In the era of digital downloads and streaming, much publicity has been given to the revival in sales of vinyl records, both of new releases and reissues. However, all the noise surrounding that phenomenon has diverted attention away from another onethe resurgence of cassette tapes.
Cassettes had their heyday in the 80's, after the introduction of the Sony Walkman which gave listeners previously undreamt of freedom. For the seven years from 1983 to 1990 they outsold other formats and for a while, every music magazine seemed to come with a "free" cover-mounted cassette. But their popularity waned after the arrival of CD's and the Discman, then mp3 files and the ipod
However, recently cassettes have made a comeback of their own. As with vinyl records, the cassette that is purchased often has a download code attached, to give the customer the best of both worlds, a physical object plus digital quality sound.
It seems highly unlikely that major labels will ever release as much music on cassette as they once did. But for smaller artist-run labelssuch as the London-based Earshots labelwhich release experimental music for niche audiences, cassettes provide an attractive, low-cost option with a hint of nostalgia. Below are two recent examples that typify the phenomenon...
Diatribes Sistere Mappa 2017
The Slovak Mappa label began in February 2016. It releases music on cassettes with high-quality customised artwork in small limited editions that tend to sell out quite quickly. A cassette allows the purchaser to download the music digitally. Once the cassettes are sold out, the music can be purchased as a download. Sistere is the label's sixth release. It comes clad in an embossed metal wrap-around by artist Katarina Skamlova.
It is a measure of the label's stature that its releases include artists of the stature of Jeph Jerman, Cristián Alvear and, now, Diatribes. Ever experimental, the Swiss pairing of Cyril Bondi and D'incise has been together since 2004, playing in a variety of contexts in addition to the duo. Here, in marked contrast to their last release, Great Stone / Blood Dunza, they have produced two extended tracks on which each of the pair plays percussion instruments. First up, "Tabi-tabi" has a constant, metronomically-precise rhythm that is maintained for the track's full twenty-two minutes, with both musicians playing a selection of bells and shakers over a low-key background of electronic noise which complements and enhances the whooshing sounds of the percussion. There is just enough subtle variation in the sounds produced by the percussion to prevent the soundscape becoming monotonous and keep the piece interesting. Simple yet effective.
Flipping the cassette, we find the twenty-four minute "Utsara-utsara" (note the repetition in each of the titles) which is sparser than "Tabi-tabi" but retains some of its characteristics, notably a constant rhythm maintained by a single drum, occasional background electronic noise and just enough variety to prevent boredom setting in. Both pieces could easily be employed as backing tracks for others to play over, but taken alone each of them has limitless capacity to mesmerise and fascinate.
Thomas Rohrer & Philip Somervell Rohrer / Somervell Submarine / Brava 2017
The duo of Swiss-born Thomas Rohrer and UK-born Philip Somervell is based in São Paulo, Brazil. However, the two met and first played together in London in 2009 at a concert at Café Oto, organised by Eddie Prevost's renowned improv workshop. Since 2014, the two have met weekly for improvisation sessions at São Paolo's Funarte gallery and performance space. Some of those sessions were documented, leading to this album, which was mastered by Sebastian Lexer, himself another former member of Prevost's workshop. Rohrer / Somervell, their first duo album, is jointly released on cassette and download by two São Paolo labels, Submarine and Brava.
Although Rohrer plays flute and soprano saxophone, here he confines himself to (the traditional Brazilian fiddle) the rabeca prepared with small objects and amplified with electronics, while Somervell plays piano including experimental techniques and preparations. Rohrer and Somervell have each released relatively few albums, but a notable one on which they both feature is the spring 2016 recording Chants and Corners (Clean Feed, 2017) by Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek. Nonetheless, as a duo the two display an impressive understanding of each other's playing and sympathetic reactions, no doubt forged in those weekly sessions at the Funarte gallery.
Rohrer / Somervell consists of three tracks, titled with their durations, totalling almost seventy minutes. The opener provides a seven-and-a-half minute taster of what is to come, showcasing the ways in which Rohrer's sustained notesbowed or electronicallyprovide a background landscape over which Somervell can superimpose improvised piano, the different ingredients gelling into a satisfying whole. Both players' contributions are vital to the success of the end result. Seamlessly, that track moves onto the album's centrepiece, a fifty-one minute extended improvisation that builds on the success of the opener.
That extended track serves to highlight an issue with cassette releases, as its duration means that it is too long to fit onto one side and it has to be continued after the tape has been turned over, an issue that the digital version remedies. Despite that quibble, this album is highly listenable and enjoyable, leading to hopes that we hear more from Rohrer and Somervell soonon cassette or otherwise.