Other spaces: Red Tape Bardo I – IV (2021)

In June this year I was cleverly duped into allowing my bank account to be hacked and the little money I had in there taken. I’m usually more cautious, but these people were sophisticated and psychologically astute, using very compelling explanations in their call.  They clearly had no moral parameters guiding who they stole from.  I exist below the poverty line, with no regular income: the $180 they stole from me was all I had, and was earmarked for bills. The feeling of personal intrusion was acute, as was the feeling of stupidity for having been so gullible.  And when you live with chronic depression, events like this can have a magnified impact.  My distrust of the modern world escalated and I felt unsafe about all online activity.

Of course I reported it, closed accounts etc., but the slightest disruption to any one of these seemingly mundane systems seems to throw any connected systems into disarray.  The ensuing administrative jungle of bungles dealing with unwieldy corporate mechanisms, offshore call centres, circular departmental shunting and endless hours on hold, in the midst of a particularly severe bout of depression, led me to contemplate the loop I seemed to be living within – the bardo, the liminal, the quality of suspension.

As I spent hours and days interminably waiting, suspended in loops of other people’s ineptitude, I pondered a few philosophical implications and developed a creative response that gradually emerged as the four Red Tape Bardo albums.

Red Tape Bardo I

I created most of Red Tape Bardo I and II on my laptop while I was either on hold or waiting on a callback, using bits of old recordings from my archives – nothing new there, except that the parameters now became “what can I create without leaving the phone”.  I also wanted to capture my immediate sense of things looping uselessly in time, the space I was inhabiting in the waiting.

Mostly I used fragments of unused phone recordings, both environmental sounds and musical ideas.  I don’t use a sampler or physical tape, so I create all my loops manually, selecting snippets and cut&pasting into blocks.

My starting point for Red Tape Bardo I (not realising a series would emerge) was a 30-minute phone recording of me improvising rhythms with rubber mallets on our rainwater tank out the back.  I’d made the recording one winter several years ago, with the phone tucked into the fold of my beanie as I played, and the file (fittingly) had been sitting in limbo ever since.  I snipped / looped / treated a few interesting sections, and these ‘tank rhythms’ became the consistent thread upon which I built both tracks on Red Tape Bardo I.  Aside from obvious rhythms, there were some interesting textural moments in the recording which I also utilised.

Of the two tracks, Impermanentia carries a more dreamy tone throughout, floating and undulating through various metamorphoses, with snippets of piano, clarinet and ukulele providing musical cohesion.  The clarinet loops were sampled from another phone recording, of my partner Heidi & I improvising together one day on clarinet and cello.  I liked these initial samples so much that I featured more from that session on Red Tape Bardo II, as a tonal foundation.

The second track, Kubazi / Moth In A Jar, has a much more restless quality, a bit more smouldering fire and edges of agitation.  It began with me digging up a digitised version of an old tape-looping experiment (titled Kubazi) I’d made in the 1990s on a friend’s 4 track.  It was a primitive experiment but in this new context it provided some ready-made loops that also suggested a certain conceptual thread for the new track.  The old tape loop had some middle-eastern elements that I was able to expand on using some cello riffs I’d recorded for the track Orkestra Of Exhausted Explanations (from the album Offkiltered). I revisit this cello theme at different points throughout the new track as it evolves (or doesn’t, depending on your ears’ point of view).  Later in the piece I also use a (heavily treated) middle eastern improvisation played on resonator ukulele (not that you’d recognise it as such).

The ‘moth in a jar’ reference was Heidi’s initial response to hearing the insistent, fluttery percussion effect in the track’s mid-section, and the statement stuck in my mind, beating its wings against the walls of my brain.  In the context of the administrative limbo I was stuck in, and the endless hours of meticulous editing I was immersed in, ‘moth in a jar’ led me to contemplate all the areas of my existence in which I felt powerless, and hopelessly trapped – sensing the open world that seems so available to others, out there, on the other side of an impenetrable transparent membrane….such is the nature of depressed thinking.  I smooth out the track’s agitation with an excerpt of Heidi’s clarinet improvisation, which segues nicely into the second Bardo instalment…

Red Tape Bardo II

For Red Tape Bardo II, as already mentioned, my foundation was the recording of Heidi & I improvising together – she on clarinet and me mostly playing cello bass, and ukulele in places.  I slowed the recording right down, added slow delays, slight phasing and other effects to create a spacious, velvet warmth, then set about snipping, building loops, sometimes reversing the recording, or isolating more extended sections that showcase Heidi’s gentle flow with the instrument.  Often I took single melodic phrases of two or three notes from Heidi’s playing, and collaged them with other phrases, to create new melodic patterns.  The incidental sounds of our breath and the rustling of our clothes also add mood and texture.

Of the four albums in this series, this one feels the most human and intimate to me. Heidi and I were having a patch of tension & distance in our relating, and working with music we’d made together helped me remember the times we connect with warmth.

In keeping with the liminal atmospherics, both Please Hold and Lost In Liminalism have moments of looped field recordings I’ve made on trips to Hobart – on these pieces it’s the ambient drones found inside shopping centre carparks, or the frenetic whirr of an external air conditioning vent. But wherever these detours might jangle our reverie, our ears are always guided gently back to the mellifluous warmth of the clarinet’s breathy, sumptuously melancholic embrace.

Red Tape Bardo III

Although I didn’t literally create Red Tape Bardo III & IV while waiting on hold, I was still encountering a series of frustrating administrative glitches in the fallout of having my bank account and related systems reorganised, so I still very much felt myself stuck in a process that was on hold.  Throughout this time, my depressions were deepening to suicidal urges at times, for many reasons – relationship tensions, poverty, but especially despair at the incomprehensible futility of this process, trying to resolve administrative mistakes that were no fault of my own, and meanwhile unable to access the systems I needed to address other difficulties.

As a result of having to reset my laptop and all my passwords etc after the hacking, I had to reload a bunch of music plug-ins from Spitfire Labs.  I’d been putting it off as another layer of technical tedium and ‘things going wrong’, but when I eventually knuckled down to it, I discovered some new plug-ins from their library.  One of them was a set of whale and dolphin samples that had been granulated and warped, and I was immediately inspired.

The first track, Submergency, is almost entirely composed from loops and patterns using this plug-in.  Its almost claustrophobic sense of being underwater, under pressure, just plain under, seemed a fitting continuation of my ‘bardo’ theme.  Around this time I had an appointment in the city, and so as I walked around I secretly recorded whatever ambience was occurring, my phone nonchalantly in hand, sweeping the environment as I passed through.  Some of these sounds are woven into Submergency – in particular the sound of my and another person’s footsteps descending a carpark stairwell.

Waiting For Nothing To Happen opens with another of these guerilla cityscape recordings, a looped drone of a distant car spiralling down through the layers of carpark.  Later at home, I was roaming the house looking for interesting sounds and discovered three especially musical jam jars, that had a lovely tone when I tapped their lids with a rubber mallet.  Outside, I discovered an especially musical sound made by spinning a bicycle wheel and letting a thin stick bounce along the spinning spokes.  More circles, wheels turning, loops looping, the ouroboros wheel….later there is the endless creak of a squeaky escalator, looping on itself, transporting its human cargo in a liminal trance from one nowhere to another, one meaningless vector in their lives to the next….

As the title of this piece suggests, it’s not designed for anything in particular to happen, although at one point the searing whine of an angle-grinder from a building site burns through the empty monotony, but it is so fleeting as to suggest we might have just imagined it momentarily, and we are soon returned to the torpor. 

Red Tape Bardo IV

Similarly to the previous excursion, Red Tape Bardo IV is less directly a response to my personal administrative limbo, but still a continued meditation on liminal states in life, in a broader existential sense.

Both tracks on this album are entirely constructed from sampled & looped environmental sounds I collected while having lunch at a busy Thai take away. That is, I had the phone recording before I entered the shop, and left it running as I ate. While I’ve done a truckload of editing and added FX, I haven’t used any extraneous environmental or musical elements.

The random clangs & sizzling hisses from the kitchen, and the singsong voices of the staff, the comings and goings of customers, provided a cornucopia of rhythmic and melodic patterns, and as I sculpted these pieces I mused on the limbo loop that is a food venue – the ephemeral cycling of food supplied to an endless tide of human appetite, consuming now only to consume again, life eats time eats life. I remembered helping a friend run a 24-hr coffee stall at a weekend event years ago, and how the space we occupied behind the counter, as constants responding to an everchanging wash of humanity, had the distinct quality of an altered state.

Slowburn Samadhi is mostly monotextural and perhaps a more darkly ambient nowhere, a realm of Hungry Ghosts.  In Service To The Insatiable twists in and out of different shapes, has more rhythmic angles, is a bit more abstract and industrial in texture.   The melodic range and tonal variations of the voices are explored and highlighted more in this piece, interspersed with various percussions from the kitchen.  When I first listened to the original recording, there were so many things I’d missed at the time, including a delightful interplay between two of the Thai ladies serving, in which one of them seems to spontaneously sing what she is saying.  The piece finishes with another lovely moment – after finishing my lunch, I happened to leave at the same time as three other people who had been seperately lunching there, and we all ‘happened’ to say ‘thank you’ in the same moment, at which point you can hear the Thai mama in the kitchen laughing “All the same time!”