Dan Sinker/blog

Let X Equal X

When I was young, middle-school age probably, I read an article about the artist/musician/weirdo Laurie Anderson. I don't remember where, though it was likely in Rolling Stone, and I don't remember why, other than probably there was a picture in it in that looked cool, and I don't remember what it was about other than a single sentence in it, a sentence that would fuel an obsession. That sentence described, in frustratingly little detail, how Anderson fashioned a violin bow out of audiotape and would play it using a violin that had a tape head where the strings should be (it's likely I've described this in far more detail than the original sentence).

The idea of building sound from sound, of making art with other art, was captivating to me.

I set to work trying to figure out what Anderson's tape-loop violin could possibly be and how I could reproduce it. This was pre-internet. There was no easy way to find any more references to it. I bought albums from a used record store. When I found Home of the Brave for rent at a local video store, I scoured it for any glimpse, but at that point she had started playing MIDI violins.

But I pressed on anyway. I took apart an old Walkman, slowly and carefully because I did not have extra Walkmen just laying around. It was a lot of trial and error, mostly error, but eventually I exposed the tape head as best I could, afraid to sever the wrong wire and lose the whole thing. It was small and silver, smooth and slightly rounded. I remember how satisfying it felt to rub my fingers across.

I understood just enough about electrical wiring, learned largely through a middle-school woodworking class where we had to build and wire a lamp. I went to a Radio Shack and bought some cheap parts to build a speaker I could click into the headphone jack.

I unwound cassette tapes and pulled them across the head. It never sounded how I wanted, much more of a muffled smush than actual music, but it worked. I tried stretching them taught, but never fully could make a "bow" that worked right. I'd listen to cassettes and mark on them where an interesting musical phrase would start and finish and try and "play" it across this makeshift machine.

It never sounded how it sounded in my mind. Which was, for all I knew at that point, the only place the working version of all this ever existed.

That is until the other day when I was thinking about Laurie Anderson and her tape loop violin, something I haven't thought about in a very long time, and so I did a search and, of course, I was able to not only pop up diagrams and descriptions, but there was a video, filmed recently, where she whips out the actual violin, built in the 70s. It was the first time I'd ever seen it.

In the video (embedded above, but also here's a link, she starts talking about this violin about 2:45 in), Anderson presents such a simple machine. Never in a million years did I imagine that it was actually built out of a violin itself. It's painted all black, it's very stark. She talks about how when you use the tape-bows, you create "audio palindromes" words spoken forwards, then backwards. "Say is yes," she explains. "Say yes, say yes, say yes."

There were all sorts of things I did wrong in trying to recreate Anderson's tape-loop violin from a single sentence when I was a kid, but I learned so much in the process: about how magnetic tape worked, about how to disassemble electronics, about how sound is stored, how art is made, and how our own curiosity can take us down paths we never expected.

Looking back on it, trying to build that tape-loop violin is what started me down the dual paths of programming and journalism. Both, at their core, are about asking the question "Why does this work like this?" and then having the curiosity to follow the path wherever it leads.

With answers seemingly always at our fingertips now, asking "Why" can seem too easy. But as the world is engulfed in strife and fire and answers are never as straightforward as they seem, it turns out asking "Why" is still a radical act.

Published November 03, 2023.

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