by James Brubaker
February 1, 2013
I first met Jason Zeh when I was an undergraduate at Bowling Green State University. He was a friend of a friend, a townie who worked at a coffee shop called Grounds for Thought. Zeh also made strange music. I was just starting to appreciate experimental music at the time, so I don’t even know how I would have classified Zeh’s work from this period. He had a sampler, and I’m pretty sure he did some tape manipulation, and he swayed over his gear, pushing buttons and twiddling knobs as the sound pulsed, thrummed, and shrieked around him. To this day, I don’t know if Zeh’s early performances and compositions should be classified as noise, electronic, process, or all/none of the above—but that doesn’t matter.
My favorite of Zeh’s performances from those days took place in a Frisch’s Big Boy smoking section. I don’t remember how this performance came about, but after midnight on a balmy, Ohio night, deep into the summer when Zeh was home from his studies at Miami of Ohio’s Western Campus, he loaded up some of his gear and we drove to Big Boy with our friend George. The Big Boy in Bowling Green had a side room, partitioned from the main floor by glass doors and windows so that it could be the only restaurant in The Black Swamp where patrons could still smoke after the Ohio smoking ban went into effect. This is important: the separation of the smoking section from the restaurant proper provided a buffer between the performance that was about to happen and any potentially disapproving managers back in the kitchen.
I was on good terms with most of the waitstaff at this Big Boy, so I probably ordered food and told them what was about to go down. I don’t really remember. But a few moments after we arrived, right there in the corner of the smoking room, Zeh set up his sampler and a few other bits of gear and played a short set, ten or fifteen minutes of warped textures and bent notes that washed over Big Boy’s patrons. Perhaps unsurprisingly—the restaurant’s smoking section after midnight was largely populated by goths, punks, drunks, and hipsters—Zeh’s impromptu performance didn’t raise many eyebrows, but still, it felt special. There, in that weird little smoking section at the edge of that weird little town, Zeh made some beautiful sounds, his impossibly skinny frame hunched over his gear, swaying arhythmically against his music’s mechanical pulse; his long, stringy, blonde hair bobbing to whatever internal tempo was driving the music.
What happened next? I probably ate a grilled cheese sandwich then we went to somebody’s house, I don’t remember whose, and burnt a handful of 3” CD’s of the performance, folded them into the paper placemats from the restaurant—advertising Big Boy’s new X-Stream fish menu—and Zeh had a new release to give away or sell for a couple of bucks to the willing. I don’t remember how long all of this took, but I think I remember finishing as the sun came up.
…we are able to have perspective enough to perceive its unique traits and we are removed enough from it that we can see through the nostalgia. This opens up aesthetic possibilities with tape that were unavailable to us previously.
I’m telling this story now because, while Zeh’s approach to music has changed over the years, I sense something of that strange, ecstatic night in his current processes. Processes, of course, being the key word. Now, Zeh’s music is very much concerned with experimentation, process, and the mechanical limitations of tape. Recently, Zeh recorded the sound of a cheap tape recorder melting while held over a candle. Another of his projects is concerned with the “inaudible electromagnetic fields” produced by tape recorders.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to Jason Zeh in six or seven years, so I decided it was time to catch up with my old friend and ask him about some of his current and recent projects. What follows is the result of an interview conducted via email.
The Fiddleback: Your work largely revolves around tape manipulation. What interests you about this medium?
Jason Zeh: A lot of times people seem to think that focusing on tape, either for releasing music or for making music, is primarily based on nostalgia. Many people have a very teleological concept of recorded media and recording technologies: that we are all working toward two goals. The first is convenience and the second is a perfect transparency of the medium so that the listener can hear a faithful representation of the sound as intended. When these values are assumed to be the obvious, right, ones, the only other logical explanation for sticking with tape is nostalgia or simply being contrarian. My approach to using tape to produce and release music that is largely divorced from nostalgia. I have been thinking a lot lately about why I believe tape technology is relevant to artistic practice now. There are so many other technologies that are more flexible, and that produce a cleaner result. So, why would someone stick with this outmoded and incredibly frustrating medium?
JZ: For me, there are specific characteristics of analogue, magnetic, tape that make it profoundly engaging and ripe for nearly endless exploration. I think that we go through a few phases in our attitudes toward the idiosyncrasies of a medium or technology. Maybe that is an unfairly broad statement, but I think it is accurate in the case of tape. First: The technology seems novel. The unique characteristics are weird and new. Perhaps it is valued for its utility. Second: It becomes ubiquitous. The unique characteristics of it are so prevalent that it is hard for us to perceive them.
Third: It becomes inadequate. Something new comes along that makes the technology seem outdated. Fourth: It makes us nostalgic. We reject the new technology in favor of the older thing that we used to love. I think that this is the assumption that many people make about those who cling to vinyl records when digital media are so much more convenient and the widespread availability of lossless file formats makes the criticisms of mp3 largely irrelevant. Certainly, the re-emergence of cassettes is often looked at with serious skepticism.
JZ: Tape is at this place where it is no longer ubiquitous. So, we are able to have perspective enough to perceive its unique traits and we are removed enough from it that we can see through the nostalgia. This opens up aesthetic possibilities with tape that were unavailable to us previously. When it was the best tool available, it was used to make an attempt at achieving transparency. Its use was utilitarian. My goal with tape is to push it as far as I can to help it reveal new sonic possibilities. At this point, I see tape as a medium like any other: paint, guitar, computer. Like all other media or instruments, it has its own possibilities, limitations, attributes, and conceptual associations.
The Fiddleback: Would you describe your work as process music?
JZ: Yes, in a way. Process is incredibly important in my work. But, my understanding of the term “process music,” as it is used by music scholars, is that there is something in the composition that makes the process of creating the score obvious to a trained listener. It is possible that I am misunderstanding that usage of the term or that the meaning of the term is debatable. But, that is sort of my point. I am not trained as a musician. I am not sure that I would know how to interpret a piece of process music in that way. That said, I am heavily involved in process. I am fascinated by trying out new ways to wrestle with tape in order to get it to do new things. I think that you can hear the process in some cases. For instance, a loop is obvious. It is sometimes clear when I splice things together and the pieces sort of slurp together. Playing with tape speed or wrinkled tape is pretty easy to identify. But a lot of the sounds I use are so heavily processed that it would be nearly impossible for anyone outside of myself to identify the process.
But the process is super important. I sit in a room with my tools and try some things out. The result of that experiment gives me clues about where to go next. There is always a struggle in the process. It is very collaborative: kind of like a process of translation or cross cultural encounter. I have things that I am trying to say. But, the tapes have things that they are trying to say as well. It is my job to help them find a voice and to try to make something worthwhile out of the result.
The Fiddleback: Now, for Heraclitus, if I’ve read correctly, you recorded the sound of a tape melting over a candle? How did this idea develop?
JZ: That is right. This was something that I just sort of tried and it produced some results that I didn’t really anticipate. I was recording and decided to see what would happen if I held the tape recorder over a candle flame. As I got it closer to the flame, I began to notice this high-pitched squealing sound. I wasn’t sure why it was producing that sound exactly, but I noticed the shell of the cassette was melting a bit and it could have been putting pressure on the tape as it was passing through. But, as soon as I moved the tape recorder away from the flame, the sound began to stop. The plastic around the built in microphone also began to melt a bit. So, I thought that maybe the heat from the candle might have been interfering with the functioning of the microphone. Either way, the result was really interesting to me.
The Fiddleback: How long did the recording last?
JZ: The recording of that source material lasted only about five minutes. You can hear the raw recording in the first five minutes of that CD. From there, I processed the sound in a variety of ways to produce the entire sound palette for the rest of the CD.
The Fiddleback: How did you approach putting it all together after the melting had finished?
JZ: Until recently, I did all of my mixing using only tapes. Usually, I would take all of the parts that I had recorded and lay them out on the table in front of me. I would line them up in the order in which they would appear on the final recording so I could see how it would fit together and what parts would be layered on top of what other parts. Then, I would draw a kind of “score” with notes on transitions and things like that on the tape cases. I would set up a few tape decks in my mixer and just start recording them to a master tape.
The Fiddleback: I’ve encountered a number of critics who have written about texts like Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops from the perspective of connecting the failures of tape to the biological failures of our bodies, mortality, etc… Does your interest in the tape medium extend to some other thematic interest?
At a certain point, I began realizing that as hard as I pushed the tapes and related machinery to do something new, I was still largely using them for their intended purpose. I used tapes to record sound, and I used tapes to play back sound; the tapes were still storage media.
JZ: That is really interesting. I have not read any of that stuff but have listened to The Disintegration Loops. It is funny that you mention biological and bodily issues, because I think of what I do as very bodily and I really respond to other work that is similarly bodily. I have been struggling to wrap my brain around an impulse I have had for quite some time. There is a discovery I have been trying to make about the nature of sound production; specifically, I have been asking myself to find the limits of tape as a recording medium. Throughout my time working with cassette tapes, I have been using the flaws inherent in this analogue sound storage technology to transform source material into something new and appealing to me. At a certain point, I began realizing that as hard as I pushed the tapes and related machinery to do something new, I was still largely using them for their intended purpose. I used tapes to record sound, and I used tapes to play back sound; the tapes were still storage media.
After a time, I began to find it necessary to rethink the function of a tape in a more fundamental way; I began to find myself drawn more toward thinking of tapes as having the capacity to produce sound rather than merely store, transform, or play back sounds that was external to the tapes. This desire came more fully to fruition during my time working with Ben Gwilliam in Extrapool during our 2009 Brombron residency in Nijmegen, Netherlands and has continued to develop for me since. Around the same time, I began work on an LP that deals with similar concerns entitled A Vacant Lot To Be In. This record will finally be coming out this February (or so) on CIP, the same label that released Heraclitus. Our piece entitled Brombron 16: Dots, as well as the aforementioned LP, conceive of tape and players not as tools for recording and playback of externally derived sound, but as producers of sound. In many cases, they do not even involve the use of tape. Magnets and other metal tools have been placed into empty cassette players. The result is an exploration of the acoustic properties of electronic devices. Magnetic coils have been used to unearth the hidden sounds in the electromagnetic fields produced by other pieces of machinery. Here, attention is drawn to the context surrounding tape. Both of these processes make statements about tape by circumventing the use of tape itself.
I did not fully realize the extent of the critique our practice was making until I came across the work of Seoul, South Korea’s Jin Sangtae and found an unlikely affinity with the questions he seemed to be addressing. When I first encountered Sangtae’s work I was struck by a similar concern with exploring the acoustic properties of electronic devices. However, he seemed to be taking the concept a step further than we were, working with forcing digital devices to produce analogue sound. We tend to think of the digital as cold and distant. The aspect of a hard drive that most fully encapsulates its significance as an object is its storage capacity: a hidden, abstract, space populated by data. This space is somehow larger and less tangible than the physical space taken up by the drive itself. The storage capacity of a hard disk feels divorced from the physical world and occupies some metaphysical space. Sangtae’s work makes that metaphysical space physical.
When I realized this fact, I discovered what I was searching for: a way to make the abstraction of storage media into a physical presence, a way to make the metaphysical bodily. I experience these works as bodily expressions of abstract, psychic, spaces. I feel like, in a lot of ways, devoting as much attention as I do to probing the possibilities of tape helps me to more clearly and carefully outline its body: like fleshing out the corporeal possibilities of this tool that was conceived for very limited purposes. I find similar concerns in the work of this duo from Chicago called Coppice. They call themselves “a duo of bellows and electronics.” This means that they work with various kinds of electronics, both handmade and not, as well as various instruments with bellows. These include Shruti Boxes and accordions. I think that the focus that they place on combining bellows with electronics is both conceptually interesting and viscerally pleasurable. I like the idea of bellows, a broad category of instruments associated with breath and life, being combined with very mechanical electronic instruments that can feel cold and lifeless. It is a beautiful combination. I really like stuff that feels like it is dealing with fleshly or bodily concerns through mechanical or technological tools.
The Fiddleback: Regarding Polarity, Hand Made Birds’ description says, “this piece represents the first stage in a new experiment focusing entirely on the inaudible electromagnetic fields produced by the motors of a variety of cassette players.” How does one go about capturing or representing these “inaudible electromagnetic fields”? What do you want your audience to hear in such a project?
JZ: There are a few things going on in this piece for me. One of them really touches upon the bodily concerns that came up in the previous question. Really, this piece is best enjoyed live with bodies sharing space together. However, I am working on making versions that sound as good as possible on record as well.
JZ: I’ll start with responding about the technical aspects of the piece before talking about the fleshly aspects of the performed versions. Basically, I am working with telephone coil pickups: a technique that Ben Gwilliam turned me on to. They are designed to record telephone conversations by attaching them to the handset. They work just like a guitar pickup by transmitting the electromagnetic signals produced by the telephone speaker to a tape recorder. So, I place these pickups over the motors of a variety of empty tape players. Some of them are transcription machines. Others are cassette four track recorders. Both of these kinds of machines have speed controls. There are a few other kinds of tape players that I use in the piece that don’t have speed controls. The speed controls allow me to tune the tone produced by the electromagnetic field of the motor so that, as I mix different tones together, I can get really intense oscillations.
I have been playing this piece live for the last year or two and it starts with a really abrasive trebly tone from two hard-panned transcription machines. Over the course of 2 minutes or so, I slowly drop the treble and bring in the mid and bass tones. Then, a really low tone slowly comes in from a four track to dramatically oscillate against the two transcription machines. As they slowly drop out, I am left with a fairly warm and soothing drone. I slowly transition from that into some other tones before finally bringing in a very quiet and hard-panned clicking sound. The last sound is produced by two cassettes with no tape in them. The insides have been removed and replaced with the guts of a car stereo cassette adaptor and a contact mic. So, what you hear is the clicking of the gears and a small length of leader scraping around in the empty shell. This is a technique similar to one that UK sound artist Stephen Cornford was developing independently at the same time. You can hear recordings of his installation using a similar technique on his amazing CD, Binatone Galaxy, out on the really great Senufo Editions label.
I have always been drawn to the bodily intimacy that is essential to live, group practices of close listening. In the past, I really liked achieving this intimacy through extreme quiet.
The goal of the piece, for me, was mostly self-discipline. For a few years prior, I had been feeling like I was stagnating. Part of the critical self-reflection that I was engaging in while trying to devise a new direction led me to the conclusion that I had certain hang-ups about performances. Namely, I felt this need to be visually interesting and engaging in performance. As a result, there were certain things that I would do in performance that I would not do very often on recordings. I thought about why that was and came to the conclusion that, while I liked the sound produced by certain things I would do in performance, the main motivation for doing them was that they were very gestural and visually engaging. So, to get over that, I wanted to perform a piece that was subtle in a way that it actually prevented me from being visually interesting. I wanted to challenge myself to be vulnerable and not to hide behind any gimmicks. It was really challenging and nerve-wracking. But, I think the result has been good. I feel like the sparse and textural ending is more satisfying after the overbearing nature of the really dense sounds preceding it. Likewise, the smooth bassy drone in the middle passage becomes more satisfying in contrast to the abrasive tone that suddenly begins the piece. It always feels like the beginning is really disorienting and kind of unpleasant. Then as it slowly transitions into the more bassy part, something clicks and it is like “yeah, so, this is what is going on. I get it now.”
The Fiddleback: How do you go about turning this approach to sound into live performance? I haven’t seen you perform in quite some time, so I’m curious as to what a Jason Zeh performance looks/sounds like now.
JZ: Here is where we come back to the bodily aspect. In a live setting, the deceptively evident stasis of the piece creates this situation where you can really feel and hear the sound in a bodily way. I have gotten a lot of comments from people who, while listening, realized that the sound changed dramatically when they moved their heads around. The slowly shifting sound with little variance really allows each listener to hear the way the sound reflects off the surfaces in the space. It makes the experience really obviously dependent on the position of each individual body in the space. It is a really intersubjective experience that requires active, listening bodies in the space to complete it. Without the monotony of the piece, it would be really hard for individual audience members to perceive how the sound of the piece completely revolved around their position in the space. I have always been drawn to the bodily intimacy that is essential to live, group practices of close listening. In the past, I really liked achieving this intimacy through extreme quiet. This piece is helping me to expand into new techniques for being a sensing body with others.
The Fiddleback: Is there a point of intersection between your sound compositions and your visual art? Where is that intersection? How do they differ? Do you approach the two differently?
JZ: There is. I am trying to make it more overt though and I am still working on that. In a technical way, my processes for making visual art are virtually identical to those I use for making sound. Just, instead of using cassette tapes to modify recorded, audio, source material, I am using copy machines. In the visual art, I am still struggling with and exploiting the flaws in the machine to make new, abstract, forms. They are very closely related in this respect. I have thought about trying to make graphic scores with the copy machines, but I am not that far into my thinking about that. The closest I have gotten so far is rendering visual representations of sounds or titles after the sounds have been finished.
The Fiddleback: I see you have a show coming up where you will be performing with Hong Chulki. Did I read correctly that you the two of you have never met? This seems a little terrifying to me—how do you approach that type of performance?
JZ: Yeah. That is true. I mentioned Jin Sangtae earlier on. Hong Chulki is part of the same crew of artists in Seoul. All of the artists I have heard from that community are doing really challenging and exciting things. I love what I am hearing out of there. To be completely honest, I find it absolutely terrifying as well. I really don’t think of myself as an improviser. So, doing this duo is really outside of my comfort zone. He and I have communicated over email and have talked about some ideas. We will see what happens. Generally, I think it is a really a good idea to throw myself into a challenging situation. What is the worst that could happen? … Right?
The Fiddleback: You’ve got a new record coming out on CIP soon, A Vacant Lot to Be In. How would you characterize this project?
JZ: Finishing up this record has been a nightmare. Some of the sounds on it, I started working on in 2007. I finished up side A in 2009. I struggled with Side B and finished it up in late 2010 or so. I wasn’t happy with it. So, I fiddled with it and got it to a place where it was done in 2011. Then, while in the process of getting it mastered for vinyl by Joe Panzner, (he did an amazing job by the way) the original label that was going to release it decided to cut back on releasing other people’s work. Luckily, Blake Edwards of CIP jumped at the opportunity to release it. I am so thankful for Blake’s continued support. He has done so much for me. Additionally, he runs a label that I have always respected a great deal all while being an artist whose work has had a profound impact on me (he records under the name Vertonen). I am very lucky to have him in my life.
Side A is all about exploring a variety of extended techniques for tape and tape machines. On it, I use car stereo tape adapters, magnets, objects, tape players with built in microphones, etc. Generally, the piece is about using the bodies of the machines to make sound rather than to play back pre-recorded material. Side B deals with extended cassette loops. I took three table-top tape players and cut holes in the sides. I also cut holes in the sides of three cassettes so that I could stretch a single loop between the three tapes. It is a technique that I have been playing with since at least 2004 or 2005. The thing really comes together for me at the end. There are some sparse sounds that almost sound like voices to me. They are not voices. They were made by manually dismantling the previously used loops using powerful magnets, sand paper, and magnetized metal objects. Just as a point of trivia, some of those sounds appear in a brief track on the Korm Plastics 25th anniversary cassette compilation.
The whole thing, as well as the title, A Vacant Lot To Be In, is kind of an attempt to deal with the terrible uncertainty that a lot of us are dealing with right now. The future seems pretty bleak and I was trying to deal with that while making the sounds for this record. I don’t think that the record came out feeling dark or bleak (I might be wrong), but that is what was going through my head at the time.
The Fiddleback: Are there any other projects you’re involved with that you want to talk about?
JZ: There are actually a lot of things that I am working on right now that I am super excited about. I am working on material for two records that I hope to make some good headway on this year. One is called When Is It Enough? It is about half done I think. I haven’t really been able to check it out since I last worked on it last April or so. The other one is based on Polarity as well as another experiment that I want to try out. Right now, it only exists in my brain. It is tentatively entitled Patina. But, titles tend to change a lot as things start to take shape. I hope that, once finished, they will be awesome enough to find homes somewhere. Much of this Fall I have been playing around with VHS tapes. So, I haven’t worked on as much sound as I would have liked.
I am also working on some recorded collaborations. Blake Edwards and I have a duo called Startless. I have been really excited about the work that we have done together so far, and I hope that we will be able to do more stuff together this year. I am also working on a mail collaboration with Joel Roberts who records under the name GoLab. And Ryan Jewell stopped by our new house in Kansas City on tour just after we moved in. We weren’t able to play a show together because I hadn’t made any show connections yet (I am now working with a great space called FOKL), but we recorded a lot of stuff that I hope to make something out of in the very near future.
In regard to shows, I have a few things that I am working on. First, is the previously mentioned Crow With No Mouth show with Hong Chulki in the Twin Cities. I am really excited about playing as a part of this series and am excited to have been asked to design all of the fliers for the shows. I am going to be stopping in a couple of other cities on my way to and from the CWNM show. There is also a festival that I am really excited about this Summer. Nothing is finalized yet. So, I will not give you any more details, but will say that, if it happens, it will RULE! I am also talking about trying to do a tour this Summer, possibly with Coppice. My friend, Nick Hennies and I have been talking about playing some shows in Austin (where he lives), KC (where I live) and hopefully in between. I really want to play in your neighborhood if I can. Finally, I have a piece going into a sound art/instrument design show in Lincoln, Nebraska this March.
I have a few collaborations that are in various stages of completion. One is with a ceramicist who lives in Atlanta, named Matt Ruzicka. The other is with a sculptor in Chicago named Julia Klein. Finally, I have been talking to a literary press in the UK called Critical Documents about maybe doing a publication of black and white renditions of some of my Xerox art that is based heavily off of typewriter letters as source material.
Who knows how much of this stuff I will be able to complete. Luckily, I am under employed right now. So, I have a fair amount of free time.