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Experimental Turntablism

Historical overview of experiments with record players / records — or Scratches from Second-Hand Technology

Turntables and vinyl records are the familiar equipment of a DJ in bars, clubs and festivals — still today. Even CD players, laptops or other digital technologies have not managed to replace record players in the last few decades. The turntable owes its popularity — and probably its salvation from certain doom at the hands of new playback devices like the CD — largely to hip hop culture. In the 1970s, DJs started to mix, sample and scratch the sounds on vinyl records and a new genre arose: turntablism.

Turntablism refers to the idea of misappropriating a turntable and using it as an instrument. The term has its origin in the word “turntable” for a record player and was established in 1995 by DJs in the hip hop scene. Since the 1970s, the turntable has been used in the hip hop scene with popular techniques like scratching and beatjuggling1[1. See the Turntable [wiki] area “Performance Techniques” published in parellel with this issue of eContact! for a description of the basic techniques used.] Meanwhile, turntablists have developed and established their own techniques in many virtuosic forms. At the same time, as more and more sound artists have pursued the experimental approaches practiced by avant-garde and Fluxus artists through the use of modified forms of the turntable (for example by using preparations or objects), an experimental turntablism has developed.

As Mark Katz has shown in his article “Hindemith, Toch and Grammophonmusik,” the first attempts at the instrumental adaptation of this playback device go back much further than the beginnings of hip hop culture in the 1970s (Katz 2001, 2004). He gives a detailed list of early examples of experiments and visions involving record players and specifically describes his own discovery of the manipulations of the phonograph technology by Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch at the 1930s New Music festival in Berlin, Germany, where the artists used different speed levels of a record in the compositional process. In Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music (2004), Katz also mentions hip hop turntablism and shines a light on the general impact that reproduction technologies have had on music as well as on listening practices. In Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction, Caleb Kelly tracks the practice of using the “bugs” of record players as a musical material from early turntable experiments by John Cage through to contemporary glitch music made with digital media. As early as the first gramophone experiments in the 1920s and 1930s by composers such as Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch, an evolution began which has continued through today, regardless of the development of more modern and advanced technological possibilities, to an important trend in electronic and experimental music.

New sub-genres have evolved in the last 20 years in electronic music, more or less at the same time in popular music and quite experimental music. Lo-tech practitioners reuse analog reproduction technologies of every kind, such as audiotape machines or tape recorders. In the circuit bending milieu, sounds are charmed out of electronic circuits or auditory toys, for example speaking dolls. Nicolas Collins describes this tendency in his 2006 book, Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. As John Richards points out in his article “Getting the Hands Dirty” (2008), this development can be understood as a kind of counter-movement to the domination of digital technology and computers in performances. In “dirty electronics”, self-made and alienated instruments, Richards sees not only an alternative to managing digital data but also more physical gestures and playfulness, and thus a better visual incentive for the audience during the live performance. The creative reinterpretation of the noises caused by technical malfunction of digital equipment as sound material is represented in such popular music genres as glitch music, also referred to as clicks & cuts amongst German-speaking practitioners of glitch. Thus, it seems that numerous variants of the sub-genres of electronic music have emerged whose sound material draws the focus back to the processes of technological reproduction and the materiality of old playback devices. This fact has been analyzed by Caleb Kelly, who talks in this context about “cracked media” (Kelly 2009). Experimental turntablism has now established itself as its own movement within these sub-genres of electronic music. But the turntable as an instrument here is special; after all, it was one of the first technological devices to record and reproduce sound. As such, experimental turntablism comprises numerous aspects and references as well as a long history of sound research.

In the following sections, I will trace the history of turntablism chronologically from the first ideas and trials — in the sense of advanced use of record players — through to today’s experimental turntablism, and in doing so, I will reveal continuous and historical connections. By exploring the diverse influences and works of artists, I will highlight particular evolutionary stages in the larger practice. In chronological order, I collect theoretical thoughts and practical examples concerning gramophone experiments which Mark Katz merely mentions in his article, “Hindemith, Toch and Grammophonmusik” (2001). This summary gives an overview of how mechanical record players were already being used in the 1920s and 1930s either as an instrument or as a compositional tool. At the same time, the experiments with the first mechanical devices around the turn of the twentieth century bring discoveries to light that are today essential for electronic audio technology, such as electronic sound synthesis or electronic sound effects.

Lines of Tradition, Precursors: Early ideas and experiments with the gramophone or phonograph

Figure 1
Figure 1. “His Master’s Voice” was the popular logo of Emil Berliner’s Gramophone Company founded around 1900 and is still a trademark of labels. Originally the painter Francis Barraud made a picture of the dog Nipper next to a phonograph which was then repainted to a gramophone. Exhibited at Mouseio Fonografou Museum (Museum of Phonographs) in Lefkada, Greece. Photo © Karin Weissenbrunner. [Click image to enlarge]

Thanks to the advent of recording and playback innovations, sound became a material. Captured on a media, Katz resumed the “phonograph effects” on music as follows: “Recorded music is, among other things, distinctively tangible, portable, repeatable, and manipulable — in other words, it is differently able than live music” (Katz 2004, 189). The gramophone is the term used to refer to Emil Berliner’s invention of 1887, but the term later became used as a more general description for all devices which play back recordings engraved on flat, vinyl discs. Thomas Alva Edison’s phonograph of 1877 reproduced recordings from cylinders. At first, Berliner’s 1887 gramophone could only be sold as a children’s toy because of its poor sound quality. But after 1890, with improved sound quality the gramophone was able to be mass-produced. Since then, the phonographic devices have appeared on the market in a variety of forms. For example, shops sold records made of chocolate with children’s songs on it, even if they were playable for only a few times before they produced nothing more than noise. Edison presented a talking doll on the market around 1890 (NPS 2011). Another speaking doll was the “Lioretgraph Bébé Jumeau,” which could speak 40–60 words. This doll, however, was created with an alternative system patented by Henri Lioret in 1899 in France. Lioret referenced the patent by Charles Cros, who had the idea of the so-called Paléophon (a phonograph) almost at the same time as Edison in 1877 (Lioret 1899, ii). Record players were manufactured in a portable form so that they could be brought to a picnic or barbecue, like the Amberola table-top model released around 1909. Special editions offered record players whose design was styled in the form of a functioning lamp or an opera building. The procedures of reproduction were constantly being enhanced, which is why the devices and the playback media often varied. The recording media and the mechanical construction of these early record players seemed to invite manipulation and experiments with the newly materialized sound. Subsequently, people realized the possibility of generating entirely new, artificial sounds with the help of this mechanical record player.

In 1910, Alexander Dillmann had the idea of reversing the engraving process of sound on a disc to produce an artificial voice:

There is, however, something strange about this puzzling engraving on the black disc before us. Engraving: yes, that’s what it is, though an engraver could never imitate this soundwave-engraving. Really never? A crazy thought: why couldn’t we go backward just as we go forward? Through the impressions of the sound waves, the warm wax is given a form that is translated through the [reproducing] apparatus, and its form comes into tonal life. The voice has become “materialized.” With a microscope, we can see its image, as good as anything that human art has created. What until now floated intangibly in space, has gained form. What if we, without sound waves, could create the same or similar form through purely mechanical means? Wouldn’t this open the possibility of designing on such a disc a singer of an unlimited range and timbre? (Dillmann 1910, quoted and translated in Katz 2001, 166)

Sound waves could now be transcribed (using a needle, for example on the Phonautograph, from 1857) so that sound was made tangible, visible to the naked eye. This possibility provoked ideas for other uses of sound recording equipment to the German author Rainer Maria Rilke in 1919. Attending anatomy lectures in Paris, Rilke was reminded of the strong impression the marking of the phonograph’s cylinder had made on him and considered following the coronal suture of the skull with a phonograph pin because of its external similarity to the wavy patterns of the engraved sound on a phonograph cylinder. He was interested in directing the needle to a trace of something “which was not derived from the graphic translation of sound but existed of itself naturally” (Rilke quoted in Kittler 1999, 38–42). He assumed that thereby a primal noise, the “Ur-Geräusch” should become audible.

Figure 2
Figure 2. The speed regulator for the record player is visible on the top of the instrument, on the front right side. Exhibited at Mouseio Fonografou Museum (Museum of Phonographs) in Lefkada, Greece. Photo © Karin Weissenbrunner. [Click image to enlarge]

There were many opportunities up to and including the 1920s for exploring the instrumental characteristics of gramophones. One example is a Dadaist performance by Stefan Wolpe which took place in 1920, in which eight record players were used to play simultaneously various pieces of classical and popular music forwards and backwards and at different speed levels (Scheinberg 2007, 61). Changes in the playback speed influenced the timbre and pitch of the recorded sound on the disc: a slowdown caused a deeper pitch, while a higher tone could be produced by increasing the number of revolutions per minute (Fig. 2). In addition to the fixed speeds available on the devices, it would have been possible to control the speed of the spinning disc using one’s hands or an object to hinder (ritardando) or quicken (accelerando) its rotation, in a similar manner as modern turntablists do, although from the available documentation, it is unclear whether this technique was used at the time. Artists like Darius Milhaud, Arthur Hoérée and George Antheil are known for these kinds of manipulations on record players.

In 1922/23 the Hungarian-born artist Lásló Moholy-Nagy, who also experimented with phonographs, encouraged further exploration in the potential the phonograph offered for sound production in his article “Production-Reproduction: Potentialities of the Phonograph,” published in the magazines De Stiil and Der Sturm. Additionally, he suggested a new notation technique which would be based on the wavy sound lines engraved in the discs. The newly invented “groove-script alphabet” — graphic symbols — should allow the composer “to create his composition for immediate reproduction on the disc itself, thus he will not be dependent on the absolute knowledge of the interpretative artist” (Cox and Warner 2004, 331). In order to study the microscopic grooves in a disc, Moholy-Nagy suggests a photographic method and further experiments with the phonograph. He hoped that advanced technological possibilities would help to turn his “utopian” idea (as he himself admits) into reality, but up to that point, graphical symbols as a musical language based on sound grooves could not be developed. 2[2. For more information, see Lásló Moholy-Nagy’s article, republished in Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (Eds.), Audio Culture: Readings in modern music (New York: Continuum, 2004).]

In the years 1924 to 1927, the gramophone’s potential as a live instrument, alongside its instrumental purposes for sound production (or generation), was also explored. Without any special manipulations the gramophone “played” records — even solo-passages — alongside other instruments in concerts by Ottorino Resphighi and Kurt Weill. 3[3. See, for example, Ottorino Respighi’s symphonic poem Pini di Roma, premiered in Rome in 1924. In the third movement, Nocturne “I pini del Gianicolo” (The Pines in the Janiculum), a record of the singing of a nightingale is played by a gramophone as the orchestra continues to play. A footnote in the score (p. 55, bar 2) indicates that “No. R. 6105 del « Concert Record Gramophone: Il canto dell’usignolo » is to be played over approximately 10 measures, indicated by a wavy line on a staff dedicated to the gramophone, as if it were itself an orchestral instrument.]

In the meantime, Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt published several articles which presented his theories regarding mechanical music in general. In this context, his own phonograph experiments are also mentioned. Furthermore, in these publications we can find ideas about sound analysis with the help of the (sound) wave lines. Many of Stuckenschmidt’s proposals can in fact be realized today using Fourier transformation algorithms in digital audio technology, or by sonographic methods.

In an article written in 1929, French composer Carol Bérard focused on the possibilities of recording with this new technology. He intended to record sounds from daily life in cities or the natural world and use them as musical material — an approach that seems to anticipate some of the ideas of musique concrète by Pierre Schaeffer and others in the late 1940s.

Why, and I have been asking this for fifteen years, are phonograph records not taken of noises such as those of a city at work, at play, even asleep? Of forests, whose utterance varies according to their trees a grove of pines in the Mediterranean mistral has a murmur unlike the rustle of poplars in a breeze from the Loire? Of the tumult of the crowds, a factory in action, a moving train, a railway terminal, engines, showers, cries, rumblings? (Bérard 1929, 29)

Today this kind of sound material is called “field recordings” and is quite popular in contemporary compositions. 4[4. See, for example, Alvin Lucier’s Memory Space from 1970.]

At the same time, gramophones or phonographs provided a strong incentive for the exploration of technologies in musical contexts, especially to composers who were generally interested in unusual opportunities to create sound and new instruments at the beginning of the twentieth century. It meant also more independence from the performer and therefore more control of the music for the composer. Edgard Varèse, for example, composed for the electronic ondes Martenot or Theremin 5[5. See Varèse’s Ecuatorial, from 1934.], while composers Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch, who around the same time also wrote pieces for other electronic instruments such as the Trautonium, also used the gramophone as an instrument in one of their compositions. For the 1930 New Music festival in Berlin (Germany), they composed the Originalwerke für Schallplatte (Original Works for Disc), where they use a gramophone as a compositional tool as well as a live instrument. 6[6. See the programme for the Festival Neue Musik Berlin 1930, quoted in Josef Häusler, Spiegel der Neuen Musik: Donaueschingen (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1996).] These works include Hindemith’s pieces Zwei Trickaufnahmen (Two Trick Recordings). One of them is the vocal piece Gesang über vier Oktaven (Four-Octave Song); the other is an untitled instrumental piece. In the composition for vocals, two basic techniques seemed to be used: first, the sung melodies on the record were transposed one octave higher by doubling the playback speed, or they were transposed one octave deeper by halving the speed (Katz 2001, 163). 7[7. Hindemith’s records are mentioned in Martin Elste’s article “Hindemiths Versuche ‘grammophonplatten-eigene Stücke’ im Kontext einer Ideengeschichte der Mechanischen Musik im 20. Jahrhundert,” Hindemith Jahrbuch 25 (1996, pp. 195–221). Elste has proven this assumption by mixing the two records about each other with a separation of eight beats. Mark Katz also heard these canonic recordings, but there is insufficient documentation to prove exactly how the pieces were created.] As an additional effect, the records were mixed together to generate harmonic structures, as in the final triphonic chord of the vocal piece. Such mixing techniques will be pursued to a much greater extent following the invention of the audiotape; indeed, overdubbing and multi-track recording are standard in the recording industry today.

In Hindemith’s second instrumental Trickaufnahme, an ensemble of xylophone, violin and cello seems to be playing. Katz, who has listened to both of the pieces, assumes in his article that Hindemith only recorded the viola and the xylophone. By applying the same mixing technique in varied playback speeds as for his other piece, Hindemith created a kind of canon of three instruments. 8[8. Katz published a copy of Hindemith’s instrumental piece on the CD accompanying his book Capturing Sound; Hindemith’s original records are now lost.] Unfortunately it is not known in detail how Hindemith produced this or how he performed the pieces at the Festival.

The three pieces which Ernst Toch created for the festival are collected under the title Gesprochene Musik (Spoken Music). The last one of them, the Fuge aus der Geographie (Geographical Fugue), is a piece made with recordings of spoken syllables of a choir, which were manipulated on the gramophone live on stage by varying the playback speed. Today, this piece is no longer performed as a gramophone experiment, nor are there any contemporary recordings. A description in the article “Über meine Kantate ‘Das Wasser’ und meine Grammophonmusik” by Toch himself that was published just before the festival gives a hint of how the composition was developed:

I chose for this the spoken word and had a four-voice mixed chamber choir speak exactly indicated rhythms, vowels, consonants, syllables, and words, so that in exploiting the mechanical possibilities of recording (such as increasing tempo and therefore pitch), a kind of instrumental music came about, so that it may perhaps nearly be forgotten that its creation is based solely upon speech. (Only on one point did the machine unfortunately deceive me: it changed the vowels in a way I did not intend.) I attempted to tackle the problem from several perspectives in two little movements and a “Geographical Fugue”. (Quoted and translated in Katz 2001, 164) 9[9. Originally published in German: Ernst Toch, “Über meine Kantate ‘Das Wasser’ und meine Grammophonmusik,” Melos 9 (May–June 1930, p. 222).]

Toch used changes in timbre caused by tempo variations in his pieces. The sound result was described by Georg Shünemann (then-director of the Musikhochschule where the pieces were presented) as “curiously strange” or “nearly instrumental” (Quoted and translated in Katz 2001, 164–5). 10[10. Originally published in German: Georg Schünemann, “Produktive Kräfte der mechanischen Musik,” Die Musik 24 (January 1932, p. 247).]

Principally, from around 1919 to 1930 there are two ideas on how to use the gramophone in an enhanced musical way: first, as a compositional tool, realized by recording variations on the device; and second, as a live instrument in a concert. Even in these early years, the artists manipulated the record player by varying its speed — today called pitch shifting — as well as by mixing together pieces. These effects still count as some of the main techniques of electronic music in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Various models of pick-up needles for record players. The little metal boxes contain up to 200 needles and the “loudness” of the needles is indicated on the box covers: mittellaut (medium-loud, Marschall blue box, top left), laut (loud, Marschall blue box, top right) and even “the loudest needle” (Aegir, bottom centre). Shell even produced golden pickup needles (top centre). Exhibited at Mouseio Fonografou Museum (Museum of Phonographs) in Lefkada, Greece. Photo © Karin Weissenbrunner. [Click image to enlarge]

Karl Valentin’s short movie from 1934, Im Schallplattenladen (In a Record Shop), shows a rough and distinctively performative handling of a record player and its records and is mentioned as “a major inspiration” for the turntablist Ignaz Schick (Schick 2009). In the sketch, the German comedian and his partner Liesl Karlstadt broke taboos by intentionally destroying records. The main character, played by Valentin, is a customer in a record shop who wrecks one record after another; for example, he accidently sits on the records or, pretending to compare the new, more flexible records with the common ones, beats them against his head, all to the indignation of the sales clerks. The movie virtually celebrates the destruction of records and the camera highlights the fact that there are broken records everywhere. Here, we can even speak of an æstheticizing of broken record parts, something was important for the Fluxus movement from the 1960s on, especially in Milan Knížák’s “Destroyed Music” works.

Valentin calls the medium of the Schallplatte (literally “sound plate”) into question by asking for a disk with Schall (sound) on it, or by demanding alternative forms of a record, like merely half of it or a square one. He even stops a record playing on the gramophone with his walking stick and thereby contributes an acoustical aspect to his sketch.

This sketch is one of the oldest examples of malpractice and the destruction of records. It introduces a non-conformist attitude to the use of audio devices that re-emerged in the actions of the Fluxus movement in the 1960s and is still common in the experimental turntablism scene. 11[11. See, for example, Maria Chavez’s broken needles or the work of Ignaz Schick, who physically scratches the surface of his discs. [Ed.: Chavez talks about what she calls her “pencils of sound” in “[TALK] 6 Questions to Turntablist Maria Chavez” by Ignaz Schick, published in this issue of eContact!]] Moreover, the æsthetic and almost decorative character of broken records comes to light particularly powerfully in this sketch. Later artistic projects, in particular those by Milan Knížák and Christian Marclay, will focus on the visual peculiarity of records, notably their broken shards.

Manipulations — changes of speed / tempo, pitch and even approaches of non-conformist handling with the first record devices — were found in practical pieces as well as in public discussions about the turntable as early as the 1920s and 1930s. Based on these attempts, the creative possibilities for the turntable became enhanced over time. The specific nature of the mutual influence of these factors is not well known, but the development as a whole stands in the context of the Avant-gardes at the same time.

Influence of the Avant-gardes: Futurism, Dadaism and Musique concrète

It was important not only to discover new sound possibilities inherent in the gramophone — up to this point, unknown sound effects might arise through accidental mistreatment or by chance — but also, with regards to the musical application of these malfunctioning sounds, to establish an æsthetic basis for their usage. The main impulses for non-conformist and experimental æsthetics in music come from the Avant-garde practices of Futurism, Dadaism and musique concrète.

The early Futurist manifesti lay the groundwork for seeing noise as sound material. The Futurist artists tried to reflect modern life and the dynamic of the real world in abstract forms, connected to Appropriation art, in a quite radical way. Their works address symbols of the period like velocity, progress and vehicles (cars and trains), or industrial cities filled with people, through their sounds and noises. Noise-as-music counts as a sign and reflection of urban life. 12[12. Examples include such works as Carlo Carrà’s What the Tram Told Me (1911), Gino Serverini’s Memories of a Journey (1911) or The Symphony of the Hooters (1922) by the Russian Futurist Arseny Avraamov.] The painter Luigi Russolo contributed crucially to the emancipation of noise by publishing his ideas about the timbre and rhythms of noises in his manifesto “L’arte dei rumori” (“Art of Noises”) of 1913. He created together with the painter Ugo Piatti self-created noise-generating instruments, the Intonarumori, or “noise intoners” (De la Motte-Haber 1999, 33). Russolo composed, as we can see in his score Risveglio di una città (Noise Music: Awakening of a City), for “howlers, boomers, cracklers, scrapers, exploders, buzzers, gurglers, and whistles.” Russolo had the opportunity to show his instruments in several European cities and composers of this time were consequently quite familiar with his creations. The Futurists’ inventions and concepts must be seen as an essential influence on artists and composers. The statement that noise can be used as sound in music allows composers to use noises of electronic devices in compositions — not least, then, the sound of malfunctioning turntables. Indeed, this was an important step for the development of several music genres, especially the noise music genre.

Demolition, deconstruction and collage are characteristic of Dadaism, as is a revolt against traditional culture and æsthetics. Dada artists denied their works of traditional compositional rules by using chance or absurdity in their works, and proclaimed that something new has to encounter resistance, otherwise it cannot be seen as new. These are fundamental motivations and we can rediscover the Dada art techniques in works with record players, such as Stefan Wolpe’s performance with eight record players mentioned above. Artists experimented with found sounds (excerpts on recordings, for example), following Marcel Duchamp’s concepts of the objet trouvé or the readymade. The style of assemblages or collages made by the Futurists and Dadaists resonates with early characteristics of “sampling”, nowadays a widespread practice. The meaning of sampling in cultural terms is extracting parts of audio recordings of every kind and bringing them in a new musical context (Schwertgen n.d., “Interview with Volker Straebel”). Furthermore, Futurist and Dada artists explored æsthetic ideas which called into question the established performance forms, challenging the viewer’s perception and experience of performer / audience roles — breaking the fourth wall — and even going so far as to humiliate the audience members. 13[13. See, for example, performances of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, founded by Hugo Ball in 1916.]

Pierre Schaeffer, a French sound engineer, had developed a compositional method involving sound material on audio records in the late 1940s. He manipulated the playback on the record player by, for example, playing sounds backwards, changing the speed or juxtaposing sounds using several record players. These techniques, however, had already been conducted in experiments with gramophones (see above). What was new was the preparation on the groove in the disc. He created, for instance, locked grooves, with the result that the record player repeats an endless loop of a short excerpt of the recording. This effect became a standard in digital music software and it is hard to imagine today’s popular electronic music without it. Although the compositional process is connected with records, Schaeffer recorded his pieces on magnetic tapes and broadcast them live (Schaeffer was working for the French radio) or presented them with loudspeaker systems (see acousmatic music). Schaeffer introduced the term “musique concrète” in 1948 for his work to differentiate it from “abstract music”. He composed with concrete materials by using the already existing sounds on a disc, for example. “Abstract music,” in contrast, is prepared by writing down notes in an intellectual and immaterial way. Besides other important experiments, Schaeffer’s compositional method using manipulated discs was pioneering not only for younger turntablists (Schick 2009). His understanding of music is based on the appreciation of all sounds, including noise, as worthy musical objects, as did the Futurists.

John Cage

The gramophone has long been used as an instrument in concerts or as a compositional tool (Katz 2001). Early techniques include mixing, sampling, playing backwards or at variable speeds as well as the looping of sounds. These are well developed practices, and do not differ from today’s sound manipulation practices. Even the first practices of damaging records or of the harsh treatment of the gramophone existed before the invention of the turntable. 14[14. Karl’s Valentin’s Im Schallplattenladen (1934) being the most notable example.] John Cage seems to be the first who transposed these ideas to the electricity-powered variable-speed turntable, and therefore played a principal role in the evolution of experimental turntablism. According to Katz, Cage was located in Berlin at the time of Hindemith’s and Toch’s performance in 1930 and is supposed to have seen their works (Ibid., 176). In “The Future of Music: Credo” from 1937, Cage underlined the importance of noise as well as of the record player as an instrument:

I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. Photoelectric, film, and mechanical mediums for the synthetic production of music will be explored. Whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and so-called musical sounds…. Given four film phonographs, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide.

These thoughts followed Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) — Cage’s first electronic piece and at the same time his first experiment with the turntable as a musical instrument. During a concert, Cage let two record players play records of constant variable test tones with variable speed, accompanied by piano and cymbals (Miller 2002, 152). Changing the pitch of the pre-recorded sounds, by speeding up or slowing down the playback speed, causes the sine tones to turn into glissandi. This principle was also used in Hindemith’s and Toch’s performance with the gramophone of 1930 in Berlin, Germany.

In many of his pieces since that time, Cage also uses other media devices like radios, magnetic tape recorders or computers. The turntable again — this time in a modified manner — is included in the instrumentation in later works: Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (March) (1942), Imaginary Landscape No. 3 (1942) and Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952) for 42 phonographic records. 15[15. In 1940, Cage also wrote Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (First Version) for records of constant and variable frequency, string piano and percussion, but he withdrew the piece later (Chaudron).] In Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (March), a coil of wire replaces the needle of a phonographic pick-up arm. The movements of the needle as it traces the disc groove’s engraving are electronically amplified and then played back through loudspeakers. By preparing the needle in this manner, the loudspeakers transmit a unique noise instead of that of the actual audio on the record. Cage combined these noises in the piece with unusual instruments or sound-makers, like a conch shell horn, a buzzer, a water gong, a metal wastebasket and a lion’s roar. The result is a mix of acoustic and electronic sounds. In Imaginary Landscape No. 3, the variable-speed turntables again play sine waves, while we also hear the amplified coil of wire together with other electronic and mechanical devices. It is notable, that Cage not only used the turntable in these compositions, but he also used notation for the turntable as one would for any acoustic instrument.

In Cartridge Music (1960) with David Tudor, the record player is modified for experimental improvisations live on stage. This time the needle in the cartridge on the tone arm was replaced with several objects like feathers, wires, pipe-cleaners or matches, and the performers rubbed the prepared cartridge on objects (Revill 1992, 76). The resulting noises were amplified and partly electronically processed. At the same time, Tudor and Cage used contact microphones, resulting in a complex and, at the same time, unintentional outcome (Kostelanetz 1991, 144). We can still observe this strategy in contemporary turntablist experiments. As Cage and Tudor in their series of experiments always used the turntable as a valid instrument, they contributed significantly to the establishment of the term “live electronic music” or “live electronics” as well as to the enhancement of performance practice (Eggebrecht 1995, 23). Hence Cartridge Music is one of the most important works in the development of experimental turntablism, as the turntable is used in a form, with prepared cartridge, electronically amplification and independently from records, in which it is still used by sound artists today.

Fluxus Artists

Artists of the Fluxus movement adopted and pursued Cage’s impulses in music. Enhanced performance concepts, the disappearing line between composer and performer as well as improvised and open concert forms hark back to Fluxus. Examples for the interactive and sculptural usage of records include Listening to a Record Through the Mouth (1962) and Schallplatten-Schaschlick (1963), by the media artist Nam June Paik from South Korea. In the latter installation, the visitor can grasp and move the pickup head to any of the several records that are spinning simultaneously, strung together vertically on a rod like a shashlik skewer. Nam June Paik generally deploys media in sculptures and other works in order to make the ubiquity of technology a subject of discussion.

In 1963, the Czech Fluxus artist Milan Knížák started his Destroyed Music series, in which he created music and sculptures of every kind with distorted, damaged, broken and reconstituted parts from several records. An example is the LP Broken Music Composition from 1979. In performances, Knížák plays back the broken record parts during destructive actions like burning, gluing the record shards together or on top of each other, or destroying the needle of the record player. In his “patchwork” records, the needle follows a mix of different music “pieces” (which is sometimes visually represented by different colours of the record shards, offering visual interest to the discs) and, where the slices are glued together, noisy sounds like cracks appear. Knížák dared a large number of distortions or deformations with the intent of creating as large a variety of sounds as possible (Kelly 2009, 143–44). Many influences mentioned earlier can be found in his music. The noisy sound æsthetic which is evoked by these playing techniques or practices reminds us of the æsthetics of the Futurists or the artists of musique concrète. At the same time, Knížák’s procedure manifests the conceptual semantic level of the Fluxus movement. The material is not only something that already existed, like a recording, as in Duchamp’s readymades or in musique concrète. There might be destroyed music material and extremely non-conformist usage of recorded media and the equipment used to play it, but at the same time, the damage of the broken records created something new.

An example of a unusual usage of the turntable which also adresses its playback mechanism is Laurie Anderson’s Viophonograph (1975), an instrument created by the combination of record player and a classical instrument. Up to the 1970s, Anderson’s electronic inventions (such as hybrid instruments) offer ironic, contrasting and provocative mashups of media and content. In the series of several novel violins the American performance artist mounted a 7-inch record on the body of a violin to create the Viophonograph. As in Nam June Paik’s Schallplatten-Schaschlick, the access to the music on the vinyl is changed. Here the musician can play back the record with the violin bow, as with a classical instrument. The touch of the record by the bow is electronically amplified. Using a similar principle, Anderson created a Tape-Bow Violin with a bow which has magnetic cassette tapes instead of the hair of horses. These instruments bring the turntable or tape player as mass-produced playback media to the domain of specialized classical instruments.

The Fluxus artists adopted and enhanced the previous versions of manipulation of the records or of the record players. They added the destructive component which refers to Karl Valentin’s sketch from 1934 and created new musical, sculptural and performative possibilities for the next generations of turntablists.

Hip Hop Turntablists from the 1970s to Today

Entirely independent of the previously mentioned artists, during the 1970s in the Bronx, New York City, hip hop musicians developed certain playing techniques with turntables which are today mainly associated with turntablism, like “scratching” or “beatjuggling”. 16[16. See “Turntable [wiki]: Performance Techniques” published as part of this issue of eContact! for a glossary of techniques used in turntable performance.] According to DJ Babu, who is one of the first DJs of this scene, hip hop in general is not a music genre but rather a whole culture which comprises diverse art movements like break dance, graffiti art and rap music. Usually, hip hop means that one should take something that “rocks” and then insert one’s own identity (Pray 2001). This concept of the hip hop culture is very free and individual.

From around 1979, DJs emancipated themselves from the rappers (or MCs) and concentrated on developing different playing techniques on the turntable instead of just playing back records as support for the rappers. One of the first effects which was invented by turntablists is the popular “scratching”, which Grand Wizzard Theodore discovered by accident (Carluccio 1997). By rhythmically moving the record forward and backward manually, the needle scratches slightly in both directions over the vinyl disc and a prominent sound appears whose pitch is dependent on the speed of the movement. More playing techniques emerged over time and the turntable evolved as a stand-alone instrument. The term “turntablism” was finally established by DJ Babu in 1995 to differentiate this way of making music from the DJ’s technique. It usually takes three things for this elaborate way of playing the turntable: two record players and a DJ-mixer. Most effects are based on playing back the same disc simultaneously on the two turntables to keep beat of the song synchronized. The musicians use one hand to manipulate one of the records and the other hand for crossfading on the mixer.

Turntablists understand their manner of playing as a form of language, as DJ Q-Bert describes in an interview: “It’s like each technique is a word. The larger your vocabulary, the more particularly you can speak” (Pray 2001). Turntablists compete with each other in battles, or they perform together in ensembles. Grand Wizzard Theodore, DJ Jazzy Jay, DJ Kool Herc, Grand Mixer DXT und Grand Master Flash and others are considered to be the early turntablists of the 1970/1980s. A turntablist of the younger generation is Q-Bert, who uses the turntable in a very percussive and technical way. Eric San (a.k.a. Kid Koala), a Canadian DJ and turntablist, brings the same playing techniques to genres other than hip hop and is mostly known for his unusual style and wide-ranging collection of samples. From sneezing noises to old Jazz records of the 1930s to film music or extracts of comedy shows, Kid Koala always succeeds in mixing jazzy, humoristic and groovy songs with sample material of any kind. Birdy Nam Nam, a group of four turntablists in France, perform as a turntable ensemble and create music of different genres with their diverse range of samples.

Scratching and other hip hop turntablist techniques have in the meantime become established elements of pop culture. In 1978, Technics, a company for hi-fi products, came up with the model SL-1210 MK2, which is regarded as very durable and reliable and since then has established itself as one of the most popular turntables. These impulses of hip hop culture may also have considerably supported the record as an ongoing popular medium in comparison to the CD. The turntablists of the hip hop culture do not refer to predecessors like Cage. This non-academic evolution led to the present cult and establishment of turntablism and shaped artists of other music genres at the same time.

Parallels with the Hip Hop Movement of the 1970s/1980s

Christian Marclay (*1955) began to perform with records in New York around 1979 (Kahn 2003). Independent of the parallels in hip hop music — he only recognized this trend with the release of the DJ mix The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel and The Message in 1981 (Kahn 2003, 20) — he pursued Cage’s ideas. In parallel, Marclay works as a visual artist, which has an affect on his musical output. His decorative records are formed by different re-glued record parts. One single part connected to another one sounds like a stringing together of samples. Marclay’s music shows a high number of references, a mix of much different musical information. The outcome is a sound collage built from a range of recorded works — for example, Chopin, Jazz, speaking voices and Maria Callas — played by several turntables at once at different speeds, scratched or otherwise manipulated. For Marclay, no opposites exist between hip hop turntablists and his playing techniques. He places his musical style between popular and academic music:

I don’t try to make pop music and I usually stay away from commercial beats, but my work is informed by the pop music I hear everywhere. It’s just a different way of using that material. (Music Magazine 2004, 343)

With his preparations on the vinyl disc, Marclay refers not only its content but also to the medium itself. As the medium — the carrier of sound — usually takes a backseat, Marclay tries to bring the medium back to consciousness by scratching or destroying the record. This concept is particularly evident on his LP Record Without a Cover (1985):

Record Without a Cover was the perfect medium for my ideas, a record that was not about permanence, but about change. It was sold without any protective packaging. By the time you bought it in the store, it was already damaged during shipping and handling. It was a record that threatened everything you were taught about records and how to handle them. It even threatened your needle. You couldn’t be a passive listener, you had to be involved. It was intriguing, unstable. It was a record about records. (Ibid., 346)

Marclay aims to bring more attention to what can be heard by creating asynchronicities and changes of visual and audible components. Besides modifications to records, we can find among his rich output various preparations, like the invention of the “phonoguitar”, a turntable which hangs around the shoulders. These works show similarities to works of Fluxus art: the “phonoguitar” is similar to Laurie Anderson’s “viophonograph” and Marclay’s glued records resemble Knížák’s “Destroyed Music”. However, the use of the electric guitar as inspiration behind the “phonoguitar” also connects Marclay to popular music.

Claus van Bebber (*1949), from Germany, started to use the record player in the early 1970s. In the 1990s he concentrated solely on performing with the turntable in an improvised and experimental way. Van Bebber created installations, concerts, actions and objects under the name Schallplattenkonzert (Record Concert) and he was always interested in the vinyl’s traditional character as well as in records as preserved sounds. Van Bebber usually uses several old vintage record players, which play simultaneously with variable speed and in loops, and many different preparations on the records, like with adhesive tape and stickers as well as hammers or a third hand. The alienation in the resulting sounds is so strong that it is hardly possible to hear the original recordings of the disc. These concepts are often organized together with other artists, in collaborations with, above all, the turntablists Philip Jeck or Ignaz Schick.

The Montréal-based DJ and improvisor Martin Tétreault originally comes from the visual art milieu, like Christian Marclay, and started performing with the turntable in 1985. Today, Tétreault mainly focuses on sound generation by the record player itself. Referencing Cage, Tétreault invents more ways of preparing the cartridge, such as placing a balloon (not filled with air) over the cartridge. Furthermore, he uses small electronical instruments on the record player, or prepared surfaces instead of records. Therefore the references to original recordings are missing and a more abstract music results which is based on nuanced noises. Tétreault continues the trend of abandoning the use of records altogether. This was already on display in Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (March) or Cartridge Music. One of the turntablists he regularly works with is Ōtomo Yoshihide, for example.

Ōtomo Yoshihide (*1959) from Japan has been a turntablist since the 1990s and is known for several genres like Noise/Rock music, Jazz, Free Improvisation or classical contemporary music. In his former Los Angeles based band Ground Zero, Yoshihide produced very loud and aggressive noise music by holding the strings of his electric guitar on the turning table of the record player. Usually Yoshihide uses the turntable itself for generating sound with contact microphones or other elements.

Considering the turntable as an established instrument, it seems to be a logical step to combine a turntable in an ensemble or orchestra. Philip Jeck (*1952), a British composer and disc jockey, organized together with Lol Sargent a whole orchestra of 180 turntables in his piece Vinyl Requiem of 1994. Another more recent example of an ensemble of turntables is TITO — The International Turntable Orchestra, a collective of up to 14 turntablists which performed in 2009 in Berlin in various configurations.

Turntablists of the Younger Generation

Sound artists pursued the previous approaches to using the turntable as an instrument with advanced forms of preparations on the turntable or on the records, and developed new playing techniques. Modifications turn the turntable into various individual instruments with distinct characteristics. The appropriation of the playback device as well as the creative usage of the technology’s malfunctions, such as the basic crackling noise of the record, continue today. Turntablists work in a number of music genres and unite influences of popular as well as avant-garde music and art. The tendency is mainly towards noise music and improvised, live electronic music. Rhythms and melodies emerge most clearly in playing techniques which quote commercial recordings. Through short portraits of different turntablists of the experimental scene in the following paragraphs, I will try to give an overview of experimental turntablism today.

Maria Chavez, born in Peru and currently residing in New York, uses a collection of new needles as well as needles almost broken at the cartridge. These “pencils of sound” (Chavez) encourage the transformation of the normally transparent mechanical process of transmitting sound from the vinyl via the needle into a usable sound. 17[17. See the Maria Chavez “Gallery” and “6 Questions to Turntablist Maria Chavez” by Ignaz Schick, both published in this issue of eContact!]

Marina Rosenfeld is an artist from New York who engraves her own prepared sound material on discs and manipulates or transforms them live. References to recordings and sensuality characterize her music style.

Janek Schaefer constructed his “triphonic turntable” in 1997, a turntable with various speed levels which he equipped with three tone arms. Originally acquainted with techno music and DJing, Schaefer saw Philip Jeck’s Vinyl Requiem and was inspired to play numerous pieces of a record simultaneously and generate superimposed sound layers. Based in London, Schaefer sees himself as a sound artist who designs a sound for a room similar to a sound installation.

The Berlin-based turntablist Ignaz Schick started performances with “rotating surfaces” as his main instrument in 2004. He uses a turntable or recently a motor in combination with a small capacitor microphone (AKG C419) that amplifies the acoustic sounds of diverse objects. Schick combines these objects on the turning plate so that the objects start to resonate and produce an acoustic sound. His numerous and diverse objects are a collection of classical music equipment, such as a violin bow and cymbals, and different materials like plastic spoons, dried flowers, metal slices and little paper umbrellas. The microphone on the turntable assumes the role of a microscope and amplifies the sometimes very harsh or very low acoustic sounds. Working in this manner, Schick unveils sounds which would not otherwise be audible. By controlling the sounds very precisely he can create melodies as well as drones or noise.

From Sydney (Australia), Lucas Abela belongs mainly to the turntablists of the noise genre. He uses the turntable in many ways. He constructed, for example, a turntable with a motor of an industrial sewing machine so that, instead of the standard 33 or 45 rotations per minute, he can reach speeds of 2850 rpm.

Abela keeps the sound head of the turntable on a skewer which is connected to a guitar amplifier. The sound snatches can be described as very highly altered sounds of the original record in combination with extremely loud, explosive and noisy impulses. The resemblance to industrial sounds is not only associative but also direct, because a tool like the sewing machine’s motor is physically involved. The break of the tone needle finally ends the performance. Here the harsh handling of turntable devices, introduced by Karl Valentin or used later in the Fluxus movement, makes a direct connection to the use of industrial machinery. Abela also invented the “vinyl rally,” a huge installation with a toy car which drives with attached styli over vinyls in a racetrack. The car and also the parameters of the resulting sounds can be controlled by visitors with a first-person video game. The sounds are emitted through loudspeakers on the seats of the visitors, so that the vibrations can be experienced as well. 18[18. Information and videos of Lucas Abela’s Vinyl Rally installation are available on the artist’s website.]


This historical overview shows the diverse approaches to the gramophone which can be found in experimental turntablism. As has been shown, multiple ways of playing the turntable were exploited. These depend partly on the turntable’s technical construction. As a needle transfers the audio signal to amplify it and the turning table has to run in a certain speed, it is possible to use features like variable speed levels, playing a disc backwards or creating loops. Additionally, the records offer different sound material: on the one hand, the recorded sound; on the other, the vinyl material itself. These features were discovered as early as 1910, and the artists who started to use the turntable for their music found æsthetic and conceptual support in the avant-garde art movements such as Futurism and Dadaism and in the ideas of musique concrète. Later on, from the late 1970s on, playing techniques without any preparations were mainly established in the hip hop culture, like scratching, pitch shifting, sampling or overdubbing. From the 1940s on, John Cage pursued gramophone experiments in his series of compositions titled Imaginary Landscape. Different variations of preparations and enhancements of the record player have evolved into a form of “experimental turntablism” since Cage’s and Tudor’s live performances in Cartridge Music around 1960. These works provided the basis for the first turntablists, like Christian Marclay, Janek Schaefer and Martin Tétreault. Broken and glued vinyl records or objects even from traditional musical contexts like guitar strings or violin bows were used as tools to operate the turntable in different ways. Additionally, contact microphones and pick up arms amplified more noises. Even more sound variations are possible by modifying the cartridge or the records or by adding more microphones, tone arms or other instruments / tools / objects. The individual turntablists have attempted to achieve a certain sound ideal with their modifications. This is why their instruments change steadily. The turntable can produce diverse qualities of sound from percussive to melodious to noisy. The tendency of the development shows a growing concentration on using the sounds of the turntable itself without any records. We can see this more abstract orientation in Tétreault, Ōtomo Yoshihide and Ignaz Schick. One further advantage of this practice is the avoidance of issues of copyright.

The experimental, non-conformist and partly destructive usage of the instrument by modern turntablists is individual and unique, with the result that turntablism has no fixed music genre. The actual music can range from techno through noise to more popular music, or can quote other recordings. We can also see examples of sculptural and purely conceptual works with record players or its devices.

Some of the features and characteristics of the turntable that have been explored by artists in an instrumental manner, as described above, were not originally intended by the manufacturers. Record players were appropriated and (mis)used as instruments — their unintended sounds and characteristic elements were æstheticized and employed as musical and artistic material. Already in 1930, Toch had addressed this in a description of his practice:

Concerning my contribution to original gramophone music I would say this: the concept arose from the attempt to extend the function of the machine — which up to now has been intended for the most faithful possible reproduction of live music — by exploiting the peculiarities of its function and by analyzing its formerly unrealized possibilities (which are worthless for the machine’s real purpose of faithful reproduction), thereby changing the machine’s function and creating a characteristic music of its own. (Quoted and translated in Katz 2001, 164)

Toch points out that already at this time the music produced with a gramophone is “characteristic” and distinctive. This is especially true of music that uses attributes not intended by the manufacturers. These “worthless” functions were from the beginning the source for a creative usage of the playback device — the sounds of malfunction, as Caleb Kelly says (2009). And at the same time, they were media-specific sounds, no matter if they came from a record player or a CD-player. Records, as well as technical playback devices like the gramophone, are at present seen as a medium: a black box that acts between the music and the listener. Usually the medium itself is not noticed and is intended to provide a transparent transfer of sound. By using functions of the device which are not intended by the manufacturer for artistic use, the medium itself becomes a focal point for artistic expression. The characteristic elements in this music can reflect the process of music production and the technology used.

The reflective process in regard to media technology is one of several dimensions which influence the æsthetic experience in turntablism. Another one of these dimensions is the multiple associative possibilities, the many variations of preparations or enhancements, offered by the turntable. At the same time, these preparations define the haptic handling of the turntable and therefore its visual and performative components, and these components are vitally important for the audience’s understanding of the sound production.

Additionally, the concerts of experimental turntablists are often performed in venues that are atypical for traditional live performance, and can feature open concert forms as well as social components in the context of the performances 19[19. The turntable scene, as with other Avant-garde or experimental movements, can be found in a range of “off-spaces”, places that were not intended for concert performance, industrial spaces or venues which are unrenovated. The division of audience and performer is also not as apparent as in traditional venues: the audience may be talking and moving about during performances, performers can be seen mingling with (or drinking beer with) the audience members.]. This general development of performances in the experimental turntable scene has been influenced by the action art genres of Fluxus and Happening of the 1960s. These additional components in the context of the performance integrate not only entertaining characteristics but also concepts which are related to perception. The usage of playback devices in live performances is essentially bound to media like the turntable. Because of media-specific characteristics, especially in experimental turntablism, the concert situation invokes special conditions of reception, such as visual and performative levels, which cannot be purely transmitted by audio media like CDs. The experimental and improvised usage of the turntable as an instrument today is one of many variations of misusing electronic playback devices.

Misusing, misappropriating the turntable is one of the earliest ideas, which we can follow back to the beginning of the twentieth century in experiments with phonographs and gramophones. The specifics of the media in this music genre allow the audience to focus their attention on the reproduction process of the technology. This æsthetic attribute is important to find a way out of contemporary virtual worlds and back to reality, especially at a time in which the ubiquity of technology is only increasing.

With special thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Verhey.

Websites of Turntablists Mentioned in this Article

Lucas Abela (Sydney)
Birdy Nam Nam (France)
Grand Wizzard Theodore
Maria Chavez (New York)
Milan Knížák (In Czech)
Kid Koala (Montréal)
Christian Marclay
Marina Rosenfeld (New York)
Janek Schaefer (London)
Ignaz Schick (Berlin)
Martin Tétreault [no website]
Claus van Bebber
Ōtomo Yoshihide


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