The fundamental elements of turntablism are as old as the phonograph itself. Unlike a CD player or a cassette deck, the phonograph puts the sound-producing mechanism at the listener’s fingertips. Early hand-cranked phonographs left the turntable’s speed up to the listener’s skill and preference. Before 78 rpm became standard, records were printed with suggestions like “90-100 rpm” or “about 70 rpm.” Of course, even after playback speed was standardized, curious fans continued playing their favorites at the “wrong” speed, dropping the needle at random points on the vinyl and interrupting the record’s motion.
Experimental turntablism is mainly conceptual, exploring the potentials and limitations of the physical elements of vinyl, turntable, and needle. Rather than honing the skills that hip-hop and techno DJs have perfected, like scratching and beat juggling, experimental turntablists focus on the medium itself by marring the vinyl and altering pieces of the phonograph or introducing foreign objects like tape, glue, and paint.
It’s impossible to trace such experiments to one progenitor, but we can at least identify early practitioners. The Czech artist Milan Knížák began playing records on the streets of Prague’s Nový Svět district in the mid-1960s. “I managed to get hold of a record player, but I only had four discs, which I played over and over again,” he told Petr and Jaromír Studený. “After some time, it started to get quite boring, so I amused myself by playing them too fast or too slow. This soon didn’t suffice either, so I accelerated the speed with a finger or, vice versa, held them back by hand to a very slow speed. As a result, the discs gave off whooping sounds totally different to those on the original recording, or a clutter of squeaky shrieks. And from there, it was just a small step to scratching the discs…and further acts of destruction.” Knizak’s “further acts of destruction” included painting, burning, and cutting them apart to glue them back together in different configurations.
Knížák’s work influenced a generation of turntablists, the most notable of whom is Christian Marclay. Marclay began using damaged records in the late 1970s, first deploying their skips and pops as percussion in his duo with guitarist Kurt Henry. Marclay foregrounded the deterioration of vinyl as a generative process in his 1985 project Record Without a Cover. Sold and distributed without a cover and labeled “DO NOT STORE IN A PROTECTIVE PACKAGE,” the album would gather dust and debris, scratches and cuts. The disc’s first several minutes are blank, so the surface noise is the only audio produced. Gradually, Marclay’s turntable work enters the mix through a chaotic amalgam of genres from tango to classical to jazz, all heard through and along with the crackle and hiss of the damaged artifact. Like Marshall McLuhan, Marclay’s medium is the message: the imperfections in the vinyl record are an integral part of the experience.
In the 1990s, a new generation of experimental turntablists began sharing the rosters of labels like Asphodel and Sub Rosa with Knížák and Marclay. Artists like Otomo Yoshihide and DJ Spooky (Paul Dennis Miller) took Knížák’s destructive adventurousness and Marclay’s media-savvy playfulness and pushed them further. Yoshihide uses the turntable at both ends of the dynamic range, incredibly loudly both solo and as part of pioneering noise band Ground Zero and incredibly quietly as part of Japan’s whisper-soft onkyo movement. DJ Spooky, meanwhile, has adapted the turntable into a vehicle for academic inquiry on remix albums for Sub Rosa that combine DJ Wally with Gertrude Stein; Oval with James Joyce; and Scanner with William S. Burroughs.
More recent artists are finding new ways to push the limits of vinyl as a medium and of the turntable as an instrument. The idea of destroying records to produce new ones was taken to its limit by Emil Beaulieau and Frans de Waard’s Destroyed Music, for which Beaulieau destroyed albums by de Waard to create a new album, which de Waard destroyed to create a new album, which Beaulieau destroyed yet again before arriving at the final iteration. Mariam Rezaei extends her technique by using turntables with two octaves of pitch manipulation in four-turntable beat juggles. Maria Chavez uses a turntable with double needles, while the Quadraphonic Stylus Ensemble uses a turntable with four tonearms.
The following list of albums features artists who have manipulated the phonograph’s physical components—cutting, gluing, and taping records together, or even crafting them out of glass or concrete—to pave the avenues of experimental turntablism.
Milan Knížák’s Broken Music pioneered the techniques common to many experimental turntablists: breaking, gluing, taping, and scratching the vinyl itself to achieve various effects. In an accompanying text describing the advent of “broken music,” Knížák writes, “In 1965, I started to destroy records: scratch them, punch holes in them, break them. By playing them over and over again, which destroyed the needle and often the record player too, an entirely new music was created: unexpected, nerve-racking, aggressive, and even humorous. Compositions lasting one second or almost infinitely long (as when the needle got stuck in a deep groove and played the same phrase over and over). I developed this system further. I began sticking tape on top of records, painting over them, burning them, cutting them up and gluing different parts of records back together, etc., to achieve the widest possible variety of sounds.”
First released on Italian label Multhipla Records in 1979, and since reissued by Sub Rosa, Broken Music gathers five compositions made with this method. The 19-minute “Composition N.1” is an ideal introduction: darting frantically between one-second clips of classical music interrupted by pops, clicks, and scratches, the piece anticipates everything from plunderphonics to clicks ’n’ cuts-style IDM.
Vinyl Coda I-II
Philip Jeck deploys all the trademark techniques of experimental turntablism: taping, gluing, or disfiguring vinyl, incorporating surface noise, and manipulating playback. However, he goes in precisely the opposite direction of Knížák: instead of manic shuttling between and across records, Jeck builds up stately, slow-moving colossi of sound. His signature approach is to play a record on an old Dansette record player set to 16 rpm. At that speed, he says, even the album’s composer would not recognize the music. Looping these molasses-slow fragments of vinyl allows Jeck to compose in real-time, sometimes assisted by delay pedals and samplers. Most famously, he applied this technique to Vinyl Requiem, a piece for up to 180 Dansettes that he would walk amongst and turn on or off as the flow of the music demanded. His Vinyl Coda series (completed with Vinyl Coda III-IV) was commissioned for German radio and broadcast live. It showcases a master at work: the dirge-like pace and live setting leave him nowhere to hide a mistake, and he successfully transports the listener through nearly three hours of deeply engrossing, all-encompassing loops and echoes.
Taiwanese sound artist Yenting Hsu collaborated with zhēnzhēn Stained Glass Lab to create Relight+MUSIC, a set of songs made by playing specially designed glass records on a turntable. “When a piece of patterned glass, approximately the size of a 12-inch vinyl record, is placed on a turntable, what arises from the textures of the glass patterns are sounds of varying frequencies and modulations: electronic beats, heartbeats, bursts of noise, and murmurs,” writes Hsu. For some tracks, she uses the patterns that emerge from this process as a foundation over which she plays field recordings of daily life (“Begonia flowers 海棠花”), of water (“Transparent 透明”), or of the process of glass-making itself (“Craftsmanship 光之記藝”). For others, like “Planet 行星,” she lets the glass record speak for itself as it spins out its own rhythms and melodies. The outer-space imagery of this piece is emblematic of the album as a whole, as she explains: “The first time hearing etched glass on a vinyl turntable, what came to mind was the sound of the universe and stardust. Each piece of glass can be seen as a planet. With differing sounds and personalities, they orbit along a set track—some repeating a rhythm which each rotation, others gradually changing across rotations.”
Plays (Stefan Goldmann’s ‘Ghost Hemiola’)
Compact Disc (CD)
Stefan Goldmann’s 2013 album Ghost Hemiola is a set of two single-sided 12-inch records, one at 33 1/3 rpm and the other at 45 rpm, each featuring 66 blank locked grooves. It is essentially an infinite blank record: set the stylus down anywhere, and it will play for as long as the record player is plugged in, producing only surface noise. For Maria Chavez, the record is a blank canvas. After being gifted the album, Chavez scratched and cut the records to make her own rhythms and patterns. Then, she recorded the newly destroyed vinyl and digitally altered the results. By stretching, splicing, and pitch-shifting the vinyl’s output, Chavez creates hyper-stylized digital sound designs from a very analog source, pushing the boundaries of two forms of media as she wrestles noise from silence.
Rather than playing with standard vinyl, Marina Rosenfeld is known for using dubplates—singly produced, hand-made records created by taking a lathe to a lacquer-coated aluminum disc. Since the late 1990s, Rosenfeld has crafted her dub plates specially for live performances. For theforestthegardenthesea, an early example of her work in this vein, she made sets of three to four plates to be played simultaneously by herself or with others. The players could put the needle down anywhere on a record at any time during the concert, so all the plates needed to work together at any point in their respective runs. Before the performance, Rosenfeld soldered a metal pin perpendicularly into the inner groove of each record to create an impediment for the tonearm and thus force a locked groove (the repeated thud after 17:05 in the first track is from this metal pin). This music exists on a spectrum between composition and improvisation: carefully composed lacquer discs that interact in unexpected ways in a live setting. These two long tracks are thrilling as a result, as loops of sound wind and unravel in a semi-coordinated dance of sound that is natural and mechanical at once. Dubplates are more fragile than vinyl because, in each performance, the stylus wears away the lacquer coating on the aluminum core, which adds an air of melancholy to the album. In later works, like last year’s Index, Rosenfeld has further explored these tensions between stability and instability, permanence and impermanence inherent in dubplates.
Martin Tètreault’s Phonographes vinylisés features a who’s who of experimental turntablists, from Marina Rosenfeld to Philip Jeck to Otomo Yoshihide. For Québec City’s sixth biennial Manif D’Art event in 2012, with its theme of “Machines – The Shapes of Movement,” Tètreault invited friends and collaborators from around the world to submit a recording of themselves manipulating a portable record player. These recordings were then made available to attendees via a series of wall-mounted headphones, while the gallery space displayed the turntables themselves, which had been mailed back to Québec by Tètreault’s collaborators. Each participant begins with a script: after saying “My master’s voice” (after the famous Victrola ad), they dictate their phonograph make and model, their name, the city in which they are recording, and the date. The ten artists summon various sounds from their machines, all sans vinyl, ranging from John Vaughn’s surprisingly robust clatter from his Fisher Price 825 to Philip Jeck’s characteristically warm tones from his Fidelity.
Ignaz Schick’s “rotating surfaces” setup consists of a Technics MK2 turntable, a condenser microphone, and objects including tinfoil, wood, seashells, plastic cutlery, and more. These objects are placed directly on the metal plate of the turntable, and the vibrations caused by their rotation are picked up and amplified by the microphone. The tones created range from staticky ambiance (“Perception II”) to clanging percussion (“Perception VIII”), but each track inspires the visceral shock of noise created with purely analog objects. Rotary Perceptions is the “only and at the same last official solo recording” of this setup, after which Schick returned to using treated and manipulated vinyl with a host of collaborators from pianist Achim Kaufmann to percussionist Oliver Steidle.
Paradox: A Study in Musique Concrète
Vinyl Box Set
Mike Hansen’s work explores the ways vinyl records and turntables shape our perception of sound. His April Showers, for instance, uses vinyl’s surface noise and static to replicate rainfall, while his Bill Evans Project reimagines the jazz pianist’s work by distorting it via the phonograph. Paradox: A Study in Musique Concrète would seem quaint by comparison, a set of four improvisations on piano, guitar, and percussion; the tracks are lovely, spacious explorations of their instruments. The paradox of their title, though, refers to the medium: these dreamy, lightweight songs are published on records made of concrete. Hansen explains, “Paradox’s concrete discs continue my art practice’s research into perceptions of perceived notions of what/how a sound object should appear or perform, through objects, sculptures and installations.” This record is experimental, then, because of its physical format rather than its music. And as a set of five concrete albums (one 33 rpm single per song, plus an EP that gathers all of them), it is a weighty experiment indeed.