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The Birth of Loop

A Short History of Looping Music


Although repetition is a major force in music it was never used in this way before
Terry Riley

Repetition is a form of change
Brian Eno

A way for one person to make an awful lot of noise. Wonderful!
Robert Fripp


This page tries to summarize the steps in the history of music which led to the distinct style and technology of Looping Music.

Looping Music today typically employs tape delay/feedback systems, digital delay devices, or computers to create repetitions of sounds. These repetitions can either remain limited to simple repeated phrases, or they are allowed to add up to a complex sound texture which either stands for itself or is used as an atmospheric or rhythmic background for soloing or other musical expression.

To varying extents, repetition has always been part of the musics of all cultures, but only in the 20th century, it became a style, a musical form of its own. Inspired by the meeting of world cultures, aided by technology, pioneered by visionary composers, looping music was born.


Books
Essential Loop (and Loop Related) Recordings


The Dawn of Music

Vibration and regular repeating patterns are the foundation of matter and energy. On a scale more accessible to humans, rhythmic repetition, oscillation, and pulsation are dominant qualities of nature known to everyone: Waves on a shore, moon phases, day and night, the seasons.

There is pulsation and rhythm in our own body: Heartbeat, breathing; the steady rhythm of walking that was imprinted in our genetic memory during our life as nomads.

These basic experiences of life have long ago formed our love of rhythm. While developing a sense of rhythm, our ancestors found that it is fun to sing along with the rhythm. Our first melodies were taught to us by birds and other animals, all of whom also employ repetitions in their songs: Indonesian Ketjak is a complex rhythmic monkey chant; Pygmy melodies of the African rainforests cite the songs of tropical birds.


Rise and Fall of Repetition

Repeating melodies - monotonous or based on simple harmonies - and repeating song structures became popular in all cultures, not only because their patterns were easy to memorize, but because performing them in combination with repeating rhythms had strong psychological effects and was sometimes meditative or potentially trance-inducing. (Man's ancient fondness of spirituality and altered states of consciousness is another fascinating story.)

Rhythmic, repetitive musical structures eventually reached high levels of sophistication in a number of world cultures (Javanese Gamelan, Ghanaese drumming, Indian tabla, Pygmy songs, to name but a few). Some early medieval European music also employed repetition as a basic formal element, but at some point in the middle ages, music in Europe began developing into a different direction.

The discovery and elaboration of the laws of harmony in the Renaissance pushed rhythm and repetition into the musical background. In the early 18th century, the well-tempered 12-tone equal temperament became the dominant tuning system which it still is. The great works of classical music were complex harmonic structures which needed rhythm and repetition primarily as a means to give them a form. Rhythmic, repetitive, modal music as practised elsewhere on the planet was not known or considered primitive.


20th Century: A New Music

The beginning of the 20th century brought revolutionary paradigm shifts to many aspects of life, including music.

Adventurous composers, realizing that European music was stuck in an impasse, freed themselves of all harmonic traditions and invented new musical forms such as atonality, 12-tone music, or aleatory composing.

In 1889, Debussy watched a Javanese Gamelan performance in Paris. This experience had a profound influence on his music, and subsequently on the music of other influential composers. The discovery of non-European music systems was a turning point because it reintroduced rhythm, percussion, and repetition (as can be heard in Ravel's Bolero) and a new sense of the importance of sound and instrumental colour.

At the same time, blues and jazz evolved and quickly turned into major musical movements, emphasizing rhythm, repetition, and improvisation.

Electronic music instruments and sound recording on gramophone records and tape were invented and gave birth to new aesthetics and completely new worlds of sound and musical structures, such as pure electronic music, musique concrète based on real-world sounds, or mixtures of both.


Erik Satie

Erik Satie was possibly the most eccentric, innovative, and influential composer of the early 20th century. Of all his interesting works, two are of special interest here:

Musique d'Ameublement is often said to be the first piece of ambient music. Its first performance was given 1920 at a picture exhibition. The furnishing music, played on a piano, three clarinets, and a trombone, was performed in the gallery while people were looking at pictures.

"We beg you to take no notice of it and to behave (...) as if the music did not exist. This music ... claims to make its contribution to life in the same way as a private conversation, a picture, or the chair on which you may or may not be seated ..."

Vexations for piano was a forefather of Minimal music. The piece (embedded in Satie's Pages Mystiques) consists of two lines of chromatic, diminished triads. The resulting melody has to be played slowly and takes a minute or two to play. What makes it radical minimalist music is the performance instruction to play it 840 times which can easily result in a performance time of 24 hours. The first performance of Vexations which took the instruction seriously was given in 1963 by John Cage who had discovered the piece in Satie's heritage several years earlier.


Musique Concrète and Tape Music

The gramophone record, invented 1887, was the first medium which could store and playback sound. The invention of magnetic sound recording dates back to 1898 - steel wire was used for the first machines. A tape recorder using oxide-coated plastic tape was invented in 1935, but didn't become available for most studios until 1950.

Between the World Wars, several composers (Milhaud, Hindemith, Varèse, Cage and others) used gramophone records and variable-speed turntables to create new kinds of music based on prerecorded sound. The first loops were done on gramophone records.

After the second World War, a number of gramophone record based works of musique concrète were written (e.g. by Pierre Schaeffer (1948), Olivier Messiaen (1952), and some of Messiaen's pupils such as Boulez and Stockhausen).

The beginning of the fifties brought the first tape music compositions (the first one being Edgard Varèse's Deserts (1954)), based on the new possibilities for sound modification using tape recorders. Tape music composers (such as John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel, and others) used tape recorders to change the speed of sounds, or reverse, edit, and superimpose them. Pre-existing sounds could be altered, combined with electronic sounds and real instruments, or assembled into collages.

In the late fifties and early sixties, composers started to use tape recorders and other electronic sound equipment for live performances. At the same time, electronic music and tape music studios were founded in several cities (such as Paris and Cologne) and became important centers for the new music.

The origin of tape loops is not entirely clear. There is no known "inventor" of this technique, but the simple idea to take a piece of recorded tape and splice it into a closed loop probably goes back to the inventors or first users of the tape recorder. Outside the avantgarde music scene, tape loops were soon used in radio studios and in the film industry where they were employed for synchronisation and soundtrack purposes.

The two-machine tape delay and feedback system (which later evolved into Frippertronics and digital loop delays) was apparently invented by an anonymous engineer who worked for Terry Riley during the Paris sessions for Riley's Music for The Gift.


The San Francisco Tape Music Center

In the early 1950s, the Pacifica Foundation Listener Sponsored Radio Station KPFA in Berkeley, led by Robert Erickson, was one of the few alternative stations which played avantgarde tape music, inspiring many young Californian composers. KPFA actively supported such composers (such as Pauline Oliveros who played in an improvisation band with Terry Riley and Loren Rush) by recording and presenting their work.

In 1960, KPFA director Erickson began organizing composers' workshops at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. A year later, participants of these workshops (Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick) founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

In the first seven years, the Center, directed by Pauline Oliveros, became a lively meeting place for the Californian avantgarde scene and gave birth to the influential musical movement of minimalism. Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley became pioneers for tape loop techniques and tape delay/feedback systems.

In her later musical career, Pauline Oliveros focused her research on environmental sounds, consciousness, meditation, and the process of perception and listening.

Terry Riley emphasized an open, modal, pulsating, improvisational kind of minimalism and got deeply involved with classical Indian music.


Terry Riley

Terry Riley was one of the key figures of minimalism and the most important pioneer of tape loops and tape delay/feedback systems.

In the 1950s, he made a living as a solo piano player in bars where he learned how to improvise and engage an audience. Between 1955 and 1961, he studied composition and piano in San Francisco and Berkeley. Fascinated by Coltrane and influenced by John Cage, he became involved with open improvisation and avantgarde music.

Mescalin Mix, Riley's earliest tape based musique concrète piece (1960), was written for the Anna Halprins Dance Company and consisted of closed tape loops containing various real-world sounds.

Music for The Gift (1963), written for a play by Ken Dewey, was the first piece ever based on a tape delay/feedback system with 2 Revox tape recorders - a setup Riley used to call the "Time Lag Accumulator". The source material for Riley's loops consisted of recordings he made of the Chet Baker quartet playing Miles Davis's So What. It was this looping piece which got Riley really interested in repetition as a musical form, leading the way to his breakthrough as a minimalist composer and performer.

"The accumulation technique hadn't been invented yet and it got invented during this session. I was asking the engineer, describing to him the kind of sound I had worked with in Mescaline Mix. I wanted this kind of long, repeated loop and I said, 'can you create something like that?' He got it by stringing the tape between two tape recorders and feeding the signal from the second machine back to the first to recycle along with the new incoming signals. By varying the intensity of the feedback you could form the sound either into a single image without any delay or increase the intensity until it became a dense chaotic kind of sound. I enjoy the interplay between the two extremes. This engineer was the first to create this technique that I know of, this began my obsession with time-lag accumulation feed-back. It took me quite a while before I could afford to buy two good tape recorders to run this process in my own studio."

Riley's very experimental and interesting early musical work (Music for The Gift, Bird of Paradise, Mescalin Mix, and Two Pianos and Five Tape Recorders) is available on CD here.

Riley's "classical" and most well-known minimalist piece was In C.
"Well I guess my music came to prominence around one piece called In C which I wrote in 1964. At that time it was called The Global Villages for Symphonic Pieces, because it was a piece built out of 53 simple patterns and the structure was new to music at that time. No one had done anything like this before where you just had a piece built all out of patterns and the first concerts of In C were kind of big communal events where a lot of people would come out and sometimes listen or dance to the music because the music would get quite ecstatic with all these repeated patterns. Although repetition is a major force in music it was never used in this way before. So, essentially my contribution was to introduce repetition into Western music as the main ingredient without any melody over it, without anything, just repeated patterns, musical patterns. In the nutshell, that was my own introduction into the world of western music."

Riley learned to play the saxophone and became famous for his all-night flights, extended solo improvisation concerts for keyboards, saxophone, and the Time Lag Accumulator tape delay. His most successful recordings, A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969) and Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band (1968), were based on excerpts of these all-night concerts.

"I did a solo all night concert which started at 10:00 at night and ended at sunrise. People brought their whole families and they had their sleeping bags and hammocks. It was in one of the big rooms in art college. It started out a career for me doing all night concerts which I did for a couple of years. I really didn't have a plan, I just went in and started playing. One of my specialties was to be able to play for a really long time without stopping and I would play these repeated patterns for hours and hours and I wouldn't seem to get tired. I guess I have a lot of energy. Throughout the evening I would be recording these long saxophone delays and about four hours into the concert, if I wanted to take a break I would just play back the saxophone. And a lot of people didn't even wake up to know the difference because a lot of people just slept all night."

Influenced by his friend and minimalist composer La Monte Young, Riley got interested in drones and Indian music. Both studied with Pandit Pran Nath, a teacher for classical Indian vocal music. (Among Pran Nath's other students were Don Cherry and Jon Hassell.) Riley eventually abandoned the saxophone and concentrated on using his voice instead. In his later works, Riley returned to playing the piano, using just intonation tuning systems, and composed pieces for the Kronos String Quartet.
His latest recordings are In C: 25th Anniversary Concert (1990) and Cactus Rosary (1993).

(Quotations taken from the Cortical Foundation Terry Riley site)


Steve Reich

Only one of the minimalist composers - Terry Riley - concentrated on tape delay based improvisation. Steve Reich did some tape based pieces as well, but he was never interested in improvisation, and did not use tape machines for delay effects. His early instrumental work and especially his tape pieces It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) are examples for what Brian Eno would call Systems Music - they are based on simple rules which build up a complex structure, ideally without human intervention at all.

"The idea of using constant repetition partially grew out of working with tape loops since 1963, but mainly through helping Terry Riley put together the first performance, in 1964, of his In C, where many different repeating patterns were combined simultaneously. My problem was then to find some new way of working with repetition as a musical technique. My first thought was to play one loop against itself in some particular canonic relationship since some my previous pieces had dealt with two or more identical instruments playing the same notes against each other. In the process of trying to line up two identical tape loops in some particular relationship, I discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops up in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with each other. As I listened to this gradual phase shifting process I began to realize that it was an extraordinary form of musical structure. This process struck me as a way of going through a number of relationships between two identities without ever having any transitions. It was a seamless, continuous, uninterrupted musical process."

Influenced by African and Indonesian music, Reich's phase shifting and repetition ideas grew more complex. His more famous pieces such as Six Pianos (1973) consist of interlocking, slowly changing, polyrhythmic and harmonic patterns. Eventually, Reich abandoned strict minimalism and proceeded to more complex structures, although he still used polyrhythms and repetition.

His latest recording, The Cave (1995), concentrates on rhythmic and harmonic structures of speech patterns.

(Quotations taken from Reich's book Writings about Music)


Eno and Fripp

Brian Eno was always fascinated by tape recorders and the different things one can do with them.

"I had wanted a tape recorder since I was tiny. I thought it was just like a magic thing, and I always used to ask my parents if I could have one but I never got one, until just before I went to art school I got access to one and started playing with it, and then when I went to art school they had them there. I thought it was magic to be able to catch something identically on tape and then be able to play around with it, run it backwards; I thought that was great for years."

Eno got equally fascinated with minimalist music, especially with Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain. Eno's important Systems Music idea can be traced back to this piece.

"I was so impressed by this as a way of composing that I made many, many pieces of music using more complex variations of that. In fact all of the stuff that is called ambient music really -- sorry, all the stuff I released called ambient music, not the stuff those other 2 1/2 million people released called ambient music, -- all of my ambient music I should say, really was based on that kind of principle, on the idea that it's possible to think of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you."

(Quotations taken from a talk given by Eno about Generative Music.)

During his experimentation with tape techniques, Eno rediscovered Terry Riley's Time Lag Accumulator, a tape delay/feedback system based on two Revox tape machines. In September 1972, Eno invited Robert Fripp over to his studio and presented this system to him. Fripp, who had no knowledge of minimalist music, plugged his guitar in and started to play without much introduction to the system, and without rehearsing. The result was a classical tape delay recording, called The Heavenly Music Corporation, contained on the (No Pussyfooting) LP (1973).

Eno's and Fripp's biographer Eric Tamm says:
"No Pussyfooting was a major point of departure for both musicians, and Fripp seemed to recognize it instantly as such: "There it was, a way for one person to make an awful lot of noise. Wonderful!" So much did Fripp like The Heavenly Music Corporation that when King Crimson went on the road in the fall of 1972, he would play the tape before the band came onstage and after they left."

Eno used the tape delay technique on his recording Discreet Music (1975) and on a second Fripp collaboration, Evening Star (1975). Eno's later ambient work returned to using systems of closed tape loops, e.g. in Ambient Music 1 - Music for Airports (1978) and in his video installations.

Fripp continued using the tape delay/feedback technique in his work with Peter Gabriel (1976) and Daryl Hall (1977) and on his solo record Exposure (1978). In 1979, Fripp began to give solo concerts for guitar and tape delay, a setup he called Frippertronics. His recordings Let the Power Fall (1981) and God Save the Queen (1981) were solo Frippertronics LPs. For Fripp, Frippertronics was a powerful way to open himself up for music and to explore new musical territory.

"I was soloing over the Frippertronics loop and I heard the next note and played it, and I was weeping as I was playing because something was beginning to move."

(Quotations taken from Tamm's book Robert Fripp)

Due to Fripp's quasi-cult-status as King Crimson guitarist, the Frippertronics tours and records brought the idea of looping to many musicians' attention.

In the 1980s, Fripp concentrated on minimalist style patterns, a new guitar tuning, and his Guitar Craft teaching, using tape delays only now and then.

In the early 1990s, he rediscovered the technique during his constant search for fresh and new ways of musical expression. The next incarnation of Frippertronics was called Soundscapes and employed a growing array of sophisticated digital machinery, such as digital looping devices and harmonizers. He played solo Soundscapes concerts (as can be heard on 1999 - Soundscapes live in Argentina (1994)) and integrated Soundscapes into his group work with the Robert Fripp String Quintet (1993) and King Crimson.


Today Loops

In the sixties, we had Copycat tape delays with short delay times, but nonetheless very nice to play with. Very few people, one of them Terry Riley, experimented with 2-machine tape delays. The seventies brought analog delays, but they still did not have a long enough echo time to replace Eno's tape delays. Until the eighties, Fripp's 2-Revox-machine-Frippertronics system was state of the art of looping, and other musicians started experimenting with similar setups. Then, digital machines became available which could do delays of several seconds, even minutes, making musical structures possible that had never been heard before.

Digital loop machines quickly replaced the old technologies and became quite powerful, sophisticated, and affordable. Looping music suddenly turned into something many people could do. A rapidly growing number of musicians experiment with this technique, and loops turn up on many different recordings. Will looping remain a rare phenomenon, or will it be an integral part of the music of tomorrow?


Books

Michael Nyman Experimental Music:
Cage and Beyond
Studio Vista, 1974
Steve Reich Writings about Music New York University Press, 1974
Paul Griffiths A Guide to Electronic Music Thames and Hudson, 1979
David Keane Tape Music Composition Oxford University Press, 1980
Pauline Oliveros Software for People
Collected Writings 1963-1980
Smith Publications, 1984
Eric Tamm Brian Eno
His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound
Faber and Faber, 1989
Eric Tamm Robert Fripp
From King Crimson to Guitar Craft
Faber and Faber, 1990
Edward Strickland American Composers Indiana University Press, 1987
Edward Strickland Minimalism: Origins Indiana University Press, 1993
David Toop Ocean of Sound
Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds
Serpents Tail, 1996



Index

The Birth of Loop written by Michael Peters
Version 1.1 (created Oct 13, 1996, modified 2004 and 2006)
(Comments, corrections and additions welcome. Send email)

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