How our resident archivist became the owner of Henry Jacobs’ stash of early electronic music reel-to-reel tapes, among them a piece by the German-Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel, is one of the strangest stories you’ll ever hear
I have a friend who was moving into a house close to where I live in Mill Valley, which is just outside San Francisco. One night, I was chatting to her about living here and mentioned in passing that Henry Jacobs had once lived in Mill Valley too. Henry Jacobs was an important figure in the development of tape music in America, starting out by experimenting with reel-to-reels in his home city of Chicago after the Second World War before heading out to California in 1953.
Jacobs produced a series of concerts in San Francisco in the late 1950s called ‘Vortex: Experiments In Sound And Light’. They took place in the Planetarium at the Golden Gate Park. The ‘Vortex’ events used the first ever surround sound system, which Jacobs invented by syncing up multiple tape machines and placing speakers around the auditorium. He was subsequently invited to show the system at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels and he later came to the attention of George Lucas, who asked him to help with the sound design for ‘THX1138’.
Anyway, I told my friend all this and I didn’t think any more about it, until she contacted me to say that she’d found some reel-to-reel tapes under her new house that I might be interested in. She’d hired in a building firm to do a bit of work and while the place was being knocked about, they’d discovered a big hole beneath one of the basement rooms. The houses up here are built on the side of a mountain, so they’re all on stilts. Under the floors of the basement rooms, there’s often a drop of maybe 15 feet or so down on to the muddy mountainside. And through this hole, my friend could see some tapes sticking up out of the mud below.
So I went over to the house and used a rope to drop into the hole and start digging out these tapes. In the end, I pulled out 64 reel-to-reels and a box of seven-inch records. It was a goldmine. It was just incredible. It turned out that the house had once belonged to Henry Jacobs and there had been a fire in his studio in 1962, burning a hole in the floor which his tape archive had fallen through. They’d then built a new floor over the hole, leaving the tapes down there for 36 years. Jacobs and his wife had continued to live at the house until they divorced, when Jacobs moved out. His wife then sold the place to my friend many years later.
Among the tapes were two pieces entitled ‘Transition’, which I found in a box stamped “1957”. They had been recorded by the German/Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel at the famous Cologne studio where Stockhausen worked and were made for two tape machines. The tapes have sync tones at the beginning and the idea was that you played them simultaneously on two machines, giving you four tracks of audio that you could spread across four speakers for a performance. It seems that Jacobs called up the Cologne studio to order a copy of ’Transition’ for one of his ‘Vortex’ shows. A lot of the electronic studios ran a tape service like that, but most of the tapes are really obscure because they were never meant for public release and never appeared in record shops.
‘Transition 1’ is quite a famous piece. You can find it on a lot of the compilations of important early electronic music, but the only place you can hear it as it was intended, in surround sound, is on a DVD which I released in Dolby 5.1. And the only reason I was able to release it at all was because I found these tapes in the mud under my friend’s house. They could well be the only copies in the world.
Mauricio Kagel died in Cologne in 2008 at the age of 76, but Henry Jacobs is still alive and still living here in California. I see him around from time to time.