an interested circle of people was, and not only about what was popular and overground, but unpopular and underground as well. On the other hand, I knew almost nothing of what was going on in any of their half-dozen countries. In the free world, information was supposed to be just lying around waiting for someone to pick it up. It may have been there, but it was left pretty much undisturbed while, in Prague, information was valued to the extent that anything of interest was immediately copied and circulated. Eastern cultures had a far more social, and less commodified, approach to knowledge; it was an approach born not merely out of scarcity but also from a real sense of community. This was always rather a hard fact for Westerners to grasp, since community was a category we had more or less succeeded in eradicating - or at least rendering incomprehensible (that's why we fantasize about it so remorselessly). Quite as much, then, as the obvious and insidious differences in working conditions, it was this social grounding, this sense of responsibility, that divided the experience of Eastern and Western artists, or at least that came out in those rare moments when they had an opportunity to communicate.

The community I encountered in Prague was not - like our small networks of friends at home - a loose gathering of musicians and artists. It also took in mathematicians, dissidents, physicists, architects, Christians, philosophers, drunks and presidents-in-waiting. Not an intelligentsia exactly, but a collection of people bound by their desire to be in and of a wider world denied them; people who refused to have their lives defined by idiots. While they worked in full knowledge of the world outside (although of course dealing with their own problems first), no comparable flow returned to the West, whose vision was, paradoxically, made narrower and smaller by an official belief in the theoretical availability of everything on demand (rather like smokers who will never quit because they know they can quit any time they want). It is a sad fact that knowledge of the possibility of infinite access makes actual access less urgent, and obscures the fact that the marginal is always and inevitably inaccessible without work. (It is a lesson coming around again as the 'total access' internet gears up for business). What is really accessible - however much it is dressed up as choice - is only what is obvious. It appears different from dictat because the mechanisms of its delivery (advertising, media, money) are more subtle, and therefore less visible, than official exclusion or propaganda. Ours is a better system of control and censure, built on smoke and mirrors, rather than sticks and bars. It makes our future sausages so secure they can be trusted to run the abattoir on their own.

Important things were happening in the East, but we ignored them. Mostly out of arrogance: we just knew we didn't need to know. Like colonialists declining to learn the local language while dismissing the bilingual (usually multilingual) natives as ignorant savages. Just so in the eighties; it was denigrated Easterners who acted out of knowledge while incurious Westerners remained ignorant of the wider picture. This is an oversimplification of course, but behind it lies an important, and unfinished story - as CDs such as New Czech Music of the 60s' demonstrate. At least one can say that there is a great work of recuperation still to be completed.

What the few - the outsiders - shared; both in the East and in the West (not that they saw that way) was their marginalisation, their symmetrical rejection each of their own systems and, at a deeper level, of the tyranny in general of all Procrustean structures. Both, typically, also displayed an exaggerated sympathy for the regime the other rejected. I recall on that first visit to Prague having a long discussion with Vaclav Havel in which he told me how terrible socialism was and how wonderful Ronald Reagan and the market economy were - while I was busy explaining to him how terrible Western politics and market economies were and how I thought, for all its faults, socialism had to be the better way. My general observation now is that (Havel aside) friends who were oppositional in the old regime find themselves oppositional in the new. And that, I think, is one of the things we all had - and still have - in common.

September 2000


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