Big City Orchestra – Kapellmeister CDR (HalTapes – Jan 2015)


Big City Orchestra is a prolific (over 160 releases since 1985) group many would likely recognize as part of the 80s experimental cassette scene. From various readings and conversations with older friends, I gather they were enjoyed as a favorite by many. I get the impression that they have many tricks in their bag, and that is what makes them so impressive and special.

Please enjoy Big City Orchestra’s Discogs bio:

“One of the most idiosyncratic and original groups of the past two decades, BCO is not your standard Orchestra. Situated in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, the band has released an enormous catalog of recorded material over the past two decades. Formed in the late 1970’s the ensemble continues to maintain a free-flowing roster of artists from around the world that collaborate on specific projects. Categorizing the Orchestra into any given genre can be a task, as releases continue to surprise even the most devout listener. There is never any way to precisely classify the next BCO release. An album of authentic sea-shanties? A wall of noise? A shimmering downpour of lullabies whispered to the wind? A humorous or thought-provoking album of Sound Collages? Vocal excursions set to make Rod McKuen blush? We press play, leaning forward with slight apprehension. We await the first wave of blissful deception. We are perpetually rewarded.”

This CDR was released by Hal McGee, who was involved in distributing & releasing their music in the early / mid 80s. I assume this release results in part from that years-old positive connection.

Hal(“Ear Tampons” – poignantly preposterous?)

My first exposure, of two total exposures, to Big City Orchestra was a CDR called Beatlerape, consisting of a bizarre collection of alternate takes on and / or cut-up-collagery of Beatles songs and recordings. I don’t know if it’s ‘rape’, but what they do to Beatles music on this album is quacked out and could by many be called “wrong”. Demented looping, demented voices, demented juxtapositions of sounds. I very much enjoyed it off and on for several months in the car’s cd player. I know I’ve heard another Big City Orchestra recording, but I don’t recall which one. This matters because I remember thinking the second Big City Orchestra album I heard was pointedly different from Beatlerape, as is the present specimen, Kapellmeister.

Kapellmeister is a great mixed bag of lo-fi collage, psych, plunder, field recordings, found recordings, electronic junk bits, eclectic instrumentation / approach -but cleanly sectioned into the 10 segments they list on Side A and Side B. Track 8, “OOOOH JACK”, is a cutup of cleanly recorded, quietly speaking christian television preachers set against an ominous early-80s-industrial-mechanical-plodding backdrop. The clips of christian people are cut and assembled in such a way as to slather, playfully and mockingly, the christians’ pretensions of purity with humorous sexual innuendo. It’s simultaneously hilarious and darkly hope-crushing? This piece is on par with all of the other pieces for level of interest, pacing, composition, content, etc. Every track has its own intriguing qualities. Wonderfully surreal yet entertaining and non-tedious. Simple yet engaging and surprising. These things are hard to do with abstract sound work. I dare call it sophisticated, prodigious, genuine. The rawness of the black & white artwork is pleasant, with strangely bleak torn paper collage and digitally manipulated images by Rafael Gonzalez. There’s a cerebral surreality to the haloed white blob (photoshop air brushing likely) over the faces of an idealized couple from the..1930s? This roughness is tied together nicely with the text and with the two pillars of the repeated collage item showing two half-faces close together, reflecting their similarities and differences. These considerations tie the cover together with symmetry and an even distribution of dark and light. In comparison to a number of Hal’s other releases, this HalTapes specimen nicely balances pragmatic non-aestheticism and a tight sense of design. I enjoy the non-aesthetically charged design of the information side of the slim jewel case’s insert.

In his description for his album B12, Hal McGee -designer of this disc’s insert- tells a story about packaging design for audio recordings:

“After my three year hiatus from recording (92-95) I noticed that a lot of noise artists were doing special deluxe package releases. It seemed like every fuckin’ release by Aube had like a dead fish attached to it or a pubic hair or a bag of sewage water or some such shit with deluxe printed sleeve, etc etc etc. I purposely made the cover of my “B12” cassette as shitty and amateurish-looking as possible and I fit four of them onto one sheet of paper so that at Kinko’s each cover would end up costing me like 2.5 cents.


I sent a copy of “B12” to Aube as a trade and told him here is my “anti-deluxe two and a half cent cover”. He was not amused and told me he would not trade with me again. This is the same young upstart who had told me previously that I had been one of his influences from the 1980s. Hahahaha. Uppity bastard!”

I presume to an extent Hal’s current design tendencies align with the thinking embodied in this frank, funny outburst. The emphasis is on what you’re doing and less on the capturing or distillation of some grand wizardly vision into an even more grand wizardly package that sells at inflated prices. This is the dichotomy of process vs. product, or maybe something less clear cut than that. I greatly enjoy both approaches (super-art-packaging and more straight forward packaging) depending on the specific example. It’s unfortunate, but for now I’m dreaming of a future time when I can support more artists putting out special deluxe products. I’m not able to spend so much money any more on music, so I don’t often acquire music releases with special (expensive) packages. Right now I can only get the occasional regular old ordinary issue releases; no fancy boxes, no extra inserts, no 3-D glasses, no diesel-soaked papyrus, no vials of blood, no hand-made folded special-stock paper delicacies. Many DIY artists and label-people have simple aesthetics based around their financial limitations; a lower budget usually costs a bit in impressiveness of appearance, but the money saved by simplifying package design can be used to release music more frequently, or for other projects. I have an interest in understanding different approaches to creative work. As long as the work comes from a genuine and specific place I’ll probably find it at least worth examining.

This CDR/tape/download is a truly excellent recording demonstrating all sorts of creative and technical prowess. That being said, it’s also presented in a remarkably unpretentious way. It’s adventurous and consistently engaging, while still being quite abstract and not the least bit catchy, unless you find certain tonal drones catchy. I rarely put in a recording and find it so impressive on a first listen. When this happens, the recording’s charm usually grows over time rather than fading.

Listen below – the download is only $1 minimum – worth more than that, though.

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