a short history of the tape delay:
A tape delay is a process of recording a signal on an analogue tape and and playing it back from the same piece of tape through the use of two different record and replay heads. The distance between the tape heads and the speed of the tape govern the length of delay. Recording on one tape recorder with the tape (rather than going to the take-up spool) physically fed to the heads of a second recorder and onto that take-up spool can create a delay of 3 seconds upwards, maybe as much as 40 seconds (dependent on tape speed and the ability of the machines to cope with the weight and drag of the tape). If the replay signal is fed back to the record machine, a system of automatic repetition and layering builds up in cycles over the delay time.
The development of this (now classic) technique should properly be credited to the composer Pauline Oliveros who was at Mills College *, California in the early sixties (alongside Steve Reich and Terry Riley). Oliveros' use of the technique was primarily as a means to collage sound using the cycle of the delay as a rhythmic grid. Terry Riley first used the technique while recording in Paris in 1963 and developed it with more harmonically conventional areas than were common within Oliveros' music (or within electronic music generally) at that time. The first of Riley's Keyboard Studies using the system was composed in 1964, Riley's subsequent exploration of the system over many concerts and recordings provided me with an introduction to the possibilities of this way of working.
The British experimentalists, then mainly centred around the activities of Cornelius Cardew, were, for various reasons, not particularly interested in recording, preferring to deal with the idea of the moment of performance. There was a general awareness of Riley's work and it is probably through his connection with Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra that Brian Eno would have encountered the technique. His first public use of the process was his soundtrack to Malcolm LeGrice's film 'Berlin Horse' (1970) and most notably with Robert Fripp on their influential 'No Pussyfooting' (1973).
My own first work with this system includes a series of pieces on the (currently deleted) album 'Grey Scale', the first release on Piano in 1976. Since then I seem to have used the process or some close relation on almost every record I've made, and although the process is specifically explored on 'Voiceworks' there are multiple applications in quite different contexts - two examples:
The Secret Dub Life of The Flying Lizards (1996) which explores the system applied to rhythm tracks and rhythmic loops.
Michael Nyman's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) where, within the track 'An Eye for Optical Theory', the cumulative delay on John Harle's soprano saxophone is integrated into the rhythmic and harmonic structure of Nyman's modified Purcell, the process used mostly for textural reasons.
There is a similar use on the title track of Nyman's CD 'The Kiss', allowing a texture resonant of a Mantovani string section to develop out of two violins.
* see also:
David Cunningham - voiceworks
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© david cunningham 1996