Onstage at the Japan Society before concertizing with Otomo Yoshihide, Christian Marclay
told a crowd, “You’re going to see us do some things you’ll think are interesting, but you have to understand how shocking it was to do this in the ’80s, when people treated records as something precious.” And thereby Marclay, famous recently for his Venice Bienalle-winning film/video/time mosaic “The Clock,” posed the question looming over his performance in duet with Yoshihide, hailed for 20 years as among Tokyo’s “most adventurous sound creators.” Is turntablism a relic of a fading past or an experimental form of music-making, still in development? That anybody’s asking should bring joy to the hearts of those celebrating Black Friday as the annual Record Store Day.
In three improvised stretches of some 15 to 18 minutes each and a three or four minute encore, Marclay and Yoshihide, who are longtime if only occasional collaborators, explored the clicks and pops of vinyl lps and 45s, the scratches of tone-arms with or without needles skimming the surface of records or paper/felt/plastic sheets on turntables or the turntables themselves. At some junctures the two men even found scraps of tunefulness within the records’ grooves.
Turntablism as practiced by Marclay and Yoshihide, who’ve been tilling the field since the mid and late ’80s, respectively, is a far cry from dj-ing as known in dance clubs, house parties and the dub/hip-hop worlds just about as long. There are no beats in their music, no ostensible cross fades or clever matches, some sampling and looping (I think) but very rarely a snatch of a recognizable theme. In their first improv, one of the duo invoked a distant, woodsy flute for a few moments, but it was like vapor in an air near-random sounds. In the second there were two quotes, separated by several minutes, of identifiably Asian folk motifs. Most of the time the pair worked with timbre (the textures of sound) rather than tonality (pitches on a scale).
The pieces were rhythmically untethered but flowed swiftly, the musicians listening closely and responding to each other in non-specific ways. Their balance was not showy, but admirable. Considering they weren’t playing notes or themes and there was no obvious structure or attempts at synchronization much less harmony, their music had shape, suspense and rich variety. They expressed themselves — or perhaps the listener projected expressivity onto their efforts — and gave what they did narrative shape. It could seem comical as when Marclay flapped a thin platter off to the side for its wacka-wacka-wacka, and scrunched up a sheet of paper to put on the turntable for a ride. Yoshihide mirrored the move by using the flimy slipcover from an old single. There were also moments of dramatic hush. Indeed, Marclay and Yoshihide ended each jaunt by finding their ways to a resolved silence.
I remember hearing Marclay back when he’d improvise with East Village/downtown mavens including John Zorn, Elliott Sharp and/or Butch Morris (Marclay’s on Morris’s Conduction #1: Current Trends in Racism in Modern America: A Work in Progress). Then as now he was a calm and cool presence, selecting vinyl from a pile in a box, slipping unidentified albums onto and off of the spinning turntable in a moment or two, applying a stylus that he was more likely to worry across the grain than to rest gently, cue up carefully or rub the disc back-and-forth for for the telltale turntable rhythm lick.
His contributions lent that music — improvised by iconoclasts nonetheless using “real,” present instruments — a dimension of memory and subverted production. But during the Japan Society’s panel Marclay mentioned he’d always thought there wasn’t enough turntable, he wasn’t getting the respect afforded the other instruments, he felt like his turntable was being used as a spice rather than accepted as a main ingredient.
Yoshihide worked as a rock guitarist while getting an ethnomusicology degree during the ’70s (he studied post-WWII Japanese pop and Chinese instruments developed during the Cultural Revolution). He told the assembled audience during the pre-concert talk (moderated by UC/Santa Barbara prof David Novak; also featuring writer/musician Alan Licht) that he’d played with tape recorders even as a teenager and considered them his main ax. Not that he used them conventionally; he explored offbeat aspects of the machines’ capacities, as if splicing tape for music concréte.
Having taken up free improv around 1990 and founding the band Ground Zero (described on Wikipedia as “noise rock. . . with a heavy emphasis on sampling”) while maintaining his New Jazz Quintet and Orchestra, Yoshihide characterizes himself as often swinging between extremes of dynamics. Now he’s also begun to make installations, like the display in the Japan Society’s lobby garden of a dozen or so turntables set amid the plants, going on and off in sequence, automatically. Marclay observed that his partner’s latest obsession is concentrating on what can be done with the stylus itself, the needle — which is essentially a contact mike, able to convey to an amplifier or processing unit or mixing board any kind of vibration.
A translator sat behind Yoshihide whispering in his ear but he was able to speak understandable English and exhibit a casual, robust sense of humor. He wasn’t at all doctrinaire or defensive (nor was Marclay, though he seemed either exhausted or withdrawn). Asked if the music they said they were about to make owed anything to the late ’50s/early ’60s works of David Tudor and John Cage, Marclay allowed that he came out of ye olde avant-garde lineage, and Yoshihide said he was looking forward to playing Cage pieces for the first time next year.
Yet for all the hipster insouciance of Marclay and Yoshihide, the graceful absorption in the tactile operations of their setups and the cunning sound collages they made from bits of ambiance or (as Marclay says) sounds nobody wants, there was something old fashioned about what they were doing. Oh, I know: The turntables themselves. I’ve been told that vinyl is coming back (anybody want to bid on my 12,000 lp collection?) but this gear looked about as renewable as an old black barbell telephone. For a generation born after the victory of the cd, which occurred about the time these guys were revving up their careers, records and the turntables that play them are oddities, like buggy whips or shawms. Oh, you can take those clunky devices and make ’em hum, spit, throb? Gee daddie-o, what next? Tweet from a typewriter?
From that point of view, what Marclay and Yoshihide do makes perfect sense: They’re trying to wring the last vestiges of life out of ancient technology. Maybe Marclay didn’t realize that was his project when he started using turntables, he was just following the distinctive path of his thought towards insights about new uses for found objects and exploration of that sliver of reality where music, gesture, concept intersect and overlap, confusing everything and sparking wonder.
A New Yorker writer sitting next to me said he thought the physical element of what the performers were doing was at least equal in import to the music they made. I didn’t declare but I do believe that Marclay and Yoshihide think of themselves first and foremost as musicians, when they’re turntablisting — they don’t confuse the medium with sculpting and they’re not really doing it just for themselves. They want to share what they’ve learned less about manipulating equipment than about sound.
They’re doing it for everyone who has sat transfixed by their vinyl records, listening to Miles, the blues, the Beatles, Carole King, whoever through a veil of nicks and scars that we learned to love as if they were drummers’ bombs, suitably placed for greatest impact. My records gained their scars honestly — by my playing them over and over, sometimes while in careless states. Hear that gouge there? That’s the time I tripped over the . . . And that repeat? I remember when it circled on and on and I couldn’t get up to bump the needle ahead because I was busy with . . .
Now I love the tokens of those time. Turntablism of this sort awakens the nostalgic instinct and weds it to the wacky impulse. Mix everything up. Just what the doctors order. Why would I want to sell my lps when I can go to a record store and buy more, more more?