A Long Journey Over Broken Borders: from the Chicago Tapes to the Digital West

by John R. Campbell

A Long Journey Over Broken Borders: from the Chicago Tapes to the Digital West by John R. Campbell
There were a few years there–the late 60’s and early 70’s–when underground FM radio thrived in Chicago. FM was new then, not yet corporate, and it offered, on weak frequencies, some very eclectic and adventurous broadcasting. I’d stay up late at night and record from the radio—musicians I’d never heard, but who fascinated me: Sibelius, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Skip James, Ornette Coleman, Doc Boggs. The tapes had no genre boundaries or even taste parameters, really–half the time I didn’t even know if I exactly liked the stuff I was recording. I didn’t yet have enough musical context to fully appreciate it. But I craved the soundscapes the tapes created. Avant garde and folk musics seemed much the same to me. It was all musical texture—fresh and new, especially the stuff that was old.

Listen to the album while reading the text.

But let me back up a bit. First I want to credit the 1969 Chicago Cubs as a major influence on my musical approach.

A Won Bet

I was twelve years old the year the Cubs finally had a shot at the National League East championship. Baseball is something of a religion to Chicagoans: I can name the Cubs’ ’69 roster even today.

Still, I’m a skeptic in many matters, including sports and religion, so when a friend, a die-hard Cubbie fan, was willing to bet almost anything that our team would take the National League pennant and the World Series, I took the wager. I can’t remember what I put up on my side, but he had a mini reel-to-reel tape recorder I envied, and he bet it.

Well, long story short, the Cubs finished 2nd in the NL East, and I possessed a machine that would change my outlook on music. I taped incessantly: radio, street sounds, nature. My own weird ramblings.

A Progressive Teacher

A couple of years later, in high school, I was lucky enough to have a progressive music instructor. He was a saxophonist (!) for the Chicago Symphony who was, as you can imagine, often out of work and required a day-job teaching.

He taught us the concept of musique concrete and how to splice tape and create loops. He also brought in a Moog to demonstrate the rudiments of synthesis. Meanwhile I was absorbing all the jazz and blues music I could, rifling through record bins at Rose Records or at second-hand stores.

The school library had every issue of Downbeat since its inception, and even oral histories like Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya. I had to hide my copy of Charles Mingus’ notorious Beneath the Underdog from my parents.

Chicago Jazz Clubs

Soon I was creating tape collages from snippets of music, found sources, and field recordings, delineating quasi-narratives in sound. When I was old enough, I frequented the Chicago jazz clubs and experienced people like Mingus, Yusef Lateef, Sun Ra, and AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Later, in concert venues: Weather Report, and of course, electric Miles. Rock music, folk music, and world music were becoming integrated with jazz.

I was drawn to the players who valued innovation over genre, even as they were steeped in tradition. For me, they blurred rigid divisions in the same way that tape collage did. Evocative fragments were assembled in service of an organic whole.

Experimentation and Collage

All these years later, as a West Coast guitarist, electronic musician, poet, and producer, I practice this same ethic. I still rely on fundamental tools from those days: loops (only now they’re digital), delay (you could plug your guitar into a reel-to-reel player and use the distance between the tape heads to create delay), reverse, white noise, (often radio static or tape hiss), and sampling.

And I still value experimentation and collage over genre-based expectations. This open-ended approach allows poetry, landscape, and nature to enter in to the music easily. It also allows collaborations with musicians with various musical interests, as evidenced in configurations like Avant Garage, Blind Lions, and Woodman/Kellam/Campbell.

Well, the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016, their first in 108 years. Thanks for flubbing all those years, Cubbies—you really helped me out back in 1969.

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