“I spend hours listening to old cassette tapes – suddenly there’s a breakthrough…”
Sound artist Mark Vernon has a long association with Full of Noises – both performing at FON festivals and attending as a visitor.
Mark discovers voices from abandoned cassette tapes and uses them in atmospheric soundscapes.
As he prepares to visit Barrow for a concert (Saturday 25 November) and workshop he talks about his career and the fascination of found tapes.
Where does the interest in reel-to-reel and tape come from?
From childhood really. One day my dad surreptitiously recorded us having our breakfast without telling us. He’d hidden it under the sideboard. And then he played back the recording to us.
Hearing my voice played back for the first time in that way was quite a formative thing.
A lot of the time we would just use the tape machine to record our favourite songs from Top of The Pops off the radio or my sister reciting nursery rhymes.
Much later the recorder ended up with me and I started playing around with it in adulthood. Discovering family recordings a decade or two later made me want to preserve those moments.
Giving them new life by working them into compositions or radio pieces was one way of doing this.
Tell us about your career as a sound artist?
My background is in visual art. I studied fine art at undergraduate level and masters.
Towards the end of the masters I started experimenting with sound.
Then when a friend gave me a 4-track porta-studio, I started experimenting and recording things around the house – lo-fi musical compositions using kitchen utensils as percussion and things like that.
“My first ever Arts Council grant was for £300 and I bought a MiniDisc recorder and a microphone and started making my own field recordings.”
The MiniDisc has this handy function where you could cut recordings and put them on repeat – so, effectively you could make loops.
Combining this with the 4-track really opened up the possibilities of composing my own sound pieces. The focus then almost completely shifted to working with sound.
You work with voices from tapes you have found – almost like ghosts from another time?
The beginning for me working with found recordings was when I moved to Glasgow.
I found all these black bags left out on the street. Sadly it turned out to be a family’s possessions. They had left suddenly and everything was left behind.
“It was almost like a forensic investigation. Trying to work out what had happened. There was everything from letters about debts to school reports, clothes and even wedding photos.”
There were also some cassette tapes. As I had may Walkman with me I start listened to them whilst sifting through these possessions.
On the tapes were recordings of the mother and her two young sons taking it in turns doing home karaoke.
More than any of the other personal items, the thing that had the greatest impact and that made these people real for me, was listening to the tape, to their actual voices.
It was a real shivers down the spine moment. I later used this sound as part of an installation at the Mackintosh Building in Glasgow.
From then I was regularly haunting car boot sales and flea markets looking for tapes.
You must spend hours listening through old tapes trying to find something?
Ninety percent of the time there would be nothing useful or worthwhile on a tape – mostly just popular music.
But sometimes out of the blue, even in the middle of a tape, I would find a random home recording which I could then use.
I also began to find tapes with postal addresses on them – which were obviously sent specifically to someone. These were like audio letters to family or friends.
What is it like when you find something great on a tape recording?
There’s a real thrill and excitement when you discover these little audio gems on tapes which have been discarded.
Sometimes I might spend hours and hours listening to terrible music on a tape but then suddenly there’s a breakthrough of a real person from another time and another place.
It is like a window on another world all of a sudden.
There is a voyeuristic element too – hearing these little slices of life – of other people’s existence.
They give insights into the way people lived in the past – their personalities and character.
Tell us about one of your most significant finds.
One of my biggest finds was a batch of tapes that belonged to a member of Derby Tape Recording Club.
It turns out there were clubs all around the country where amateurs would meet and play each other their tape recording experiments.
It would mostly be documentary style things – it sounded like they were aspiring to make the kind of radio programmes they would have heard on the BBC but not quite achieving it.
I didn’t know what was on these tapes until I played them.
“They had intriguing titles like ‘Derbyshire Caravan Rally 1968’ and ‘Holidays Torquay 1969’. I sensed there would be something interesting.”
They all belonged to a man called Bill Howard who it turned out was a member of the club.
These were all amateur recordings of varying quality but with an innocence and charm to them.
There was a self-consciousness and an attempt from mostly working class people to emulate the received pronunciation they would have been hearing on the BBC.
No regional accents would have been heard on air at that time and there were no local stations.
I started transferring all of these tapes digitally and then began assembling them into radio programmes.
I tried to put together what I thought the tape club members might have intended if they had had the equipment and resources back then.
Eventually this became a series for Resonance FM and a programme for Radio 4.
I tracked down other members of the clubs who I interviewed and who also gave me their tapes so the whole thing snowballed.
By the time I’d done I ended up documenting the Leicester and Nottingham tape recording clubs as well.
On some of the tapes there were also these spoken commentaries that would at one time have accompanied a slide show – but the images were now missing.
There is something really fascinating about somebody just describing a scene in a photograph.
Because the image is absent it is just left to your imagination to fill in the blanks.
How does this content find its way into your work?
For years I didn’t really know what to do with these particular tapes but I realised that they were really evocative and quite special as catalysts for the imagination.
So I thought maybe I could make them more real by creating a soundscape to accompany the voices and bring these absent images further to life.
Creating a more fully formed ‘sound picture’ if you like.
That was the basis for my most recent album – a series of works under the umbrella ‘Call Back Carousel’.
What can people expect from your concert at Full of Noises on 25th November?
I’ll be using field recordings, processed sounds, a lot of found tapes from my collection mostly of voices and music and integrating this into a live composition.
I’ll be using a quadraphonic set up too so it should be an immersive surround sound experience.
I don’t want to give too much away though…
TICKETS: Mark Vernon concert at FON SATURDAY 25 NOVEMBER: *HERE*
WORKSHOP: Mark Vernon FREE workshop at FON SUNDAY 26 NOVEMBER. *HERE*
Workshop details: ‘Memories are Made of Hiss’ looking at tape as a form of memory storage.
Playing with field recordings, tape splicing, degrading recordings with magnets, tape loops and other methods of fast forwarding the effects of time.
Must book in advance – limited to 12 places.