From DJ Francis Grasso to Grandmaster Flash, Time Out art critic Ossian Ward looks at the work of sound artist and occasional disc jockey Haroon Mirza from a turntablist’s perspective.
Text: Ossian Ward
First, two phono leads attach the turntables to the central mixer via red and black connectors. In turn, the loudspeakers too are connected umbilically by their spindly insulated copper stereo cables to the maternal amplifier or musical mothership, awaiting sonic lift-off. Both the amp and mixer – the pre-amplification middlemen – audibly pop when switched on, before emitting a satisfying, low-level hum, like the bass tone of some distant generator. Every male headphone, microphone or turntable input also buzzes briefly when inserted unceremoniously into its female socket or jack. Next, the two earth wires are attached to the mixing console with a violent bzzzzt, while emitting a miniscule, nerve-awakening shock to the fingertips.
The Technics SL-1200s light up red when manually clicked to ‘On’, while a single button depression causes each heavy circular platter – the so-called wheels of steel – to splutter almost instantaneously into 33 or 45 RPM. This rotational launch is accompanied by a high-pitched whine, as if a string quartet hidden inside the belly of the record player had just struck up a tiny chord. The stylus is attached to the arm with another abrupt jolt of noisy feedback, angering and rattling the speakers for an instant, before returning the system to its standby status – a barely-there background reading of ever-present electrical potency. Finally a plate of vinyl, either an LP or 7-inch, is satisfyingly slotted on, hole over pin, before the needle is dropped. The pre-emptive crackle and hiss of the disc’s blank intro grooves add to the panoply of subtly perceptible sounds to emerge from this simple process, all of which occurs before a single note or bar of music is even heard.
This simple vinyl-to-vinyl set-up will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in DJ culture, indeed, as a practicing DJ himself, Haroon Mirza will have been through this ritual – of setting up a pair of decks, a mixer and an amp – dozens of times and is doubtless regarded by his friends and acquaintances as the go-to guy for any such phonographic queries or audiophile engineering. That’s because this modicum of expertise in attaching together various hi-fi separates is, in itself, something of an art. If one wire deviates from its true course or a grounding lead is misplaced, then the circuit will not function, just as the brain’s synapses and dendrites won’t function if not connected properly. The set-up is likely to produce nothing but static or else a deafening lack of aural inactivity and a dreaded silence.
Perhaps influenced by the preparatory routine described above, many of Mirza’s finished works as an artist involve a similar performative ceremony before they are presented in a gallery context – in other words, his sculptures, assemblages and installations need to be turned on, plugged in or miked up. Yet, as part of his artistic practice, Mirza often wilfully sets out to short-circuit the workings of a system, for example by attaching a transistor radio to the record player, as in ‘Automation is Dead’ (2011), which causes a discordant burst of fizzing feedback with each revolution of the turntable. He has also hooked up a portable CD player to a bucket of water to disrupt the sounds being played (‘Canon Remix’, 2006), providing an alternate, remixed soundtrack to the pre-recorded material. Rather than presenting himself as the sentient disc jockey in charge of proceedings, Mirza allows each piece to lurch into life as if of its own accord, like a music-making automaton (see ‘Regaining a Degree of Control’, 2010). Every click of a device coming on or off is important in the scheme of things; every movement combines to create a new composition. Lights, television sets, keyboards, projectors, lasers, dry ice and even other artists’ works have been introduced into these looping, interconnected sculptural installations to add visual and physical incidence to his pulsing, self-contained audio-scapes.
But, back to the humble turntables. Mirza has already created homages to one of the earliest exponents of putting two records together, namely the beatmatching and mixing pioneer, Francis Grasso, whose legendary New York club night Sanctuary lends its name to a 2009 work by Mirza. Grasso’s two-deck wizardry is further alluded to in earlier piece by Mirza, ‘Radio DJ (no.3)’ of 2006, which features recordings of two radio stations noisily layered over one another that suddenly, unexpectedly synchronise. As though by some sudden alignment of the stars, ‘Tour de France’ by German electro outfit Kraftwerk seamlessly blends into the German Baroque composition, ‘Canon’, by Pachabel, creating an otherworldly mash-up, equivalent to the confluence created by a DJ manipulating and bringing together two different tracks.
This cut-and-paste technique (arguably achieved earlier in the audio splicing of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) grew into hip-hop and rap music and then splintered into its own sub-genre of turntablism, which has aimed to present the skilled disc jockey as a musician in his own right (it even has its own transcription method, akin to musical notation www.ttmethod.com.
Many of their dextrous wrist flicks and hand skills performed with vinyl are actually onomatopoeic techniques – called chirps, scribbles, flares, orbits, crabs, swipes, stabs, tears, phazers and fades in turntablist parlance – which take audiences on a journey of rhythmic, repetitive phrasing and constant flux, much like many of Mirza’s ebbing, flowing, jarring and jittering installations. You could say that Mirza’s aesthetic mirrors that of the sonic interruptions of turntablism.
His second show at Lisson Gallery, entitled ‘/o/o/o/o/’, includes another example of musical manipulation that is specific to turntablism. Mirza has long been doctoring records or fashioning his own vinyl substitutes, either by attaching stickers or labels to existing platters (as in the use of a humble Post-it note to loop a few tracks of a siren-like recording in ‘Birds of Pray’, (2010), or else by using plastic, Perspex or corrugated card to create his own handmade records (‘Evolution of a Revolution’, 2011). This is standard practice for battle DJs, turntablists and many other DJs, who regularly sticker over or tape up existing tracks to loop or ease location of a particular noise or beat. Many also press their own vinyl plates with scratch-ready sound effects, like a library of excerpts or samples. In Mirza’s new installation, ‘Sitting in a Room’ five such doctored disks spin in tandem to create a musical composition unobtainable without the aid of the other turntables, much as a turntablist might ‘juggle’ beats, a technique of breaking up existing rhythms to create entirely new combinations of bass thwomps, hi-hat kicks and clashing, doubling snares. The combination of multiple elements into a rehearsed performance – usually comprising sections of scratching, juggling patterns and perhaps some intricate word play – is called a routine or a set, terms that also chime with the looped, staged forms of Mirza’s jerry-rigged structures.
Another new work by Mirza is a reverberation chamber in which he made multiple recordings of the famous spoken-word performance, ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’, by minimalist composer, Alvin Lucier. In the 1969 original, Lucier repeats and re-records a short text that begins, “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.” This dense layering produces a startling effect, known as phasing, in which the repetition and overdubbing of an existing sound begins to degrade and warp the original, creating eerie, robotic tones. Mirza doubles this reverberation or staggering in his echo chamber, much as turntablists began to produce feedback loops and create new compositions through the use of a foot pedal to sample and replay their own recordings with additional strata of tracks and built-up effects. Hip hop DJs such as Radar, Z-Trip and Mixmaster Mike have long been using loop, delay and wa-wa pedals to enhance the scope of two turntables, but Mirza does not limit his media manipulation to noises or sound effects alone, often employing vocals (as with Lucier), video and other artists’ works as samples or interventions within his own works.
If the practice of art is generally less competitive than that of the world of hip hop, then the general principle of creating new forms from old is nevertheless matched by the desire to outdo one’s predecessors. Mirza’s practices across the fields of art and music both incorporate the creative, accretional impetus to experiment with new sounds, objects and combinations, but also, importantly, the will to dwell in the past and a resultant atmosphere of entropy and obsolescence. Turntablists in particular come in both these moulds, balancing the need to build with the need to destroy. Indeed, the very notion of touching records or disturbing turntables is anathema to their proper functioning; you normally just put an album or song on and leave it to play. Similarly, hip hop DJ names often reflect these contrary impulses: ranging from the positive monikers of Cut Creator, Cut Chemist and DJ Format to the rancorous nicknames of Terminator X, the Xecutioners, the Scratch Perverts and so on.
Mirza’s urge to take stereos, circuits, noises and art works apart stems from a dichotomous drive towards simultaneous originality and homage. Causing interference to the rotational pull of the norm and meddling with the status quo of the readymade are not only prerogatives of the artist/DJ, but signify ways to take a practice back to its essence, to figure out its internal workings. In their pre-performative state, his buzzing, humming machines represent a priori sounds and art objects. Within their subsequent electrical leaps of faith and transmission errors occur the flutters, echoes, frequency modulations and misfires that create the work’s friction and traction.
As it all began with two turntables and one DJ, let’s end it that way. As part of the exhibition, ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990’, which opened at the V&A in 2011, Grandmaster Flash’s original silver Technics-1200 were exhibited in a vitrine, presumably to honour the most influential musical instruments of the last two decades of the twentieth century as well as to symbolize that era’s discovery of sampling, collage and the deconstruction of cultural hierarchies. The catalogue entry on these seminal tools in hip hop’s birth quotes Jean Baudrillard’s 1976 treatise on ‘Symbolic Exchange and Death’: “The end of labour. The end of production. The end of political economy.” Baudrillard concluded that the cycle of cultural simulation was producing ‘simulacra’ or imitations without originals (‘Simulacra and Simulation’, 1981). The continuous quotation, collaging and decontextualisation of preceding examples therefore constitute no new forms of art, but merely a stream of never-ending reappraisals of past production. This ‘Matrix’-style notion that we are all somehow stuck in a looping groove on the same record was contained within these two inert record players planted one next to another, encased in stasis behind a Perspex frame. In Grandmaster Flash’s hands these turntables were once alive with possibilities and musical potential, but in the museum, devoid even of their enabling mixer and crossfader, let alone any electrical power, they became sad indictments of our cultural cul-de-sac. But, plug them in, put the right person behind them and they become primed – allowing us to skip between worlds, to step across the divide between reality and technological fantasy, to briefly stop the march of time, to prepare for the next coming, the opposing channel, the next song, the next beat.