Time is of the essence:
Compressed and Uncompressed Merle Haggard
1983/2017

 

Back in the late 1970's and early 1980's, I became interested in, and began working with, video.  Technologically speaking, the industry, tools, and concepts about video, video art, TV, communication theory, etc., were crude compared to today.  That's an obvious understatement.  On top of that, video, i.e. TV, was laborious to produce and program.  The equipment was expensive and big.  Cameras and editing studios were relatively rare and exclusive.  Nonetheless, I could sense that TV was the best medium to deliver any message.  It was an exciting prospect.

 

Because video was still in a tape format, it was linear.  The content's beginning, middle, and end corresponded directly with the length of physical plastic video tape that was wound around one kind of spool or another.  One had a direct and tactile perception of time passing as the tape passed over the fixed tape head, and this in turn corresponded to the audience's time devoted to the digestion of the content.  The ratio's were all equal. The length of the program corresponded to the length of the tape.  I realized that video was a medium of time.  For me, this made it sculptural.  Time=space.  

Early video tape was organized into sections along the tape perpendicular to its length.  That is, there were tracks on it.  Actually, video tape was "blank" with an even layer of iron oxide spread uniformly on one side of the plastic acetate tape.  What made the different tracks was the spacing of the magnetic heads of the recorder/player as the tape passed over them.  These magnetic tape heads rearranged the oxide on the tape into the tracks.  There were four tracks on video tape - a video track for the visual content, or video; two audio tracks, for both left and right channels; and a "control track" that was essentially the electronic timer that coordinated the signal.  This is a very abbreviated and simplified explanation. It's much more complicated and interesting than that.  I learned and knew the science of video tape because you had to in order to produce it and to troubleshoot any problems.  Knowing the medium was essential to the successful use of it. And knowing that I knew is pertinent to this story.

 

The beginning of my interest in sound started with this understanding and use of video.  Often when editing, I would edit and lay down separate audio tracks independent of the recorded video.  I'd work on the sound separately.  In a sort of reverse extrapolation, I deduced that sound alone could be the medium with which to explore time.  This sounds almost painfully obvious, but in the spirit of asking simple questions deeply, this is how I progressed.  As a result, I began doing sound work. [1] 

 

Concurrent with my interest in sound work, I progressed through a series of ideas and studies about the accelerated pace of the modern world. Instead of resisting it, I acquiesced to the inevitability of this new speed.  That's where the idea of digesting music quickly came from.  Pop songs leaned into this generalized attention span, rarely exceeding 3-4 minutes in length.  TV commercials were even more ruthlessly judicious with their time.  Commercials continually shortened from 2 minutes, to 1 minute, to 30 seconds, 15 seconds, and in the rare instance, even shorter.  Time, more than anything in modern life, was of the essence.  So, I figured that music needed to hurry and catch up.  "Wouldn't it be great," I thought to myself, "If one could accelerate one's listening experience?  Think of the time savings!"  Thus: "Compressed Merle Haggard."

 

I started by picking the most easily digestible source song from a popular style, and one that seemed as "unartful" as possible.  I wanted nothing of interest or meaning to me.  I selected the song "My Woman Loves The Devil Out Of Me" performed by Merle Haggard.[2]  I recorded it straight off the radio tuned to a country music station.

"Art is not necessarily a visual experience." – Douglas Huebler

"Sometimes music is music, and sometimes it's not." - Dick Higgins

"What has sound got to do with music!" - Charles Ives

video/sound studio, art department, University of Houston, 1983

Working in the studio of the video class at UH under Ed Hill, I had two reel-to-reel tape machines available to me.  My strategy was to capture and record the original source song, and then to compress it, to shorten it, timewise speaking.  The way I deduced that this could be done was to record the original song using the slowest speed setting on recorder one, then sending it to recorder two on an equally slow setting, then send it back (play it back) while playing it on the next fastest speed setting.  I continued this back and forth playback and record ping ponging technique between the two tape machines until I squished the sound into the shortest comprehensible rendition.  The nature of this speeding up process meant that the tape moved more quickly across the recording tape head.  This not only sped up the music, but it raised its pitch.  With each successive transfer, the song got shorter and shorter and the pitch got higher and higher, making it less and less acoustically legible.  In addition to this, the mechanics of the tape recording technology produced noise, or "hiss." This hiss noise was compounded with each successive playback and recording stage.  The final, end result with the high pitch and accumulated noise, was an unintelligible blip of .3 seconds.  I actually sped it up once more after this but, like a dog whistle at light speed, you couldn't hear anything.  It was the shortest rendition I could realize before it vaporized.

 

I have presented "Compressed Merle Haggard" only twice - once as part of a collection of sound works exhibited for my masters thesis show at UH in 1984, the other time it was presented on Scott Sommers radio program "The Avant Garde" on KPFT 90.1.  It has lain dormant ever since.

[Soundworks 1981-1984, Masters Thesis Exhibition, University of Houston, 1984]

[L. to R. Dean Chachere, Michael Galbreth, Peter Miccoci at KPFT, 1984]

After finishing the work, I thought about and considered other versions and other works.  One work that I completed, called "Top Forty," was similar in its premise as "Compressed Merle Haggard." With it, I recorded all of the top 40 songs of the day and combined them into a densely layered, singular song so that you could conveniently listen to all of them at the same time. Multi a mono, so to speak. 

[Top Forty, original notes, 1983]

With "Compressed Merle Haggard," I thought about reversing the process, stretching the song back out, and restoring it to its original length, just to see if I could do it, and to see what would happen if I did.  I also thought about stretching the original song, lengthening it to the absurd span of 24 hours.  The low pitch and inevitable short attention span by the listener would make it virtually a conceptual piece.  I never did either. The original intent and goal was to contribute to the audience's listening convenience, if not pleasure, by saving them listening time.  Having accomplished that, I didn't do anything else. But the idea was still there.

 

New thinking and technologies rekindled the idea of revisiting "Compressed Merle Haggard" and  of re-stretching it to the original length of the source song to see if it could be done, and to see what would happen.  So I did. To complete this exercise, I did not use the same technology or process of ping ponging between two tape machines.  Using tape machines now would have added more hiss, and I didn't want to add any more information to the original piece.  Instead, I used a current digital audio program.  The sophistication and ease of this program made it a snap to lengthen "Compressed Merle Haggard" from .3 seconds to the 2:46 length of the original source song.  Additionally, it was easy to numerically recalculate and reset it to its original pitch with simple arithmetic.  A process that took hours to complete in 1984 was efficiently redone in minutes today.  

 

The result was as I expected:  it wasn't what I expected.  I've listened to "Uncompressed Merle Haggard" a few times and I don't yet know how to account for the differences between it, the original source song, and "Compressed Merle Haggard."  My guess is that it's a combination of calculation errors, the differences in technologies, and the changes that took place while compressing the original song to its sub-second length, among other things.  I'm just not sure.  Regardless, I couldn't be more pleased with the result.  

  

After all this time - 34 years - this thought loop is complete.  "Compressed Merle Haggard" has been resurrected and reconstituted into "Uncompressed Merle Haggard," an entirely new piece. Perhaps it's now one sound work in three parts. I suggest that you take your time and listen to all three recordings all the way through in the order they were experienced by me: 1.) "My Woman Loves The Devil Out Of Me," original song; 2.) "Compressed Merle Haggard"; 3.) "Uncompressed Merle Haggard." 

 

For me, there's some poetry to all of this, and it echoes my ongoing interest in the underlying structure of things, including paradox, incompleteness, emergence and entropy.  Everyone knows you can't go back in time, and even if you could, it wouldn't be the same.   

"My Woman Loves The Devil Out of Me"

original song, composed by Moe Bandy

2:46

"Compressed Merle Haggard"

1983

:00.3

"Uncompressed Merle Haggard"

2017

2:46

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NOTES

[1]  Not music, but rather, sound as a material to manipulate.  In this regard, I was unconcerned with making a pleasurable experience.  I was interested in making an interesting experience, which for me, was (is) pleasurable.  Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting In A Room," John Cage's "Williams Mix" and "Fontana Mix," Steve Reich's "Come Out," among many others, were deeply influential to me.  They laid the groundwork for this thinking.

 

[2]  Actually, this song was composed by Moe Bandy and released in 1980.  I'm not exactly sure that my original source was of Merle Haggard performing it.  I've not been able to find a version sung by him.  Since I had no interest in this particular song or country music in general, I admit my potential sloppiness and I could very well have made a mistake in my recording of this song, both historically and sonically.  These are what my original notes record, so I'm sticking with this recollection and title.  For the sake of this story, the version of the original song is performed by the composer, Moe Bandy.

July 13, 2017

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Open Journal, KPFT 90.1 FM radio, August 11, 2017