Bande Magnetique


Just been listening to an ancient recording of Tippett’s Mask of Time, bootlegged from the Proms on Radio Three. My Sony Walkman still sounds good; and I reckon that the data-retrieval mechanism for tape is a lot simpler and cheaper than the ubiquitous CD laser system.

Although there is a certain degree of romance attached to tapes, since they can perish if not carefully looked after: the recovery of a lost recording can bring unexpected delights, such as the recent find of some Bob Marley concerts:

Listening to music can be a bit like sitting in a café looking out at the street. Various configurations of people, vehicles, weather are observed; each element can interact with the others according to a set of rules. The girl in the blue coat will pause at the papershop, hoping that a young man will admire her. A middle-aged woman has a small dog on a lead; as they approach the pigeons, the dog will suddenly rush forwards, barking, and the birds will scatter upwards in a lazy panic.

Listening to music, one hears a note or chord; depending on the instruments and the skills of the players, it may be sustained in a certain way, with minor variations. The use of recording technology – magnetic tape – allows the notes to be extended or distorted, creating unfamiliar sounds. This is rather like looking out through the café window and noticing that the girl in the blue coat has grown a third arm, or the pigeons are transformed into flapping, angry mackerel. The narrow range of possibilities has been enlarged. The borders of the map have been redrawn.

Some people find this deeply disturbing; they regard ‘classical’ music as being highly formalised, with a clear creative process. An individual – usually old, male and white – will visit a picturesque ruin or attend a performance of Shakespeare, after which, seized with creative fire, he will begin composing themes and variations and dramatic expositions.

The sequence of mental processes leading up to the production of this masterwork is a nebulous drama, not open to analysis or understanding, a magical process which cannot be taught but instead is in the nature of a divine gift.

The same attitude sometimes prevails among traditional workers in the paint industry. The process of formulating an industrial coating is somehow mysterious, and requires years of experience. An apprentice would be taken on by the firm and would undergo ritual humiliation, being sent on an assortment of pointless journeys around the factory, asking for long weights or tartan paint. Eventually the young man – and it usually was a young man – would be granted limited access to the recipes used by the formulating staff. These formulations would normally be based on the official production charts, but with minor additions or amendments which were a closely-guarded secret. “Of course I can’t let my boss know how this stuff is made” said one older worker, “Because then he’d be able to replace me with someone else.”

And when the Senior Technician eventually retires, the company discovers that production batches take a lot longer to make, since the actual details of additives, solvents and mixing times have been carried away in a small spiral-bound notebook. Why is it necessary to adjust the shade and viscosity so many times when all the batches from last year came out spot-on, first time every time?

Of course, the traditional approach to paint manufacture is that it is a ‘black art’ where formal technical knowledge is of little value compared with the hard-won craftsmanship owned by the High Priest (Senior Technician). Any suggestions that the manufacturing process should be examined or modified are abruptly quashed, using the sovereign mantra ‘We’ve Always Done It This Way’.

And this is perfectly reasonable, since any change to the existing method can have one of two possible effects: it can impair (or leave unchanged) the quality of the product, in which case it has been a waste of time. Or it can bring about an improvement – which means that the original procedure had been flawed. And nobody in the higher levels of the firm will ever admit that they made a poor decision when they approved this faulty procedure.




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