Terry Riley: The Musical Implications of Experimental Tape Looping
In his lecture “Looping the Loop”, Steven Connor presents the literary implications brought about by the advent of magnetic tape recording. However, it is the developments in experimental music which he discusses in the middle of the lecture that I am most drawn to. In this critical commentary, I am going to expand Connor’s philosophical statements about tape looping, by contextualising it against the work of the early minimalist Terry Riley, as well as examine a seminal moment for tape looping in popular culture; The Beatles Revolver. Through these two brief examples, I will examine how tape looping changed the way time is conceptualised and manipulated in experimental and popular music in the 1960s.
For Connor, tape stands as the crucial enabling factor in the shift from recorded sound being a medium to consume, into a medium which can be manipulated. He cites Hayles who notes that ‘whereas the phonograph produced objects that could be consumed only in their manufactured form, magnetic tape allowed the consumer to be a producer as well’.He suggests tape is ‘a medium that provided ongoing opportunities for intervention and transformation.’ This is because unlike the vinyl, magnetic tape is a linear format which allows for more precise access and intervention in the timeline of recorded sound. Tape is also vulnerable to both ‘damage’ and ‘deletion’, in a way that the permanent ‘groove of the record’ is not. (Connor, p. 5). In this sense, Connor suggests that because of its capacity for overdubbing, ‘tape remains soft and live’ (Connor, p. 5). This is the quality which avant-garde pioneers recognised about tape; a new malleability of sound, somewhere between the past constraints of vinyl, and the then unrealised, uninhibited future of the digital.
Terry Riley’s early work with tape loops embodied this new-found freedom of the aural landscape. His 1963 album Music For The Gift, is a series of jazz melodies slowly layered on top of one another, which gradually become indistinguishable, creating a vast rippling soundscape. Riley used a simple two tape head setup; one to record, and one to play back. His slightly later work A Rainbow in Curved Air, took this early form of live sampling into the realm of electronic sounds, with repeated ostinatos and varying time signatures coming in and out of phase with one another. Riley also became the source of inspiration and the namesake for The Who’s generational anthem “Baba O’Riley”.These pieces would not have been possible before the advent of the reel to reel tape recorder. In an interview with Station To Station, Riley recalls that ‘Loops were one of the few things you could do which would be noticeably different than what you’d be doing with instruments’. This highlights not only the lack of choice for experimental mediums in the early 1960s, but also the cultural climate of a desire for experimentation. Crucially, Riley remembers how ‘tape loops were showing me that there was something about stationary music, or static, or vertical music, that would be a new experience’ (Riley, 2013). This aligns perfectly with Connor’s fundamental statement that ‘tape embodies not just the stopping of time, but the spreading and thickening of the present moment. (Connor, p. 5).
Here, I think we can expand upon Connor’s statement. I see looping as a way of partially freeing sound from its constraints as an implicitly temporal medium, and allowing it to exist more as a texture, rather than simply as recorded time. By removing a prescribed length or structure from a piece of sound art or music, the sound becomes a medium which fills space, rather than time, taking on a similar experiential quality to visual art, through musical ‘colour’. To reiterate Riley’s term, sound takes on this new ‘vertical’ presence, which liberates it from the unyielding horizontal restraints of bars, time signatures, and digital grids. Tape looping becomes more about texture, chance, improvisation, anomaly and eventual degradation. Riley recalls fondly how ‘the noises in the sound build-up as you add layers of sound, disintegrate into these grainy textures which had little ghosts inside of them’ (Riley, 2013).
It was during this avant-garde heyday that The Beatles released their 1966 album Revolver, which saw the group’s first break away from pop hits, towards darker, more experimentally tinged sounds, influenced by psychedelics, Eastern Philosophy, and the emerging technique of tape looping. Four of the fourteen songs on the album, feature commercially unheard of, uses of looping, overdubbing, reversal, and speed manipulation; ‘She Said She Said’, ‘Good Day Sunshine’, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Indeed, the latter is immediately recognizable as The Beatles’ spin in the experimental tradition, pioneered by Riley and other avant-garde minimalists such as Pauline Oliveros, and La Monte Young. Yet the Beatles session producer Ken Townsend, credited with the invention of ADT (Artificial Double Tracking), and lauded by Lennon for these new techniques, was experimenting with tape reels quite independently of the minimalists. This demonstrates the universality, implicit within the medium of tape itself; to inspire manipulation, and new forms of creativity. Connor quotes Morton; ‘tape became an instrument of production, changing the technologies and practices of recording’.  This I believe to be the most crucial and enduring legacy of tape, long after digital technologies have superseded it in fidelity, accessibility, and longevity. The initial experiments from pioneers like Terry Riley, and the introduction of tape echo and looping into pop-culture by The Beatles, are two instances of bold creative genius. They gave birth to entire genres of ambient music, countless stomp boxes, and DAW plugins. In the words of Connor, ‘an entire language of reverberation and echo effects is owed to tape, and the history of reverberation remains deliciously to be written’ (Connor, p. 5).
Connor, Steven. ‘Looping the Loop: Tape-Time in Burroughs and Beckett’, Iowa City:
University of Iowa, 28th January 2010.
Riley, Terry. ‘Terry Riley Tape Loops’, Station To Station, 2013,
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O07QZwl8uac> [Accessed 26 January 2017]
Service, Tom. ‘A Guide To Terry Riley's Music’, The Guardian, 28 January 2013
<https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2013/jan/28/terry-riley-contemporary-music-guide>[Accessed 26 February 2017]
Townsend, Ken. ‘The ADT Story with Abbey Road Studios’ Ken Townsend’, Waves Audio
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgnSVdjfSwk, [Accessed 26 January 2017]
 Hayles quoted in Steven Connor, ‘Looping the Loop: Tape-Time in Burroughs and Beckett’, (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2010), p. 4.
 Connor, ‘Looping the Loop’, p. 4.
 Tom Service, ‘A Guide To Terry Riley's Music’, The Guardian, 28 January 2013
<https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2013/jan/28/terry-riley-contemporary-music-guide> [Accessed 26 February 2017]
 Riley, Terry. ‘Terry Riley Tape Loops’, Station To Station, 8 November 2013
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O07QZwl8uac> [Accessed 26 January 2017]
 David Morton quoted in Connor, ‘Looping the Loop’, p. 4.