Loop : the Musical Rollercoaster

Experimental music gave a concrete shape to repetitions, known as Loops. This musical form changed considerably over time and is now at the core of many styles. Many artists left their trace and created new genres that complement each other with audible creative differences.

The term loop is often heard in the field of music and refers to the recurring segment of sound material. Loops can either be used alone or in more complex sound structures to create musical pieces. Various music technologies help in the making of a loop. Synthesizers drum machines, delay units and music computer softwares are only a few of them. Yet, this does not mean that repetitive patterns were not used in music long before the advent of these new technological devices. Pieces of classical European music are based on repetition to build their structure. And so was American Jazz in the 20th Century, emphasizing rhythm, improvisation, and repetition. However, it’s in the 20th century that artists really began to experiment with this technique. Not only was repetition used as a variation on a given theme, but as the primary procedure of creation. It came to be used in new ways and was foregrounded, almost for the sake of repetition.  The birth of this new musical form, based on repetition, was made possible by technology and invented by visionary composers inspired by their daily environment. At this point, technology became essential to these artists who used it to record everyday sounds. Gramophone records and tapes gave birth to new aesthetics and completely new worlds of sound and musical structures. This recording and looped use of real-world sounds gave birth to what is known as concrete music. This “unique and early form of avant-garde music” was created by the French composer and musicologist Pierre Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s use of loops in his work was innovative and inspired many other artists to utilize this technique in their musical creations. The American composer Steve Reich is one of these artists. His compositions are marked by their use of “repetitive figures, slow harmonic and canons”. Just as Schaeffer, Reich’s musical experimentations with loops had a significant impact on contemporary music. Among other artists, he became known as one of the first composers to develop what is known as minimalist music. Nowadays, loops are used by a majority of musicians and some are even known for their recurring use of the technique such as the Australian musician Dub FX.

Let’s see how these three artists -Schaeffer, Reich and Dub FX – revolutionized the use of loops in their own way.

Pierre Schaeffer and Concrete Music

Schaeffer in his studio. © All Music

Loops are an integral part of Pierre Schaeffer’s work (1910-1995). The French composer, writer, engineer, and radio broadcaster, studied sounds and is known to be the father of electronic and experimental music. He was the first composer to use magnetic tapes, making him a true pioneer of the postwar era, revolutionizing the way music was seen and composed.

The son of two musicians, from an early age, he became fascinated by the way music works. As a radio broadcaster, he was able to invent new compositional techniques thanks to recording devices (phonographs and turntables) in his radio studio. This research period was crucial because he started to experiment playing with sounds (backward, slowing down, speeding, juxtaposing sounds with other sounds, etc.). He used to work with fragments of sounds taken from his daily life and environment, recording and juxtaposing them with other sounds. Some of his favorite techniques included “tape looping” and “tape splicing”, which both could be compared to “sound collage”.

All these new techniques challenged traditional music to create a new type of music which was unheard-off back then: Concrete Music (1948). It is a new interpretation and perception of music that reconstructs it entirely by “playing” with sounds and improvising them. According to Schaeffer, traditional music is an “abstraction”, while concrete music uses original sounds from our everyday environment. As he said “sound is the vocabulary of nature”.

As the precursor of experimental music, Concrete Music and its loops opened the way to new contemporary styles of music. These are part of the experimental wave that had exploded in this era. Based on repetitions, loops became used in various domains of the music sphere. Following its predecessor, Minimalist music is one of these many styles of music. It just focuses on these repetitions.

Minimalist Music – Illustration with Steve Reich

Minimalist music is one of the most famous contemporary movements in music. It appeared in the United States in the 60’s. Just as concrete music this type of music can be played  back. It can be recorded, transcribed and played by other artists. Obviously, minimalist music is known for being repetitive. Actually, the goal of composers is to create repetitive patterns in their creation. Steve Reich and Philip Glass are certainly the main figures of the minimalist movement. Using new technology and their knowledge, they played on phasing and dephasing identical patterns (loops) to create music.

For It’s Gonna Rain (1965), Steve Reich used a tape recording of a Pentecostal preacher to create minimalist music. The only sentence you can hear is “It’s gonna rain”. He turned it into a multilayered musical piece, by playing it on two reel-to-reel tape recorders and hence creating an infinite loop. Certainly, the fact that he recorded a man talking gestures towards concrete music. Furthermore, Reich was also interested in the rhythmic aspects of songs and his piece called Drumming (1970/1971) is a perfect illustration.

This piece is mostly composed of drums and is important in the history of contemporary music for several reasons. Indeed, it has been described as ‘’minimalism’s first masterpiece’’ because it used phasing and loops. The song is interpreted by nine percussionists playing the same rhythm on bongo drums. After a few seconds, one of the percussionist still plays the same rhythm but with a shift of one beat. Though we are listening to the same pattern over and over again, the little shift creates a new musicality that doesn’t seem to have been planned. This endows the piece with a new dimension: it becomes polyphonic.

Reich’s Piano Phase (1967) is the composer’s first attempt to use the technique of phasing with conventional instruments. Before becoming a two-piano piece, Reich first recorded one piano and then played along to the recording before phasing out of sync. This creates new cycles of repetitive sounds that make new loops.

With these three pieces and the many other pieces he composed, Reich showed that loops can be used in many different ways and can even be written down on music sheets. Sounds  can be played clearly as they are written, but with this effect of shifting new sounds can also be heard between the other ones.

Reich’s experimentation certainly inspired numerous artists outside the avant-garde music scene. Tape loops were soon used in various areas. Radio studios, film industry, etc., used them for soundtrack purposes and for synchronization. The music movements and the fields change, but the use of loops remains. Later, new technological devices led to what is known as Live looping.

The Loopers of the 21th century – Live looping with DUB FX

Benjamin Stanford making live looping
© The Creative Brothers

Nowadays, loops have gone viral in music. From concrete sound to electronically generated ones, loops are created and used in many ways by a huge number of artists. Turntables, digital samplers, synthesizers, but also computer music software, are only a few of the most common tools used to generate loops. In the early 1990s, digital devices were specifically created for what is known as live looping.

Live looping is not very different from using loops in a recorded track. Like conventional forms of looping it is “the recording and playback of a piece of music”, but it is done in real-time. Usually, the onstage artist is using hardware devices called “loopers” or “phrase samplers” to record his voice and play it on repeat during the whole performance. This live technique has become extremely popular in recent music history. Indeed, in a 2012/13 poll of 1000 singers, 11% stated that they used live looping while 51% did not know what live looping was[1]. Amongst the numerous artists known for enjoying and using this technique in  almost all their performances, is Benjamin Stanford a.k.a. Dub FX. This Australian singer started his career in alternative rock and rap core, but quickly dropped the band to start his solo career. Mixing up hip hop, reggae, drum and bass rhythms he created his own signature style. Here is an example of what he does on stage using loops:

Though every performance of Dub FX is unique, the different steps of creation are usually the same. The singer both uses his voice and electronically generated sounds to create a loop that serves as a baseline for him to sing/rap over. To fully understand how he uses his materials to create music click HERE.

From the first experimentations of Pierre Schaeffer, to the live looping of contemporary artists such as Dub FX, the creation and use of loops in music has evolved thanks to technology. The principle stays same, a recurring piece of sound is played on and on, but the creation process is different. Loops can be entirely created by machines but can also be a recorded piece of an instrument or a voice. Used in several types of music all around the world, they do not restrict to one. Obviously, certain types of music are more ‘compatible’ with this technique and can even be based on it such as the above mentioned minimalist music. Pierre Schaeffer and Steve Reich are two of the most emblematic names to associate with loops. These two composers  helped this technique progress and evolve, but also made it popular. Thanks to them, the younger generation of composers knows what can be done with loops. Anyone capable to record sounds or sing or even speak is able, thanks to technology and inspiration, to create a piece of music using loops. Hence, one can ask if loops are the future of music?

Delfin Ates, Cécile Delon, Leila Hassona and Meriem Fisli.

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