The idea of using the record player to create and compose music instead of only as a playback device (as originally intended) characterizes the modern turntablism genre. Already explored with the phonograph, such artistic subversion has accompanied the evolution of electronic instruments since then. This issue looks at the turntable from an experimental performance angle, with historical as well as artistic contributions.
Since the late 1970s, turntablism in popular and experimental music has become almost ubiquitous. Techniques inherent to the genre, such as sampling or scratching on a turntable, were popularized largely by the work of the early hip hop DJs. The articles in this issue of eContact! trace a nearly century-old practice that has not yet received the attention it deserves. We will see that there is still much left to explore using the turntable and related technologies, even though the context and artistic intentions have continued to evolve in so many different ways since their beginnings.
“My definition of a Turntablist is a person who uses the turntables not only to play music, but to manipulate sound and create music.”
— DJ Babu, hip hop turntablist [1. In Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (Eds.), Audio Culture: Readings in modern music (New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 328.]
At the time of the invention of gramophones, composers hoped for new, unheard-of sounds, independence from musicians and alternative ways of composing and performing music. With the advent of recording technologies, allowing for the mass production of recordings on vinyl disks, the turntable was one of the “players” in the commercialization of music. The work of many turntablists can be understood at least in part as a not-entirely-subtle statement about these symbolic connotations, as their work shines the spotlight on the media itself: the record. Today, à la DIY, many sound artists prefer to explore and invent personalized instruments using “old technologies” rather than adapting their work to mass-produced technological products. These practices unveil unheard-of sounds, unfamiliar concepts of sound generation and idiosyncratic modes of interaction, all of which are distinguishing characteristics of contemporary turntablism. In counterpoint to the ever-increasing computerization and invention of new media, turntablism has been gaining more and more popularity since the mid-1980s.
In this issue of eContact!, interviews with contemporary turntablists show the many performative approaches possible with the turntable (accompanied by audio and video examples). Historical journeys back to the invention of the first devices to record and play back sound present the precursors of turntablism and offer a reflection on cultural and technical changes and similarities throughout the last century. Readers will even be encouraged to experiment with turntablism themselves, with instructions how to create their own personal record player out of cardboard. The many perspectives on sound creation with the turntable featured in this edition give an idea of the richness of the genre and the fascinating possibilities of the turntable.
In “Metal Machine Music: The Phonograph’s Voice and the Transformation of Writing,” Michael Heumann gives a picture of the circumstances and the context in which Thomas Alva Edison and his contemporaries introduced scientific inventions such as the phonograph or graphophone to the world. The author explores the public unveiling of Edison’s phonograph and the subsequent cultural changes in the years between the American Civil War and World War I that resulted from this convergence of the human voice and machine writing. Charles Tainter, the inventor of the graphophone, saw in his device “a power that extends beyond those understood by its human creators.” But these devices were faced not only with optimistic fascination. Critical voices also worried about destabilization of the individual’s identity as the voice became “immortal” and able to survive its body. Next to questions of humanity, the author also elaborates on the newly defined ways of consuming music.
Also starting with the invention of the first recording devices, my own article “Experimental Turntablism: Historical overview of experiments with record players / records — or Scratches from Second-Hand Technology” goes through all the important stages of record player and turntable use up to contemporary turntablists. A compact overview of the evolution and history of turntablism collects the main ideas together in one historical line leading to today’s forms of turntablism. Early thoughts about technical sound effects, sound analysis or sound generation in the context of the record player will be discovered as well as the different æsthetic approaches. The convergence of important influences for turntablism — movements such as Dadaism, Futurism and musique concrète, as well as Fluxus and individual personalities such as John Cage or Christian Marclay — draws a complete picture of connections and synthesis in its development.
Many different possibilities of using the record player as an instrument, a tool or a sculpture by contemporary sound artists are contrasted in this edition. The ways of preparing and modifying turntables or records seem to be infinitely variable.
Basing his project on a model called CardTalk from the 1960s, “The flap-o-phone, A Site-Specific Turntable” is Christopher DeLaurenti’s “wireless” record player made of cardboard: playback is achieved manually, by turning the disc with the fingers. Here, he details his performance practice with his homemade portable turntable that can be run on the street, on the bus, anywhere! Readers are invited to make their own experiences with the instrument, with the help of the author’s complementary “flap-o-phone Construction and Assembly Instructions” — copying is permitted!
Austrian improvisor Wolfgang Fuchs gives a personal view on turntable performance in “The Tu(r)ning of the (W)o(r)ld,” while reflecting on the expectations of the various participants: the audience, the critics, the curator and the musician. Trying to define categories for the different styles and genres of turntablism, he finds that the turntable is an instrument with reference / history that “has evolved from a meta-level to a first-level sound device.”
In “Lab Report: Die 50 Skulpturen des Institut für Feinmotorik” the group Institut für Feinmotorik, made up of Swiss and German sound artists, describes an experiment which led to the creation of the radio pieces Die 50 Skulpturen des Institut für Feinmotorik. The technical and conceptual experiment includes the use of audio material from prepared turntables, the spontaneous development of a non-musical (de)composition method inspired by the concept of sculpting, and resulted in a collection of acoustic sculptures. The group realizes these pieces with the Octogrammoticum, their custom setup of eight prepared turntables and household objects. The impelling thought behind this project was that the turntables themselves should produce the music, leaving the compositional control to the machine.
“Lo-Fi Cartridge Construction and Function of the Constraint,” is an inquiry into the notion of the formal constraint crossed with the Fluxus idea of the irrelevant process, as seen through the author’s practice of DIY cartridge / stylus construction and vinyl media manipulation for turntable-as-instrument type composition and performance. With preparations such as cartridge constructions or an old medical centrifuge, Ian Andrews, a media artist from Australia, explores new ways to create sounds — also using non-intentional operations, but limiting arbitrariness.
Canadian artist Michael Hansen refers to his turntable setup as his toolbox and uses the turntable in his visual as well as his audio works. Including a brief comparison of the distinction between Freud and Marx’s definitions of fetish, he dedicates himself in “Talismania (Fetishizing the Fetish)” to the fetish of the record. His equipment includes, among other things, a rare device: the Wilcox-Gay Recordette 3 — a record cutter which was intended to record songs from the radio. Through his own use of this device, he invented a concept of recontextualizing source material, allowing him to re-fetishize and fetishize the fetish.
An interview with the Danish duo Camilla Sørensen and Greta Christensen of Vinyl Terror & Horror by musicologist Andreas Engström reveals that the two artists started working together around a Hammond Organ and why the two, both coming from a visual arts background (sculpture), chose vinyl as a media to work with sound.
In the Interview with Maria Chavez by sound artist Daniel Neumann, the New York-based abstract turntablist talks about how she came to develop her vocabulary with the turntable, covering various topics of her practice, including context, improvisation, tool vs. instrument, the present moment, chance, live performance and future perspectives.
“Plastik Fantastik: Interview with Sebastian Buczek” is more a friendly discussion between two close colleagues than a formal interview. Berlin-based turntablist Ignaz Schick and the Polish artist discuss Buczek’s projects and his research using disks made of different materials — shellack, glass, aluminium, bees wax or even chocolate! Depending on the material and the procedures used to engrave sound directly on the discs, the character of the sound varies enormously.
Of course, no turntable issue would be complete without recognizing the essential contributions Martin Tétreault has made to the genre. The Montréal-based turntablist and visual artist was cutting up and reconstructing vinyls as early as 1980 and is one of the key artists who established the turntable-as-instrument — i.e. without vinyls — in improvised music performances during the 1980s–90s. In Sylvain Fortier’s Interview with Martin Tétreault, the development of turntablism is described through Tétreault’s various projects.
More Turntable Resources, Columns and Reviews
Also in this issue, the work of turntablists / artists Alexandre Bellenger, Maria Chavez, Billy Roisz and Vinyl Terror & Horror is featured in eContact!’s ongoing series of AV galleries. Kevin Austin’s “6 Questions” are addressed to composers Adam Basanta, Susan Frykberg and Steven Naylor, while turntablist Ignaz Schick spins his own “6 Questions” to his colleague Maria Chavez. John Oswald lets us know what sort of mix you would hear if you happened to land on the “hi-fi equipped desert island” to which he has been banished. Reports on performances and workshops at Body Controlled #4, the Phonos Series (Brain Control, EyeHarp and Instruments) and Akousma 9 (Martin Tétreault’s Turntable Quartet) just about complete the issue.
But before flipping to the B‑side, the eContact! team would like to thank the contributors to the user-generated Turntable [wiki], which features pages on Performance Techniques, the Turntable in New Music and a Bibliography of literature on and around the topic. Special thanks are also due to Ignaz Schick, whose ideas and anecdotes were very helpful to us as we developed this issue.
We hope you enjoy the eclectic and engaging pieces found in eContact! 14.3. And finally… let the disc-spinning begin!
15 January 2013