September 14, 2022

Tracing the Blurry Lines of Experimental Turntablism

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Artists have been working with turntables in one way or another since the 1930s. Part of John Cage’s 1939 piece Imaginary Landscape No. 1 instructed two musicians to manipulate frequency and tone records on variable speed turntables. In the 1960s, the Czech artist Milan Knížák would perform using damaged or broken vinyl records on turntables (his 1963 sculptural piece Destroyed Music displays artifacts of this process and is part of MoMA’s permanent collection), going on to influence the work of another pioneer, Christian Marclay.

Then, in the late ‘70s, hip-hop happened. The term turntablism was coined and popularized in the mid-1990s by Luis "DJ Disk" Quintanilla and Chris “DJ Babu” Oroc to describe techniques that originated during the early days of both hip-hop and Jamaican dub music and were subsequently honed into their own discrete language.

Experimental turntablism is sometimes used as a modifier to describe conceptual or academic leaning turntable work that falls outside of strict hip-hop-or-club-derived formal guidelines. But the boundaries between approaches can be blurry. If there’s one thing that connects the pioneering scratch techniques of Grand Wizzard Theodore, the damaged vinyl compositions of Marclay, and the time-and-pitch manipulations of DJ Screw, it’s the desire to drive fairly straightforward consumer audio technology into strange new terrain. The need to experiment. 

“This divide is problematic for several reasons, one of which is that it draws a racial line between the turntable in ‘hip-hop’ history and classical music,” said Gateshead, England-based composer, performer and DJ Mariam Rezaei an email interview, of the differences between these strands of turntablism. “There are so many similarities in the nuances and uses of turntables in music of all genres.”

Miriam Razaei 📷 courtesy the artist

Rezaei has a doctorate in the Philosophy of Composition For Turntable and Ensemble at Durham University, but also performed in both competitive turntablism and club DJ contexts. The music she makes can reflect these shared histories. A 2020 livestream performance by Razaei deployed gestures from hip-hop turntablism as a vehicle to explore more abstract, textural music. “The more I learned about contemporary music, the more I realized I wanted to be more and more involved in turntables, but free from chords, beats in 4/4 and ‘correct’ sounding harmonic modulations,” Rezaei said. She also explained that, though she was advised to study John Cage, more important to her practice was learning about improvisational music from around the world, and in particular her own heritage in Iranian music.

“I [had] never heard some of these sounds before,” the turntablist Eric San, AKA Kid Koala, told me. “The way people were using the turntables and pushing them past the design of the actual turntable was always very central to what drew me to that scene. It was very much about experimentation.” 

In his nearly three decades as a scratch DJ, San has traversed between multiple contexts. He’s collaborated with rappers and opened for Radiohead, but has also worked on more conceptual-minded endeavors, like his 50-turntable ambient vinyl project The Turntable Satellite Orchestra. Using record players, San has done covers of “Basin Street Blues” and “Moon River.” Rezaei name-checked San as one of her favorite turntablists. 

Though he was influenced by early hip-hop turntablists, whose innovations were often inseparable from a party context, San’s early records didn’t necessarily reflect the kind of club culture that orbited the world of turntablism at the time. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh I was trying to get a dancefloor going,’” he said of work that could feel less like hip-hop or dance music and more like some mutant combination of an early radio play and musique concrète. “It’s just me with a pair of headphones on, recording, layering sounds and layering scratches.”

Another famous turntablist, Maria Chavez, was more informed by dance music culture. The conceptual sound artist, abstract turntablist and DJ was born in Lima, Peru and grew up in Austin and then Houston, Texas, where she started DJing at the age of 16. In the early 2000s, she made the connection between the sound of the run-off grooves of records–Chavez referred to these as the “lands ends” of records–and then-burgeoning minimal techno music. 

At one rave, she put this theory to test by beatmatching these run-off grooves. “The boys came up, and were like, ‘What the fuck are you doing, I thought you were going to be playing songs;” Chavez reminisced. “‘You keep fucking doing this weird shit, you can’t do that here, get the fuck out.’” 

She said that her stylistic experimentation was particularly egregious to her peers in the male-dominatied rave scene, “because I was a brown woman doing it. It was the only reason. They were just mad that they weren’t doing it.” She didn’t end up DJing again in Houston until 2017.

Since then, Chavez has cut a singular path within experimental turntable music. She’s performed everywhere from art galleries to outdoor festivals, playing with broken needles and  records, often using the RAKE Double Needle, a device invented by Randal C Sanden Jr. in 2001. Chavez prizes the temporal nature of live performance over recorded work, so much so that between 2004 and 2019 she did not release any recordings. In those years, fans would record her sets and trade them on file sharing services. It was all about the moment. 

Maria Chavez

“If an artist comes up to me before a show and is like, ‘I made this record, can you ruin it for me?’ This will be the first thing I ruin when I sit down to play for them,” Chavez said. “It’s a really good way to start off a subconscious dialogue with the audience.” It was only after a brain surgery sidelined Chavez’s live practice that she began to make recordings again.

Chavez’s 2012 book on abstract turntablism, Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable, has developed a reputation as both an academic resource and a foundational text for a new generation of turntablists. 

“If you’re imagining what that sound is, you’re actually playing the album,” Chavez explained, of the instructions and illustrations laid out in the book, which at times served as the artist’s sole piece of merch on tour. “If you sit down at a turntable and you open the book and you start trying it out,” she continued. “Then you’re performing the album.”

The influence of dance music culture has its way of creeping into the practices of even some of the more conceptual-driven turntablists. Though the New York-based composer and visual artist Marina Rosenfeld’s work with turntables rests mostly in art music contexts, she cut her teeth in the ‘90s cutting dubplates in Los Angeles with the esteemed Richard Simpson, who has been mastering for vinyl since the ‘60s and cutting one-off acetate discs for independent artists since the ‘80s. 

“Everyone else had always seemed like they had been awake for 48 hours finishing a track, and they were going to try it out that night in a club,” Rosenfeld told me about the scene at the cutting plant, whose clientele mostly centered around dance music culture. “And I was like, I’m creating an orchestra,” she said, laughing.

Marina Rosenfeld and George Lewis at Cornell in 2017 📷 by Benjamin Piekut

Rosenfeld’s dubplates, which over the years have featured everything from home recorded sounds to samples to leftover sonic artifacts from larger installations or works for ensembles, form the basis of the artist’s performances with turntables. Rosenfeld told me that, after decades of producing, she has a “huge stack of material” and likened digging through her own archive to going shopping at a record store. Like Chavez, Rosenfeld noted the sculptural nature of turntables and records. Rosenfeld also talked about the “not-infiniteness” of the device as a major attraction. “It's got beautiful and useful limitations,” she said. “You gotta be inventive with this thing that’s right there, right in front of you.”

This idea of limitation is key to understanding Pure Rave. The Detroit crew—Nick George, Bryan Dulaney, Cy Tulip and Will Lawson—experiment with modified turntables as the basis of process-based performances that mix strategies from both dance music and the avant-garde. 

Though all four core members have their own paths to the form—Lawson moved from an interest in hip-hop turntablism into noise; Dulaney studied music at the University of Michigan; Tulip has a sound art practice; George has a history producing somewhat primitive electronic music—ultimately their work within the collective is guided not only by the limitations of their gear, but also the stylistic and procedural parameters outlined in the group’s manifesto. 

The Pure Rave approach is anchored by the rhythm of a skipping record, an effect that can be achieved through any number of methods. The group is fond of placing a mixing bowl on the turntable itself, for one example. “It is kind of this directed chaos in a way,” Dulaney said, of Pure Rave’s methodology. “If it’s something that works and fits within the guidelines of what we have defined Pure Raving to be through the manifesto–it goes in. There is an editing process to the techniques that end up getting adopted, but it’s through trying things out.”

“Trying things out” is what unites so many turntablists, experimental or otherwise. “The fact that we’re all OK with an idea failing—failing publicly—is really what keeps the edge and tension in the group,” Dulaney said. “That keeps it creative and keeps it evolving.”

For Refraction's Minted Chaos season, Pure Rave will be working together with Nina Protocol and Refraction to create open submission hubs where users are invited to produce their own Chance Dance works according to parameters laid out by the group. Refraction will mint the results on both the DAO's hub and Pure Rave's Nina hub, with royalties split between creators, Refraction and Pure Rave. An additional portion will go towards a charity or cause of Pure Rave's choosing.
More details on the project here.

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