Howard Stelzer

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Howard Stelzer performs at Washington Street Gallery in Somerville, MA

Howard Stelzer is a composer of electronic music, whose work is made primarily from sounds generated by cassette tapes and tape players. From 1997 until 2012, he ran the independent record label Intransitive Recordings.

Howard Stelzer
Belle Harbor, New York
Instrument(s)cassette tapes
LabelsIntransitive Recordings, No Rent Records, Chocolate Monk

Early years[edit]

Stelzer began making music using cassette tapes and metal percussion while he was a teenager in Boca Raton, Florida.[1] After attempting unsuccessfully to learn how to play conventional instruments, he decided instead to use cassette tapes as the source of his music. Beginning in 1996, all of Stelzer's music would be made with manipulated cassette tapes.

I think tapes are simply the language that I speak. When I think about music ideas, I only and always think of them in terms of how they’d be articulated via cassette tapes.[2] – 2016 interview with Tabs Out Podcast

Stelzer explained how he first became "fascinated with (cassette tapes) as sound-producing objects: "When I was in high school (1989–1992) and banging on trash cans in my parents' garage with a boom box recording in the corner, I discovered how the sound captured on the cassette was different from the acoustic sound in the room while I was making the music. From then on, I experimented with making collages on tape-copying decks, furiously pressing the pause button on the record side while changing the source tape on the other."[3]

His first widely-available album, "Stone Blind", was a CD self-released on Stelzer's own Intransitive Recordings label in 1997.[4] The album consisted of three related pieces, each roughly 20 minutes long and made out of crudely spliced cassette tapes assembled with a two-cassette stereo component. Each track was recorded in a single take to one side of a 40-minute tape; a piece ended when the tape ran out.

First performances and recordings[edit]

In 1998, Stelzer moved to Boston, Massachusetts. His performances over the next several years were mainly improvised, either solo or with duos or groups. His most frequent collaborator from 1999 until 2003 was Jason Talbot,[5] who played a turntable in a manner similar to that in which Stelzer played cassette tapes. Stelzer credits these years as having a lasting impact on his thinking: "Everything I thought about music for a long time was based on playing with Jason Talbot. The way I played before I started playing with him was pretty ignorant. I just had a whole lot of tape decks and would put tapes in and hit play, and hope that it would sound all right. But Jason got me thinking more about physicality and improvisation, and I started to think of myself more as a player. That really fundamentally changed what I did with the tape decks, and how my sounds fit in the space, and how they worked compositionally and as live performance."[6]

Critics noted the energy of the duo's live performances, but reception to their recordings was mixed:

For Stelzer and Talbot, on the other hand, pause is a weapon, and subversion is the norm, not a change from it. The goal of Songs is disorientation; play it while you're doing something else, and you might think the volume's too low, until an eardrum-bursting noise comes out of nowhere. Listening to it loud in headphones can almost be painful.[7]Dusted Magazine review of Songs

Stelzer himself seemed to agree. He steadily began moving away from live improvisation and venturing more into studio-based composition. "At first, my published works were simply unvarnished recordings of live improvisations using tape players, but I was never 100% happy with those. As I listened to them, I'd notice that I was mentally filling in the gaps of what should have been fuller sound, more stereo separation, clearer dynamic range, tighter construction... By the time I made the "Mincing Perfect Words" 3"CDR for Chondritic Sound, I felt like I finally produced music that worked as a home listening experience, and not a performance document. Thus emboldened, I diced up my failed earlier recordings and transformed them into “Bond Inlets”, which I consider my first artistically successful proper album after numerous false starts.[8]


Bond Inlets was released by Intransitive Recordings as a CD in 2008, and was the first to receive generally favorable notice from critics.[9]

It would be unforgivable to overlook 1998's Bond Inlets, Stelzer’s crowning achievement; an album where he was able to pick the inherent limitations of consumer-grade tapes apart, laying out a foreboding work of rare emotional power. – Tiny Mix Tapes[10]

Subsequent albums included Brayton Point,[11] released in 2014 by Dokuro, which was built out of recordings of the Brayton Point Power Station, the largest coal-fired power generation plant in Massachusetts. The album received the unusual distinction of being recognized in the Boston Globe's year-end business section as one of Massachusetts' "Most Offbeat Business Stories of 2014":[12]

Strangest Use for a Giant Power Plant: When you think power plant, the first thing that comes to mind is a musical melody, right? Oh, wait... electronic music composer Howard Stelzer turned the still-operational Brayton Point coal plant into a giant musical instrument by recording ambient sounds at the site and turning it into a 49-minute album. – Boston Globe [13]

Critical response to Brayton Point was generally positive:

For his first solo album since 2008's Bond Inlets, Howard Stelzer captured sound at the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. That’s intriguing on its own, but it seems an inaccurate way to characterize the resulting album. The single, 50-minute piece Stelzer concocted is so much more dense and evocative than the term "field recording" could ever suggest. It’s like calling something a guitar album – it may narrow the context, but it says almost nothing about the listening experience. – The Out Door [14]

There's development, at least in terms of sounds transforming from a beginning of identifiable clankings and machine-hums to full-on space gales into moments of tinnitus-shrouded pig screams, to its furnace-blast endpoint... As a hymn to power and a memorial to decrepit industrialisation, Brayton Point is remarkable. – Cyclic Defrost [15]

Since 2019 Stelzer's work has taken on more collaborative and musical elements. The album Invariably Falling Forward, Into the Thickets of Closure included contributions from singers such as Peter Hope, Stefan Neville (Pumice), Elisabeth King, Audrey Chen, Tom Smith (To Live and Shave in L.A.), Antony Milton and Bill Ironfield.[16] The idea expanded further with the six-volume Suburban Observances series. For that project, Stelzer sent sounds to artists around the world who were instructed to manipulate and change them as much as possible. Stelzer then tasked himself to recompose the transformed material into new forms. Some artists who contributed to this series have been Fani Konstantidou, Ralf Wehowsky P16.D4, Blake Edwards, Yan Jun, Tori Kudo (Maher Shalal Hash Baz (band)), Teresa Smith, Roel Meelkop, Thaniel Ion Lee, Rudolf, Phil Todd, John Wiese, France Jobin and many others.

Partial discography[edit]


  1. ^ "Musique Machine / Multi-Genre Music Magazine". Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  2. ^ "Tabs Out | Five Artists Making Cassettes Their Instrument". Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  3. ^ Macala, Joshua (April 23, 2014). "Raised By Gypsies". Raised By Gypsies.
  4. ^ "Howard Stelzer – Stone Blind". Discogs. January 1998. Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  5. ^ Howard Stelzer – Topic (2015-03-21), Hands Down, archived from the original on 2021-12-21, retrieved 2017-04-16
  6. ^ Masters, Marc (March 4, 2011). "Make a Tape Deck Rock". Pitchfork.
  7. ^ "Dusted Reviews: Howard Stelzer and Jason Talbot – Songs". Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  8. ^ "Musique Machine / Multi-Genre Music Magazine". Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  9. ^ "Bond Inlets, by Howard Stelzer". Howard Stelzer. Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  10. ^ "Howard Stelzer announces new album How To on Phage Tapes". Tiny Mix Tapes. Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  11. ^ "dokuropage". Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  12. ^ "Massachusetts' most offbeat business stories of 2014 – The Boston Globe". Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  13. ^ Chesto, Jon (December 31, 2014). "Massachusetts' most offbeat business stories of 2014". The Boston Globe.
  14. ^ Masters, Marc (September 15, 2014). "200 Words: The Out Door". The Out Door.
  15. ^ Martin, Luke (September 7, 2014). "Cyclic Defrost". Cyclic Defrost.
  16. ^ "No Rent Records".
  17. ^ "Howard Stelzer". Discogs. Retrieved 2019-08-18.
  18. ^ ""A Strange Object Covered With Fur Which Breaks Your Heart" (NRR71), by Howard Stelzer". No Rent Records. Retrieved 2019-08-18.

External links[edit]