The Tellus Mixes

About a month ago I was killing time on a Saturday afternoon trawling around UbuWeb, an online resource for avant-garde art that's been around forever. On their ridiculously exhaustive audio page, over in the right column, I noticed a bunch of listings for some series called "Tellus." I innocently clicked on the top-most item. Four hours later I'd downloaded and catalogued every single track UbuWeb had under the Tellus heading. Final count was around 300 tracks, sucked down into my hard drive without any recollection of my having gotten out of my seat, and not having known what in the world Tellus was until maybe a third of the way through the process.

Tellus was a self-described "audio cassette magazine," released to subscribers only between 1983 and 1993, from the twilight of the cassette's relevance in the music industry to its near-death. The series was the brainchild of a group of artists and curators associated with HarvestWorks, a New York City arts advocacy organization that links aspiring artists with technological resources.

The cassette series, released on a bi-monthly basis in the beginning, was an effort to bring challenging sound art to a medium that had gained potency thanks to the advent of the boombox and the Walkman. In a way it brought such work into portability and motion for the first time. Its existence also coincided with the near beginnings of digitization and its effect of the artistic process, which has been very good for me, at least. Some others, not so much.

I was pretty transfixed by the Tellus compilations. They were made during a time when I was just barely becoming aware of art being made outside mainstream channels. I liked the midrange-heavy, edge-deprecated sound of the cassettes, our new century's version of vinyl scratches and clicks. They also demonstrated the sheer range of what's possible with audio art. Especially in the more electronic pieces, there's this sweet little sense of naivete and enthusiasm at work, and I hope that doesn't sound condescending. But it's an important part of the Tellus charm.

Faced with upwards of 300 brand new pieces to assimilate and the tic-like nag to do something creative with other people's stuff, I thought I'd do a digital mixtape focusing on Tellus. But since there was so much to absorb and I wanted to cover it all, it made more sense to do a few shorter mixes. The less I have to tax my attention span (or yours), typically, the more impactful this kind of stuff becomes.

I did a total of three mixes, sampling pieces from almost all of the 24 Tellus cassette comps on UbuWeb. For mixes #1 and #2, there wasn't a set game plan other than to shoot for something approximating entertainment. On #3 there was a light effort to make it more music-centric. For the most part the pieces are untreated, so they may not exactly be in the highest fidelity. There were a couple of times I absolutely had to apply some EQ, but mostly I didn't care. There are also some transitional moments where I manipulated the sound, including one hilariously incompetent reversed intro. They're here and there. No Audacity plug-in left behind.

Except for a quick word in the first segment of Mix #1, a few F-words in a particularly hilarious Ann Magnuson monologue towards the end of Mix #3, and an infantile, crass but extremely effective musical joke from "Silent, But Deadly" also on that third mix, you can pretty much play this in front of your kids, although they may rethink their placement in your bloodline if you do. Occupational hazard.

The contents of each tape are listed in the comments below, in order of their appearance, or you can go to each mix's SoundCloud page for that as well. This is what keeps me off the streets. I hope it works for you too.


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