by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
If only I were Edith Piaf. But alas, I can’t say je ne regrette rien. Once upon a wasted time (circa late 1970’s and early 80’s) I hung on New York City’s downtown art/music scene. The scene never fit me, I tried to fit it. Which was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. My only excuse is that I was caught in a spiritual downdraft. Couldn’t see how deeply the Punk New Wave No Wave Ironic Transgressive thing wasn’t me. Its gods weren’t mine. The Velvet Underground gave good vinyl but their legend was tiresome. William Burroughs seemed shallow. Neo-Expressionism? A few pieces were sharp (albeit over-priced) but a lot looked like puke splattered on a sidewalk outside the Mudd Club .
Oh. Yeah. Those fabulous avant-garde nite spots…
Color me ashamed for ever taking pride in being approved by a doorman.
By ’83, I was outta there. Living in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson from Manhattan. In those days Hoboken felt far from NYC. An escape from hip happening hell. David Solomonoff (my future husband) and I lived in a five floor walk-up in the tallest building on our block. No telephone. Couldn’t afford it. Up there in the clouds, where no phone ever rang, we began doing Mail Art and making music cassettes as Solomonoff & Von Hoffmannstahl. The post office became our scene and we loved it. No cliques, clacks or clutter, just real deal underground art. Via snail mail we connected with artists and musicians all over the world.
Our first connect came via Jim Sauter of Borbetomagus. (Aka the “pioneers of aggressive improvised noise music”.) Jim gave us contact info for Japanese Mail Artist and musician Masami Akita. The work received from Akita was a revelation. His dense rich collages were non splatter and his music as Merzbow was full-tilt lush noise. Apres Akita, the deluge. Our correspondents eventually numbered in the hundreds. Some were creative trifectas (art, music, words) others specialized. We developed collaborative relationships (as opposed to just trading work) with many, both for Mail Art and cassette projects. We contributed numerous pieces to cassette compilations and also supplied material for other musicians to cut up and rework.
In no particular order, our cassette culture collaborators* included: Joel Haertling (Architect’s Office), Zan Hoffman (Zanstones, Zanoisect, Zidsick, etc.), Al Margolis (Sound of Pig; If Bwana), GX Jupitter-Larsen (The Haters), Seiei Jack Nakahara (Joke Project), Rafael Flores (Comando Bruno), Mike Honeycutt (Mystery Hearsay), M. Nomized (Fraction Studio), Hal McGee (Homemade Alien Music), Shinichi Igari (Uterus of Plant), Alain Neffe (Insane Music Productions), Rudi Tuscher (Nisus Anal Furgler), Wally Shoup, Kowa Kato, Bart Plantenga, Ken Clinger, Denier Du Culte, Calypso Now, Soft Joke Productions, Magthea, Absolute Body Control, DDAA (Déficit Des Années Antérieures), Intrendent Fansette, Bog-Art, Reportage, and So On & So Forth. The last a place holder for anyone I’ve inadvertently omitted.
Over roughly four years, we produced five cassette “albums”: In The Mood, Swim Or Die, Great In Bed, God Is Love, and finally, The Element That Defies Description. Great In Bed was a compilation which included work by some of the people listed above. It came packaged in a black nylon stocking. (We’d bought boxes of them at a Hoboken odd lots store.) In The Element we took tracks supplied by others and reworked the material into an overarching musical structure and metaphysical theme.
The Solomonoff & Von Hoffmannstahl sound was shaped by having little money. Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood once said “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The same goes for broke musicians. Our equipment was limited and we knew those limitations intimately. We worked them. Our apartment was our studio. Its ancient inadequate wiring meant lots of line hum. The hum would sing in shrill choruses when channeled through the frequency analyzer (aka ring modulator), a groovy 70’s effect manufactured by Electro-Harmonix. David had a made-in-Korea electric guitar and a Polytone Mini-Brute amp. Which was indeed brutish. When its spring-reverb was sproinging and its distortion was cranked the Mini-Brute turned into Godzilla doing Tokyo. We also had a vintage tube hifi amp which we played through the kind of wooden PA speakers that once hung in schoolrooms.
Our biggest (in terms of size and lineage) instrument was a 1960’s Vox Continental organ. The keyboard that carried The Doors. When momentarily flush from a freelance writing job, I’d bought the Vox for 200 bucks from The Major Thinkers, an Irish punk group. They claimed it previously belonged to Hall & Oates. The Vox was a workhorse. It had a few iffy drawbars but the randomness was a good thing; it seemed as if the Vox were actively improvising. Vox and Mini-Brute were bosom buddies.
Our other keyboards were miniature Casios. An MT-40 and VL-5. Among the earlier Casios on the market, their cheesy rhythm sections had options that allowed jump-cut transitions twixt say, samba and disco. When jacked with the line-humming frequency analyzer and/or our Doctor Q envelope filter (also made by Electro-Harmonix) samba and disco shattered into infinity. When the Casios’ batteries got weak, the shattering became even more extreme.
We also snagged rhythm from records. Most typically, ones from the 1950’s that demonstrated the exciting new audio technology of Stereo. Think demented bongos bouncing back and forth, forth and back, while Dad mixes martinis (clink clink) in the rec room. We also pulled snippets of exotic instrumentation from easy listening albums. We found countless treasures of Incredibly Strange Music and Exotica in Hoboken’s many junk shops. Prices ranged from 10 cents to a dollar. An LP had to be really special to warrant a dollar. Something like: Mario Lanza Gargles Gershwin– in Stereo.
We listened intently to the records we mined. Culling snippets of rhythm, minuscule musical phrases, and single syllables. Everything we sampled was sampled without a sampler. David was fast on the draw with our Pioneer turntable. He’d hover over a spinning platter, tone arm in hand– his other hand poised to punch the ree-cord button on our cheapie cassette deck. We had three cheapie decks. Plus a stereo amp with cheapie speakers, a good set of headphones, and a Radio Shack four channel mixer. Four tracks in, two tracks out. Layer up and do it all over again. Toss in a few guitar effect pedals (which we also used on samples and keyboards), a Roland analog micro synth/sequencer, a microphone, and me on vocals. That was our sound. Tech wise. As for the creative process–
When creating a piece we carefully assembled and structured the materials, then combined them through improvisation. We’d have a clear idea of what mood we wanted to create, how it should sound, and how the piece should generally progress. But the road was open to inspiration. Instrumentals by David and myself, together and solo, were improvised but sometimes sampled, cut-up, and recast. My vocals were fairly straight (no, no Yoko) inclining more to cocktail lounge and big band than rock. Sometimes a bit gospel. The sound of Solomonoff & Von Hoffmannstahl (in Stereo) was/is described by others with words such as Industrial, Electronic, Experimental, Sound-Collage, Noise, Art-Rock. I’ve never known how to describe it. Guess I’d just say it is what it is.
One thing I do know– we had a whole lot of fun doing it. Though being so broke was no fun. That big old railroad apartment was only heated at one end, by the kind of gas heater that even then was archaic. Up on the top floor we froze in the winter and baked in the summer. We didn’t have a stove for a year and juggled pots on a hot plate. And like I said, no phone. But hey, we always managed to scrape together enough for postage and blank cassettes. And when the no-cash blues got tough we got going. Cranking the Mini-Brute to the max and ring-modulating our cares into the international ether.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
“I hear you singing in the wire, I can hear you through the whine…”
Wichita Lineman, Jimmy Webb, 1968
*So as to not clog this paragraph with links, I’m supplying contacts and/or background material re our cassette collaborators below. Haven’t been in touch with some of them for years. Apologies if I’ve missed more apropos links:
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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