Nov152018| November 15, 2018
With a Soviet-era Sports & Music LP and her original composition ‘GABA-analogue’.
Artist and experimental composer Shiva Feshareki has shared a new video of live turntable manipulations exclusively with The Vinyl Factory.
Released ahead of her performance with the BBC Concert Orchestra as part of the London Jazz Festival this weekend, the video captures an improvised manipulation of Feshareki’s original composition ‘GABA-analogue’ and a Soviet-era Sports & Music LP she was given by a record dealer in Moscow earlier this year.
One of the foremost experimental artists working in the field, Feshareki will perform new work Dialogue alongside the BBC Concert Orchestra this weekend. A piece she describes as a “sonic sculpture between electronic and acoustic sound,” Dialogue will see Feshreki blurring the lines between turntablism, improvisation, sampling and orchestral composition.
Shiva Feshareki with the BBC Concert Orchestra will take place on Sunday 18th November at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, click here to buy tickets and find out more.
Feb122018| February 12, 2018
Scratch without the skips.
A new device called Phase allows you to DJ without using a needle, reports The Verge.
Debuted at this year’s NAMM festival, Phase features two rectangular, battery-powered transmitters that you attach to the centre of each record.
Whereas the needle would previously track any changes in speed or direction on timecode vinyl, Phase uses a radio signal to relays any changes in motion to your laptop’s digital vinyl software (e.g. Serato or Traktor).
The product is expected to retail for approximately $300.
Head here for more info and watch a promo video of Phase in action below.
Aug112017| August 11, 2017
Google has created a feature on its website that allows you to play rotating illustrations of auto-beat matched records spinning on turntables, apparently in honour of the 44th anniversary of the “birth of hip hop”.
An animated Fab Five Freddy, “direct from New York City” takes you through a swift history of the birth of hip hop, followed by a short tutorial on how to use the ‘decks’ and how to use a scroll bar to flip through a gallery of record sleeves. You can scratch (mouse click) and manually beat match (mouse drag) songs by hitting the ‘BPM’ button and turning off the auto-sync switch.
The ‘crate’ contains iconic wax like The Isley Brothers’s Between The Sheets and Timmy Thomas’ ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’, alongside a few of the site’s own imprint ‘A Google Original’ – the 808 sample ‘808 Vol. 1’ sounds pretty familiar for an ‘original’ while ‘Polka Music Vol. 1’ is a straight-up disaster.
Yes Google can help you Faux Jockey, but it can’t help you figure out why two songs just don’t sound right mixed into each other, even when they’re perfectly beat matched.
Looks like human turntablism is still safe from a robot takeover after all. Head here to give it a spin.
Sep302016| September 30, 2016
The master takes you through his art.
For this episode of The Specialist we’ve gone for something a little different. What is usually a short film series profiling record collectors through one aspect of their collection that’s particularly important to them, is, today, focussed on a much more active specialism.
Read next: A brief history of turntablism
For the uninitiated, turntablism can look like something of a dark art. Just ask some of the entrants to our One Minute Mix mini-film series.
But here to demystify the process is DJ Shiftee, the 2009 DMC World DJ Finals Champion and one of the most decorated Americans ever to chance his arm of the 1’s and 2’s.
Having submitted his own 60 seconds of fire to our One Minute Mix series, we asked Shiftee to share the love with this ten minute turntablism tutorial for curious newcomers and seasoned pros alike.
Jun222016| June 22, 2016
It’s 1949 and young BBC engineer Daphne Oram is masterminding the world’s first piece of live turntablism. It was never performed. Until now.
Move over Grand Wizard Theodore, this girl got there thirty years before you. As a composer and studio engineer, Wiltshire-born Daphne Blake Oram was a trail-blazer in a male-dominated world that regularly undermined and overshadowed her successes.
Here was a woman who co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, manipulated recorded sound on tape and record like no-one before her and developed ‘Oramics’, a system of creating electronic sounds that pre-dated Robert Moog’s synthesizer by several years. In the words of Shiva Feshareki: “A radical composer who was working at the same time as Stockhausen but here in this country.”
“And yet I had never heard of her,” she continues. “[Oram was] a woman who instantly became my role model.”
Coming from a classical background, the turntable was not an immediately obvious choice of instrument for Feshareki, but simply one which felt right. In Oram she found a context for her work which has inspired her forthcoming performance of that earliest of turntable experiments. Stashed away in a box of pencil draft manuscripts, Still Point was written in 1949 for double orchestra, microphones and three pre-recorded 78 RPM discs. Or as Feshareki explains, “arguably the first ever piece of music to require the live electronic manipulation of acoustic material.”
As a composer Feshareki has favoured collaborative enterprises, and will perform the work alongside London Contemporary Orchestra at Oliver Coates’ DEEP∞MINIMALISM festival in London this weekend. We spoke to her about Oram, the piece and her own career as a composer on the intersection of art, music and DJ-ing.
When did you first become acquainted with Daphne Oram’s work? Did it have an immediate impact on you?
I first learned about her work when I went to the Science Museum Oramics to Electronica exhibition. I can’t really describe how I felt when I discovered Daphne Oram, but it was weird how strongly emotional I got first learning about this composer who invented all these new ways of creating compositions using her own uniquely engineered electronic instruments. A radical composer who was working at the same time as Stockhausen but here in this country, yet I had never heard of her, and a woman who instantly became my role model.
A few weeks later I noticed I had a 10” record of her Electronic Sound Patterns in my collection, which to this day I don’t remember buying. Once I discovered Daphne Oram, I came across other key left-field composers who worked both with electronics and acoustics from the same era such as Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Else Marie Pade and James Tenney and my life transformed into something new.
Daphne Oram, courtesy of Oram Trust and Fred Wood
What was it about Still Point, as opposed to the rest of her work that interested you?
It all happened very organically. I went to visit James Bulley at the Goldsmiths Special Collections where the work of Oram is archived, simply to learn more about her work. James is the archivist at the collection and a composer I have been working closely with for over a year to prepare Still Point ready for its world premiere.
It was when I visited the Oram archive for the first time and James showed me a box of loose pieces of pencil draft manuscripts, that I came across Still Point. In this box was all of Oram’s early concert music which she wrote between the ages of 17-24, none of which has been performed.
James told me that Still Point was arguably the first ever piece of music to require the live electronic manipulation of acoustic material. I then noticed a small, hand written piece of paper written by Oram which stated “Still Point: For Double Orchestra, Microphones and Three pre-recorded 78 RPM discs (1949)” and I was stunned to realise this piece was for turntables and orchestra! It is likely that had it been performed in 1949, it would have transformed the development of electroacoustic music as we know it today.
At the moment, it is a stand-alone piece, that doesn’t fit into any known medium of the time. For me, it was particularly stunning, as my compositional practice is centred around concert music for turntables and orchestra, and I have always seen the turntable as a classical instrument. All of a sudden, the way I had developed my turntabling practice for the past decade, made sense to me. It all felt very surreal and destined.
Daphne Oram’s Oramics, courtesy of Oram Trust and Fred Wood
What form will this combination of electronic manipulation and acoustic instrumentation take?
The idea behind the piece is that there is a live orchestral score, and from this score sections are recording in two ways. One recording takes places in a “wet” acoustic, and one recording takes place in a “dry” acoustic. This contrast is then exaggerated with the use of performance techniques within the orchestra which I’ve composed into the score, as well as microphone techniques.
In recording, the orchestral material is cut directly onto 78 RPM dubplates using a lathe that was from that era, never compromising that very physical analogue sound. The lathe cutting was executed by composer and researcher Aleksander Kolkowski and Sean Davies (who is a highly skilled and specialist engineer who worked at the same time as Oram). Sean can look at the grooves of a record and tell you what music is on there!
Once the 78 RPM discs are cut, the records get manipulated live on turntables, in duet with the live acoustic orchestra. As the records have either a “dry” or “wet” natural acoustic quality, I have an acoustic spectrum of wet<--->dry, so everything falls in there with the manipulation in terms of “effects”, which is such a brilliant concept by Oram.
And this completes Oram’s ‘Double Orchestra’ concept: One live orchestra, one live-manipulated orchestra via three turntables. I will be performing the turntable part (which I constructed using Oram’s notes). I have very much refined my practice to execute this piece, to make the turntables not just feel like an instrument, but to feel like a full orchestra.
Daphne Oram, courtesy of Oram Trust and Fred Wood
You talk about refining your practice specifically for this piece, but your work has always been linked with turntables. Where did that passion come from?
I have been working closely with turntables within an experimental classical context since I was a teenager. I love the physicality and movement of the records and how that affects how I manipulate sounds and how I relate to other instrumentalists. It is so intricate and expressive in comparison to other ways of achieving electronic manipulation.
I was working quite independently on this, as I chose not to acknowledge DJ-ing or dance music culture at first, until I had refined my practice the way I wanted to as an experimental classical composer.
It was only when I discovered Still Point, that my work made contextual sense. Since working on this piece, I have learned so much from Daphne Oram, especially thinking more about space, and looking at microphones and recording techniques as part of the composition, instrumentation and orchestration. Also, I have learned from her that in order to test-out something radical and unfamiliar, you need to have a component of familiarity within the music, in order to add context.
As a very tactile medium, what is it about working with physical objects and ‘analogue’ sound that interests you more than composing in the digital realm?
Physicality and movement are a key part of my compositional practice. The way you hear the pitch of a car motor ascend, as the car moves faster, or you pour a fizzy drink into a glass and you hear the sounds as the glass fills with gaseous liquid etc: These everyday physical experiences feed my music. I can’t see myself working with digital components at the moment. I am too obsessed with physical experience and the way sound travels, and relates to other stimuli such as light, space and touch.
I also love that “real” sound of electricity. For example, if I take the needle off my turntable cartridge and place my finger on the wires, that rumbling bass sounds can become a composition where the electricity is conducted through my body.
Or if I compose music for a church organ: you can feel the rumbling of the organ inside your body as it resonates within the architecture of the building. This is real to me, and the listener can relate this music to their every day perceptions. Therefore, it feels real to everyone.
As well as classical music, the cross-over with DJ culture, sampling and electronic music in your work is becoming more pronounced. Do you have a record collection? Does this play a more active role in your work?
Yes, I have a record collection which spans from old classical recordings, to jazz, dnb, jungle and I have a particularly strong collection of records from the electroacoustic eras of the mid-late 20th Century such as James Tenney, Xenakis, Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, and Pierre Boulez (the latter being a composer I manipulate quite irreverently as I think the music is too serious and complex for my liking).
My turntabling practice can be described as a manipulation of pre-recorded sound to create new gestural movements and textures not always apparent in the record being manipulated. I often modify and prepare the turntables using sculptures that use the electricity, magnetism and circulation of the turntables to create sound and shapes.
Sampling is an important part of my compositional practice as it allows me to give a respectful nod to history. At the same time, the samples within one piece of my music can be ever-changing depending on performance context, performer or the time in which the piece is being performed: This means the same composition is always moving and evolving with time and people, and has a specific meaning to that moment in time or that occasion.
Shiva Feshareki will be performing the world premiere of Daphne Oram’s Still Point (1949) at St John’s Smith Square on Friday 24 June alongside the London Contemporary Orchestra as part of Southbank Centre’s DEEP∞MINIMALISM festival. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.
Feb022016| February 2, 2016
We explore the history of turntablism, from its primitive beginnings with travelling showmen right up to contemporary sound installations and the DMC.
Words: Sophy Smith
Coined by DJ Babu of the Beat Junkies crew, the term ‘turntablism’ emerged in 1995 to reflect the artistic practices of the hip hop DJ and, specifically, to denote the difference between playing back records and using turntables to manipulate sound. What’s described as turntablism today however, extends beyond hip hop, and its history starts much earlier.
In fact the creative use of reproductive technology started early in the development of the equipment. From the mid-to-late 1800s, buyers of cylinder phonographs and graphophones were using the equipment not only to listen to pre-recorded music, but also to make their own vocal and instrumental recordings.
Both Edison’s phonograph and Bell-Tainter’s graphophone enabled sound recording as well as playback, with wax as the medium to allow the recording to be removed from the cylinder and stored for later listening. Although Edison didn’t foresee the creative and commercial potential of his invention, the first manipulation of recorded sound for the purpose of entertainment took place using his phonograph. Seventy years before hip hop turntablists, traveling showmen would, as the grand finale to an evening’s entertainment, instantly record a cornettist and then perform sped-up takes of the recording by turning the phonograph handle faster and faster.
When a commercial version of Emile Berliner’s flat disc gramophone was introduced in 1985, both the phonograph and graphophone lost appeal because the new flat disc could support longer, better quality recordings than the cylinder. The disc gramophone, however, lacked home-recording technology – instead it was restricted to playing the records that were commercially available.
With recording out, musicians began to experiment with the gramophone as a performing and composing device, and from this point we see the development of what we now call turntablism. Musicians from across the board began to experiment with the creative potential of the turntable, transforming it from a reproductive device and into to a musical instrument.
The background to the creative musical use of the turntable falls into several distinct histories. The work of hip-hop pioneers and radio/club DJs is well documented, but the other earlier, and equally important history, lies outside popular music, in the field of experimental music and installation art.
Experimental Music and Art
In the early part of the twentieth century, a handful of composers became interested in the creative potential of the phonograph or gramophone, and began undertaking small-scale experiments. Paul Hindemith’s Trickaufnahmen (trick recordings), for example, investigated the technical abilities of the gramophone as well as the performer with a range of sound manipulation techniques – including acceleration and deceleration of discs and the knock-on pitch changes, possibly even using two phonographs simultaneously.
These experiments set the foundation for visual artists Moholy-Nagy and Christian Marclay and composers Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage; four major turntable pioneers emerging from a range of musical and artistic backgrounds.
Moholy–Nagy, along with Oskar Fischinger and Paul Arma, attempted to alter the acoustic content of records before amplification by carving graphic structures into the grooves and running the record backwards against the stylus to scratch new patterns. Nagy hoped that his experiments with turntable music would result in the creation of a new musical language, through studying the graphic signs on the record.
Pierre Schaeffer, pioneer of musique concrète, also experimented with manipulating recordings by playing them backwards and forwards, juxtaposing sounds taken from their original time continuum, playing recordings at different speeds, and creating repetitive sound loops by breaking the groove at specific points.
Many contemporary turntablists manipulate the sound of records by creating repeating loops or ‘locked grooves’ and Schaeffer was the first to use this technique, pressing records with a groove that holds the stylus in a continuous cycle, looping the sound as the record rotates. This technique was used in Etude aux Chemins de Fer (1948) which was constructed from successive extracts of material made from manipulated recordings of steam locomotives at Gare des Batignolles, Paris.
In John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939), the records alternate between two speeds – 33 and 78 rpm – and rhythms are created by lifting and lowering the needle onto the record. Meanwhile in his work Credo in Us (1942) the player of the phonograph is instructed, “If phonograph, use some classic: e.g. Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Schostakovich” to add fragments of sound to the piece. His Imaginary Landscape No.5 (1952) work was composed for 42 records and 33 1/3 (1969) for twelve record players. This creative use of turntable technology also extended to the phonograph itself. In Cage’s Cartridge Music (1960), performers are directed to amplify small sounds using pick-ups taken from the tone arms of record players.
The idea of the record as basis for production is later found in the turntable music of artist Christian Marclay – his tribute composition John Cage for example is a recording of a collage made by cutting slices from a number of records and gluing them together to form a single disc. Marclay’s Footsteps also explores the effects of physically altering the record – three thousand five hundred records were used as flooring at an art exhibition over six weeks, packed in individual covers and then sold. For Marclay, these experiments that alter and distort the original recording highlight his understanding of the record as a constantly changing capsule of sound and he deliberately brings the residual sounds of pops, clicks and scratches to the foreground of the composition.
Reggae, Radio and Club DJs
Meanwhile in ’50s and ’60s Jamaica, musicians began a radical relationship with records that transformed recorded music into a live event. Until 1995 Jamaica had limited music copyright laws, meaning that soundsystem and reggae DJs could use records for their own creative ends. Through EQ alterations, sound effects and vocals, as well as pioneering tricks like the ‘rewind’ (spinning back a record to be repeated), DJ created original compositions using rhythm tracks from popular records.
Over in the States, early radio DJs played their part in developing turntable techniques. In order to enhance his promotions of records for example, Bill Curtis (veteran DJ for American station WUFO) began to manipulate the records he played, extending the record by slowing it down, repeating sections and/or talking over the track.
The first DJ to introduce mixing, albeit in a primitive sense, was Terry Noel, resident DJ at the ’60s New York nightclub Arthur. Working with a relatively simple set-up (having only a volume dial for each turntable), Noel subtly mixed tracks in a way never heard before.
Francis Grasso, resident disco DJ at The Sanctuary in New York, was arguably the first club DJ to manipulate recorded material for artistic purposes. Prior to Grasso’s turntable experiments DJs played records one at a time and club evenings lacked a cohesive flow due to the constant start-stop of three-minute records. Although Grasso was not the first DJ to mix two records together, he was the first to deliberately perfect beat mixing as a creative technique. In the 1970s, DJ Francis Grasso went on to introduce slip-cueing, which he had learnt from friends working as radio DJs.
Not far away, at the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan perfected the practice of constructing music from many different sources, blending rock, pop, electronica, soul, rap, funk and disco and in a similar vein Frankie Knuckles incorporated sound effects into his sets at the Warehouse, Chicago. In an unconscious nod to Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemin de Fer, Knuckles played an extended sound effect of a speeding steam train, panning the sound from the front to the back of the club, giving the effect of a train ploughing through the dance floor.
During his time at the club Galaxy 21, Walter Gibbons developed turntable-based cut and paste techniques to manipulate small sections of drum breaks – the forerunner to the beat-juggling techniques used by contemporary hip hop turntablists. Walter Gibbons’ cut and pastes enabled him to construct small sections of music into an original whole at the turntable.
The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a club-based popular music revolution that took DJs from using one turntable to two, and sometimes three, decks. These innovations, taking place as they did on turntables, established the concept of the DJ as music creator rather than solely player of records. and paved the way for the sound manipulation techniques and compositional processes of turntablist musicians.
Perhaps the best known examples of turntablism sit within hip hop, which has embraced the genre from its outset. Creating original music using records, turntables and microphones from the early 1970 onward, hip hop pioneers and visionaries developed many of the turntable manipulation techniques that are still central to turntablism today.
The story starts with Afrika Bambaata, who in the early ’70s transformed his street gang into the hip hop orientated Universal Zulu Nation. Bambaata became known as the “Master of Records” for the wide variety of music and break records he would blend in a DJ set.
One of Bambaata’s contemporaries, Kool Herc, pioneered the breakbeat ‘merry-go-round’ technique. Noticing that dancers would go nuts for drum sections of funk records, Herc began to play these sections back-to-back, elongating the break and ignoring the rest of the track. This breakbeat DJ style set the blueprint for hip hop production.
DJ Grandmaster Flash added to the growing body of turntablism tricks with his Quick Mix and Clock theories. With Quick Mix, passages of music are spun back to be repeated, whilst Clock Theory allows the DJ to identify key sections of the record by markings out the record label. Flash also developed punchphasing, in which shorter sound sounds are played over the breakbeat from another record, and backspinning which allows the turntablist to quickly rewind a part of the record.
Developed by Barry B (Get Fresh Crew) and Steve Dee (X-Men) in the 1990s, beat juggling also deserves a mention. Here new patterns are created by alternating between two identical records on different turntables.
And of course the most celebrated hip-hop technique is scratching, where the musician moves the record back and forth against the stylus whilst also cross-fading on the mixing desk. Legend has it that this was discovered, accidentally, by DJ Theodore in the early ’80s when his turntable practice was interrupted by his mother and his hand subconsciously rocked the record, producing a sound of its own.
These days there are dozens of scratch techniques – including (but by no means limited to): the baby, the tear, the scribble, the chirp, the transformer, the flare, the crab and the orbit.
Turntablism is still thriving today. In 2007 Gabriel Prokofiev composed Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra which, following its performance at the BBC Proms with DJ Mr Switch as soloist, has received critical acclaim. The fifth movement was recently included in the BBC’s classical music initiative Ten Pieces, designed to introduce a generation of children to classical music. The idea of accompanying an orchestra with a turntable is hardly new though – Hansjörg Dammert, composer and pupil of Arnold Schoenberg called for a ‘concerto for phonograph’ back in 1926!
Artist Janek Schaefer has used turntablism in his work throughout the past two decades. In 1997 he developed the triple tonearm Tri-Phonic Turntable, which is inspired by Philip Jeck’s piece Vinyl Requiem, itself created using 180 old Dansette record players. Schaefer’s first composition using the Tri-Phonic was made with a T.S. Elliot poetry LP – playing ‘Burnt Norton’ simultaneously with the three arms, staggering one after the other.
Schafer is also known, and received acclaim, for his sound installation Extended Play. Three solo string parts were recorded separately, edited, and cut onto vinyl. In the installation, three cello EPs, three piano EPs and 3 violin EPs play at either 33, 45, or 78rpm using nine retro record players. These play continuously, modified to pause in response to the audience moving around the exhibition, changing the composition for each performance.
Perhaps one of the best-known examples of contemporary turntablism though is the DMC World DJ Championships. An annual DJ competition hosted by Disco Mix Club (DMC) since 1985, DJs can enter as individuals or teams and are allocated exactly six minutes to perform original routines.
Originally sponsored by Technics, since 2011 the DMC Championship has permitted the use of vinyl emulation systems, alongside traditional vinyl, to balance traditional mixing and the popularity of digital playback.
As well as supporting established techniques, digital vinyl systems also include additional tools including those for re-editing, effects, tempo awareness, key-locking and they offer visual feedback as well as the ability to sync up with external hardware. Whilst the manufacturers stress the creative potential of these systems, some feel that artistic experimentation is limited with this new equipment, promoting a future haunted by ghosts of the past.
This feature is based on Sophy Smith’s Hip-Hop Turntablism, Creativity and Collaboration book, published by Ashgate (2013).
Cover Artwork by Hector Plimmer
Oct072015| October 7, 2015
40 DJs, 40 turntables, one eight-minute mix.
The iScratch event in Tokyo wasn’t all about competition. Coming together over 40 turntables, 40 DJs collaborated to create an epic eight minute mix from the world’s biggest scratch circle.
Part of the Redbull Thre3Style World DJ Championships in Tokyo, the turntablist extravaganza saw the DJs split into ten teams to each devise a sixteen bar scratch solo that would then be performed in the round.
Featuring previous world champions, 2015’s national champions and old hands like DJ Qbert, Jazzy Jeff, D-Styles and DJ Kentaro, you can watch the record-breaking session below:
It’s turning into a big day for turntablists, with a new portable 7″ scratching turntable currently in development.
Photo: Red Bull
Sep112015| September 11, 2015
Art or abuse?
They call themselves Vinyl Terror & Horror and for good reason too. Sound artists Camilla Sørensen and Greta Christensen have developed their own destructive brand of turntablism.
Reminiscent of that artist who took a knife and some sandpaper to pristine black vinyl, this duo carefully destroy, cut up, reform and reconfigure record players and records.
They throw shards of record on to deformed decks, filling the already uneasy gaps with glass shatters, creaking classical symphonies and needle chaos.
Watch the mistreatment / art below:
[via Electronic Beats]
May272014| May 27, 2014
Spirographs for turntablists.
Joining a prestigious tradition of visual artists who have exploited the aesthetic and rotary nature of turntables, Kyoto-based UK artist Ally Mobbs has unveiled his latest exhibition Turntablism For The Hard Of Hearing: Harmonic Motion at Montreal multi-media festival Sight and Sound.
Rigging the turntables with Mechano arms, Mobbs manipulates their direct-drive function to create mesmeric and mathematical shapes inspired by the 19th century drawing machine, the harmonograph, which traditionally used pendulums to create geometric shapes.
The ethereal illustrations are determined by speed, direction, time and the positioning of the turntables and evoke the sonic wave forms that turntables are more traditionally known to create. Performing as part of experimental sampling collective Beat Picnic, Mobbs recorded the mechanical whirring and scribbling sounds from the illustrations for them to be remixed during a subsequent live show. [via The Creators Project]
Mobbs has previously explored the aesthetic possibilities of vinyl records with ceramic artist Daisuke Kawakami on a project entitled Impact Disk. Check out images of Turntablism For The Hard Of Hearing: Harmonic Motion below and on Mobbs’ Cargo Collective site.
Jun072013| June 7, 2013
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.
Other installations, such as ‘Paradise Loft’ (2009), ‘Detroit’ (2012) and ‘Acid Reign’ (2012) all directly or obliquely reference seminal clubs or categories of dance music, but there is also a fertile crossover between Mirza’s work and another innovative style of DJing that developed in New York in the mid-1970s – that of scratching or cutting. Nominally invented by a few Bronx DJs – Grand Wizard Theodore, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash among them – it involved the repetition of samples or drum sections in the same kind of funk and soul records played by Grasso, only this time the music could be infinitely looped, then warped or interrupted by dragging the record back to create jarring new sounds.
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.
This essay was originally published on www.o-o-o-o.co.uk.
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