The Wire

In Writing

Unofficial Channels Extra: Balsam Flex

Julian Cowley on the enduring pre-digital cassettes issued on Vonna-Michell’s South London imprint

Hums & Clicks is a title that seems to sit squarely within the glitch aesthetic of the past decade but E E Vonna-Michell’s cassette release was recorded in 1978 and is blissfully pre-digital. An alarm clock ticks metallically over the low characterless drone of amplifier hum; sprays of white noise cut in and out; a muffled human voice murmurs obsessively. Another version of this strange greyscale composition fills the second side of the C90 tape. It was one of a series of enigmatic and enduringly fascinating cassettes issued on Vonna-Michell’s South London imprint Balsam Flex.

The makers of this prescient lo-fi noise music were mostly writers, working with the material aspects of language, typographic shape and texture or their performed equivalent in sound. As Simon Reynolds has remarked, “noise is like an eruption within the material out of which language is shaped. We are arrested, fascinated, by a convulsion of sound to which we are unable to assign a meaning.” Vonna-Michell’s book Falkenhagen overlaid print into a virtual blur decorated with apparently random scrawl. Another 1980 small press publication Willow Wents opted for a reductionist alternative - blank pages with just a few small and fragmentary textual remnants. Both, he later explained, had the same amount of writing, but in Willow Wents that had deleted itself.

The Balsam Flex cassettes carried such overwriting and erasure into another medium. They existed in the margins of the margins where aspects of the future are formulated in an encrypted yet prophetic language. “Touch”, on a tape by Iida Kajino, is a true instance of proto-glitch: sparse crackles and a few momentary eruptions of raw noise set against silence, or rather against the sound of the cassette cogs turning and the electrical hum of the player. In every respect obscure. Most widely known of the Balsam Flex contributors was sound-poet Henri Chopin whose “Dentales soufflees” (Unvoiced Dentals) is dedicated to Vonna-Michell: “It is a work made up of unvoiced vowels hitting against the teeth and using them as percussion instruments, with the microphone placed against the teeth”.

Balsam Flex releases generally avoided such overt explication. The quirky graphics and inscriptions of their xeroxed inserts were continuous with the sound content and just as mysterious. There’s a pranksterish humour involved too. “Car Wash Interview” has Vonna-Michell conversing with poet and visual artist Allen Fisher in a Citroen undergoing an automated rinse. Cris Cheek, Lawrence Upton and Clive Fencott - energetic presences on the London poetry scene at that time - made their intentions clear, performing as Bang Crash Wallopp and made lively, messy, distorted and adulterated tapes. Further convulsions were produced by disruptive artists such as Ulli McCarthy, Alice Blommer and Yurine Burns. The future is enfolded in present obscurity; in these seldom heard 30 year old artefacts are pre-echoes of music we now know.

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