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Berlin’s cassette underground

Hardly for just nostalgia's sake, cassettes and Berlin's dedicated tape heads are hiding among our musical cityscape. CTM even gives you a taste of the culture with Wolfgang Seidel's "Cassette Concert".

Image for Berlin's cassette underground
Photo by Erica Löfman

A handful of experimental cassette devotees are giving the vintage medium a second life, but who are these performers and why all the hiss?

Stop. Play. Pause. Fast-forward. Rewind. Eject. We may still use the terminology, but not so long ago, the words signified more than soundless digital clicks. Cassettes were wound and re-wound, ejected with a hard pop. As kids, we ripped out the magnetic tape, jamming little fingers into those small perforated holes that left rimmed red marks, evidence of the massacre that had just occurred.

More than 30 years and a digital revolution later, there’s a small group of Berliners who never stopped ripping out that magnetic tape. They are known as ‘cassette performers’.

Performing with anywhere between two and 20 tape recorders on stage, they produce sound by simultaneously playing the cassettes and using looping or manipulation devices to create reverb sound effects.

Most Monday evenings, these tape junkies test out their newest creations on nominal crowds in the low-light confines of Kreuzberg’s Madame Claude. Larger performances do take place, but to find out when and where, one must keep one’s eyes peeled for strategically placed posters or just sign up for the right newsletters.

The Tapeman cometh

One of Berlin’s original cassette performers is Frankfurt native Helge Neidhardt, better known by his alias “Tapeman”. Since he began performing in the late 1980s, Neidhardt has used up to 20 tape recorders at a time, utilising the entire room and forcing the audience to become a vital part of each performance.

Donning a mask and skulking past awed spectators, Neidhardt entices the audience with noises, music and field recordings played simultaneously to create a hard-to-classify sound.

For Neidhardt, using cassettes was never a conscious decision but rather where the “music led” him. In the 1980s, cassette recorders were ubiquitous and inexpensive and a scene built up around tape performance.

“My 1980s were not your 1980s,” says the 46-year-old Neidhardt.

But when the relevance of tapes began to deteriorate in the 1990s, the scene dwindled. There were a few holdouts, like Neidhardt, and the practice never fully disappeared, hanging on as an underground community playing to small audiences.

The next generation

In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of curiosity in tape and tape performance.

German cassette performer Ernst Markus Stein is one of the new generation of cassette performers living in Berlin. The 26-year-old who’s rarely without his backpack full of cassettes refers to performers like Tapeman as “classic”.

Stein says his obsession with tapes goes beyond mere musical performance. Using cassettes and their magnetic insides to create a moving structure of oddities, Stein sees himself as an artist. Yet he also attempts more than the “classic” performers to reach wider audiences with his work, uploading much of his material to the web and promoting performances with his online radio program “DIY Church” every Monday on www.radio23.org.

According to Stein, audiences at tape performances have grown a lot over the past two years. For him, the cassette scene is neither a backlash against vinyl nor a recreation of erstwhile mix tape culture. Rather it’s a natural continuation of a practice pioneered by people like Tapeman, one that has gained prestige among hipsters in the last few years.

The troubadour and the tape run

One of the most influential figures in Berlin’s cassette renaissance is Dutch expat Rinus van Alebeek, another veteran performer who organises shows and often takes new artists under his wing. Fusing storytelling and cassette manipulation, Van Alebeek introduced a novel sense of narrative to tape performance and is seen as a trailblazer by his peers.

He sees his own work as “a combination of recognisable and unrecognisable sound that allows the audience to create their own fantasy.” Asking the tape troubadour why he works with cassettes is like asking a rock musician why he plays the guitar “to create sound”. You just don’t do it.

In 2010, Van Alebeek broadened his impact in the cassette world by founding Staaltape as a spinoff of the Dutch Staalplaat label. One of Staaltape’s ongoing projects is the Berlin Tape Run, a cassette exchange consisting solely of hand-to-hand swaps (Van Alebeek is vehemently against using the post).

The resulting recording is a compilation by the artists who swapped the tape, presented in the order it was exchanged. With its miscellany and eccentricity of sound, a BTR cassette has the enigma of a tape you might grab out of a gutter or buy on a whim from a junk store.

For Van Alebeek, who has already extended the Tape Run to Paris and Brussels, cassettes offer an element of surprise foreign to vinyl. “When you put on a record, you know what you are in for, but with cassettes you are getting a message from nowhere,” he says.

Tapes make palpable the connection between creator and listener, and the intricate, often handmade packaging speaks to this intimacy. “It may cause nostalgic thoughts, because, even if it is a 2011 release, the sounds on it hold so much history, that the whole of it works like a portrait of a selection of sound makers who happened to live in Berlin at more or less the same period,” continues Van Alebeek.

The mad archaeologist

Although many cassette performers claim not to use tape for nostalgic reasons – rather for the so-called ‘warm tones’ they produce – the deconstruction and restructuring of memorabilia is a common theme.

The best example of this is the work of British-born Adam Thomas, aka Preslav Literary School, who reworks old tapes into live compositions, then releases them digitally and on vinyl.

Thomas travels throughout Berlin scavenging for lost or forgotten tapes. Stopping by radio stations and thrift stores, he takes only his Walkman to test out the existing recordings on old cassettes. Sifting through boxes, Thomas looks for tapes with some evidence of tampering or re-recording.

Often they contain what he calls “audible artifacts”, accidental recordings and hidden messages never intended to be broadcast. One track of his begins, “Ronald R eagan wird bald kommen…” then fades into ghostly tunes, like an ambient distortion of history or a message from another world.

Since Philips launched the compact audiocassette at the 1963 Berlin Radio Show, our relationship with music has constantly evolved. Cassettes represented a turning point for how people used technology for their own purposes.

Now, in a world of MP3s, music sharing and zillions of clickable online options, Berlin’s community of tape performers are – with an eye to the future – resurrecting a moment when audio technology still clicked and whirred.