Anne Hege Breathes Life into Hacked Cassette Players and Singing Laptops

The Tape Machine came to her in a dream: composer, singer, and instrument builder Anne Hege remembers images of herself playing with a reel-to-reel tape recorder — “this thing where I was playing back at different points in it,” she told me in a recent Zoom call. Prototyped in 2008, the hand-built machine uses three hacked cassette players: one recording tape head and two playback ones on the sides. A magnetic tape loops around the heads; wooden tracks allow the tape to run smoothly into the playback area. The performer sings into the center, and her live vocals are looped in with the sounds of the ambience in the room. Playback distortion and mechanical warbling are part of the performance, what Hege describes as an “ecosystem of sound.”

Hege’s project is one of eight that were selected to participate in innova Recordings’ Bay Area pilot program, launched in March 2021. The high point is an album release of each project via American Composers Forum’s in-house label. For her album, out in 2023, Hege wanted to document the development of the Tape Machine over the last 14 years — almost like an anthology, she said, “a collection of the way the instrument has shifted over time.”

The project is also a glimpse into her relationship with the instrument. Although she’s the only performer, the Tape Machine “feels like an ensemble,” she said. “You’re getting playback on both sides, but it’s also feeding back on itself, so you get layers of recording. It feels like I’m singing with a chorus of myself.” In performance, Hege usually starts with a blank tape and a chant — a single-line melody as the root of the piece. As the machine records and plays back her voice, she adds layers of fragments, harmonies, or textures to the loop, depending on what she hears in the live playback. She might pull the tape, adjust the volume to reduce feedback, or amplify the potential of a specific response. The performance depends on the room or venue and its ambience, allowing her to weave the acoustics of the space into the loop.

I’m trying to shape what is really chaotic, while putting into the system something that will create some kind of magical output.

Certain pieces have taken on a more consistent form, like i see spirits, the first piece Hege ever recorded, which will be on the album. In the recording, you hear a chant set to the words “I see” as the Tape Machine clicks and starts, then the second machine starts on the right. The texture grows thicker as Hege’s voice is echoed faintly, creating the illusion of a second and a third singer joining in from an adjacent room. When the word “spirits” is sung, the accumulation of sound reaches a cadence and the process starts again. Eerie warbling noises, whispering, and the decay of the looping make the piece sound like archival field recordings; the audible presence of the running tape gives it a vintage musique concrète sound. “I’m making music with the instrument, but also with the space and the present moment,” Hege said. “I’m trying to shape what is really chaotic, while putting into the system something that will create some kind of magical output.”

The Bay Area program was the incentive she needed to make an album. “I’d been shy and a little perfectionistic-y, thinking that things weren’t ready, but it became apparent during Covid that I really needed my stuff out; I couldn’t perform, so [the program] came at just the right time,” she said. She had a little over half the material for the project when she applied, and innova is supporting her through the process of finishing and releasing the album.

“The project has been a huge benefit to the Bay Area,” she said. “It’s an interesting spot right now to be creating things. There’s some funding, but we don’t have the same kind of strength in numbers that a place like New York has, so to have the opportunity to start that in the Bay Area felt very special.”

Anne Hege--Photo by The Downtown Dinner

Anne Hege–Photo by The Downtown Dinner

Hege was born in Oakland to non-musician parents and grew up singing in choirs. When she was 7, she joined the newly-established Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, which performed a large amount of contemporary music. One summer, the choir toured to the Oregon Bach Festival to perform Penderecki’s atonal St. Luke Passion with the composer conducting. “There’s a point when there are cries and screaming, and I was at an age when the other, pretty choral music was not enough for the complexity of our world,” Hege told me. “So it felt like I was hearing music for the first time that made sense as a sufficient response to the darker side of humanity. There was something powerful about people coming together in recognition of that.”

As a choral conductor for more than 20 years — in 2021 she became the artistic director of the Peninsula Women’s Chorus — Hege mixes the familiar with the contemporary in her programs, from, say, Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols to Am an Ocean by Julie Herndon, who is Peninsula’s 2021-2022 composer-in-residence and also a participant in the Bay Area pilot program.

While participating in choirs has been a lifelong pursuit, Hege didn’t realize that she could write her own music until college. Inspired by Linda Tillery’s work in ethnomusicology, she enrolled at Wesleyan University in the college of social studies. Her thesis proposal was to compose a piece for a vocal group and spend a year with them, improvising and doing exercises to understand “how music can be a way to guide the politics of people,” she said. It got turned down. But when she changed her major to music, the project was approved. It was her first experience as a composer.

Besides the ongoing Tape Machine recordings for innova, Hege’s other major composition project is her first opera, The Furies, for laptop orchestra and live soloists. An interest in the intersection between voice and electronics led Hege to the laptop orchestra, which originated at Princeton in 2005, about a year before Hege began doctoral studies there. Led by professor Dan Trueman, the electronic instrument produces live music with several laptops connected to a main server through open-source audio software and multi-channel hemispherical speakers. Hege describes it as “chorus meets electronics,” not merely a newfangled gadget for experimental composers. “It controls sound, but it can also control visuals and lighting. It’s a fully immersive interface between an artistic element and the performer.”

The Furies retells the classic Greek tragedy of Electra; the laptop orchestra plays the Furies — deities from the underworld who demand justice. In the third act, premiered by the Stanford Laptop Orchestra in 2019, the singers wear tether Gametrak controllers; when they pull on them, the velocity on the tether cable changes and the laptops read how fast — when it gets fast enough, the corresponding sound moves to the next pitch-class set, Hege explained. “What I’m trying to do is support the narrative and action that’s happening onstage.”

The full opera will premiere on November 11-13 at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Stanford. Before the project started, Hege had been averse to setting stories to music, using only poems and loose thematic threads. But she has found the specificity of the narrative surprisingly rewarding. “The more time I spend with the Electra story, the more I realize that the motivations of each character are so specific,” she said. “Working on this opera has allowed me to think about the violence that is present all the time.”


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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