Perhaps you remember tape. No? How about reels? Nothing? Hiss, transistors, needles, vinyl, grooves? If these words fail to conjure a universe of dirty, three-dimensional sound, rich in blemishes and personality, then you may be too young to recall the B.G.B. era — Before GarageBand. Those were days when making electronic music might involve heading outdoors with a bulky tape recorder to capture a train whistle or a dog’s bark, then head back to the studio, slice the tape with a razor blade, splice into a loop with actual adhesive, run that past the recording head faster or slower or backwards, or all three, then take the resulting acoustic weirdness and manipulate it some more. Tape hiss wasn’t just an unpleasant byproduct, but the direct result of plastic rubbing on metal — like the scratch of bow on string, an ever-present reminder that sound is the product of physical forces.
That world of handmade sound has been all but obliterated by the powerful studio-in-a-laptop that can make a music producer of every tween with a trackpad. But a retro quartet of engineer-composer-performers, calling themselves the Langham Research Centre (no such laboratory actually exists; the name derives from the BBC’s Langham Place studios) has taken on the mission to return the B.G.B. era, or to evoke it, anyway. The group’s debut release, John Cage: Early Electronic Tape Music, returns to the 1950s and early ’60s, when avant-garde composers were exploring the joy of noise.
There’s a joyous nostalgia about this recording, a mix of period-instrument obsessiveness and trickster glee. The album (issued in a limited-edition LP, of course, as well in various digital formats) covers a handful of classics, including “Variations I,” “Fontana Mix with Aria” and “Cartridge Music,” which Cage explained was scored “for amplified small sounds” — pipe cleaners and other small objects stuck into a phonograph cartridge where a needle would ordinarily go. Try finding those effects in a library of presets.
The project is the latest sign that analog antiquity is well into its neoclassical revival phase. Digital technology has sped up the process of memory: Instagram turns every stupid snapshot into a mock heirloom, steampunk revives revivals of revivals, electroswing bands like Caravan Palace recycle our great-grandparents’ dance tunes, and, yes, GarageBand can make an iPad sound like a Hammond Organ, circa 1965. The boys at Langham Research Centre, with their crisp white shirts and narrow ties, have rescued vintage tech from untrained dabblers and returned it to the realm of professional specialists. They collect, repair, and maintain what their website terms an “instrumentarium of vintage analogue devices” — in other words, they have more and better toys than you do, and they know how to use them.
It’s a slightly odd project, this rigorous recreation of childlike experiments in sound. As with all authentic performance practice, tackling old music — especially music as eternally radical in spirit as Cage’s — requires inventiveness and flexibility. You can spiff up all the old consoles you like, but that won’t help you follow the gnomic instructions for performing 4’33″ No. 2, 0’00″: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.”
For Cage, using noise was a way of controlling it, turning random cacophony into a conscious act. In a conversation broadcast on WBAI, the composer Morton Feldman complained that going to the beach in New York City meant subjecting himself to the assault of hundreds of transistor radios. Cage answered that he should think of them not as an intrusion but as a composition. “I adjusted to that problem of the radio in the environment very much as the primitive people adjusted to the animals which frightened them…they drew pictures of them on their caves. So I simply made a piece using radios. Now, whenever I hear radios…I think, well, they’re just playing my piece.”
Cage dwelled in the ever-changing present, but the Langham Research Centre album teases out the nostalgia that he toyed with, too. His “Imaginary Landscape No. 5″ requires an avant-garde DJ, instructing the performer to assemble a new recording out of 42 old ones. He used jazz discs; the new version mines the classical repertoire. You could also use hip-hop, Ghanaian drumming, polkas, Chinese opera, or any combination of anything. The point is that no music (and hardly any sound at all), is emotionally neutral. Each fragment is freighted with associations, and Cage’s mash-up, however it’s realized, will always deliver a rat-tat-tat of subliminal memories. In the new/old album, the analog pop and hiss becomes a vehicle for those recollections, organizing the world’s chaotic clangor into a wistful history.