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November 02, 2001

++ Experiments In Sound: I Am Spinning In A Room

++ Musicians, especially improvisers, think with their hands. The same goes for DJs: ask any DJ who favors vinyl over CD why he or she prefers wax, and you'll inevitably be told that vinyl just "feels better." Playing vinyl is transparent, tactile and multi-sensory in a way that playing CDs, masked behind the apparatus, is not: I'm much more comfortable when I can look down at a record and see that I've got about a centimeter of groove left in a song than I am trying to convert the CD player's ticking clock to its "real time" significance. Thirty seconds left? What does that mean? How many bars? Beyond such pragmatic preoccupations, vinyl does indeed feel better: its weight, its heft, the way it yields beneath your fingertips. Indeed, one of the factors that lends vinyl such an air of nostalgia, even for non-crate-diggers, is the way it wears its age in clicks and pops and dust. Vinyl is a mortal medium. It wears itself out from love, and this fragility is deeply, if unconsciously, affecting.

So it's no surprise that numerous artists have taken vinyl's very materiality as a source of investigation. I wouldn't call it a trend, certainly not a movement, but recently a significant handful of new releases have come across my desk that make the stuff of vinyl itself (or, in one case, CDs) an integral part of the artwork. Materialism is nothing new in electronic music, of course (and by "materialism" I mean not its vernacular sense as "consumerism," but the sense in which Marxist critics like Raymond Williams have used the word to describe the relationship between culture and its material basis). It's by no means a new idea: Alvin Lucier's 1970 composition I Am Sitting In A Room (for voice on tape) might mark conceptual materialism's most focused execution: the score consists solely of a paragraph of text, read aloud by the composer and overdubbed between two tape recorders until language is obliterated in a blur of overtones: "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. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech may have." During the 40 minutes of the piece, the edges of the words gradually erode, until nothing is left but a bizarre harmonic shimmer, softly electric like a Rothko. Lucier's piece is about nothing more or less than the conditions of its creation — the speaking, the room tone, even the rhythmic skipping that his own stuttering inserts into the fabric of the text. And while the piece doesn't play explicitly with the medium of its distribution — it was initially recorded only for performance, and made available on vinyl and then CD only much later — Lucier's emphasis on his removal from the listener ("I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now") demonstrates the extent to which he had thought through every conceptual nook and cranny of his very concrete composition.

++ Artists following in Lucier's wake, even more attuned to the conditions not only of the music's production but also, and especially, its distribution, have shifted their focus to the material conditions of the medium itself. With vinyl, the lock groove is the simplest such "intervention"; early turntablists made lock grooves decades ago by placing tape at the end of a break, forcing the record to skip in a precise loop. Sonic Youth closed one side of their 1987 album Sister with a strategically placed lock groove designed to draw their feedback into concentric infinity, which ended pointedly — or rather, didn't — in a lock groove entitled "The Open End." (In the same year, Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo exploited the same tactic even more deliberately on From Here to Infinity.) Viennese art pranksters Farmers' Manual littered their 1996 12-inch "fm" with locked grooves that cropped up maddeningly in mid-side, prohibiting automatic play. Carsten Nicolai, for the recorded version of Infinity, an installation for Dokumenta X based on short sound loops sampled from modems, fax machines and other communications devices, chose to issue it as a clear, double 10-inch record of locked grooves, a museum-ready DJ tool. This partial history barely suffices to sketch out the vast empire of the lock groove; just consider RRR Records' RRR 500, a single LP comprising, you got it, 500 lock grooves courtesy of 500 different artists (including Thurston Moore, Derek Bailey, Rehberg and Bauer, Aube, His Name Is Alive, Voice Crack and 494 more — royalty payments, presumably, were scant). Behemoth.

The best-known vinyl manipulator working in a post-techno context, of course, is Thomas Brinkmann, who sculpted ultra-minimal click techno by carving notches in vinyl and sampling the needle's pops into the boom-tick template of house music. Brinkmann also devised a double-armed turntable, designed to play a single record from two points simultaneously, which he used to create his remixes for both Wolfgang Voigt's M:I:5 project and Richie Hawtin's Consumed. (For more on his process, see my 1998 interview with him.) The multi-armed turntable is also at the heart of Janek Schaefer's methodology; inspired by turntable artist Philip Jeck, Schaefer constructed first a three-armed, tri-phonic turntable, and later a more portable two-armed version which, like Brinkmann's, plays a single record using two opposite tonearms simultaneously. His new record, Eccentric/Concentric (AudiOh), features two tracks, one of which is cut normally, in a perfect concentric circle; the other is placed off-center, so that the needle and tonearm swing in an elliptical arc as the record spins. Each track is an identical copy of a single looping test-tone, but playing the off-center version on a conventional turntable causes the pitch to rise and fall in seasick waves. The latter version makes a subtle, but powerful point: far from being some abstracted, a priori object, the music contained within is always already a product of the machinery that plays it. Some critics might dismiss the idea as a simplistic postmodernist conceit, but I find it to be a remarkably effective demonstration of theory in practice. I've already ordered my second copy of the record in order to play both tracks simultaneously and enjoy the colliding mess of the two versions — not being savvy enough to construct my own two-armed turntable.

++ The idea of buying two copies to play simultaneously leads to a related concept: the combinatory object, expanding the work of art beyond the boundaries of a single container, opening playback up to the vagaries of chance. This is, of course, the most basic premise of DJing, but a number of artists have packaged their own recordings across multiple discs in order to facilitate a more interactive, less predetermined playback. Charles Curtis' Ultra White Violet Light (Squealer 2000), informed by his work with early minimalist La Monte Young, presents four sides of drones composed variously of cello, sustained electric guitar, sine tone and speech; the album is to be played not sequentially, but by combining the tracks on two, three or four turntables. By altering the pitch during playback, you can draw out ultra-fine, microtonal gradations, thus augmenting for yourself the effect attempted in the studio. Francisco Lopez's Untitled #92 (2000), a white vinyl album of four oppressive tracks that sound cobbled together out of sampled runout grooves, is similarly designed "to be multi-layered with several copies," piling static upon static to build an ever denser, ever weightier roar. That the sound source is apparently the blasted surface of vinyl itself is no accident; the combinatory result places you inside the imaginary space of the machine where the only sound is the interplay between blank wax and blunt needle, an overlapping emptiness that swells into an oceanic technological fantasia.

(It's actually quite surprising how many artists have played with this combinatory motif. The avant-rock group The Flaming Lips put the same idea to psychedelic ends with 1997's Zaireeka, a four-CD set designed to be played all at once. Each full-length CD can in fact stand on its own, but they come together in a brilliant, quadraphonic listening experience when played at once, slipping and sliding and colliding around a loose center, a barely-held-together explosion of horns and guitars. When the album came out, a group of my friends in Providence gathered for a listening party; we brought extra stereos and plates full of potluck, and true to the band's intentions, the performance vastly transcended the typical, solitary experience of a store-bought CD.)

The latest example of a combinatory album is Locust's Wrong (2001), a shiveringly good collection of post-pop bliss over fractured rhythms, released by the generally brilliant label Touch. (Note: Locust, a project of Seefeel's Mark van Hoen and singer Holli Ashton, is not to be confused with San Diego hardcore band The Locust — not unless you really want to confuse yourself on a follow-up purchase.) Wrong comes packaged as a two-CD set. The first CD is the "original" album (recorded in 1998, it languished for a long time in contractual limbo), sufficient to be played alone. The second CD, however, not intended for standalone play, is a "drone" CD designed to complement the album, playing delicate harmonics against the angular pop of the original disc. (I like the play on "drone" — not only is it a disc of drones, or long, drawn-out tones, but it's also not unlike a drone aircraft, flying unmanned and trailing its target.) The drone disc contains nine tracks, just like the primary disc, but each track bears its own title; thus the song "Wrong" matches up with "Night Navigation;" "Heal" with "Presence and Gifts." There's a risk, I suppose, in packaging the project this way — especially given that the compositions on Wrong are coming up on four years old, some critics may take the second disc as a prop, a sign that the original tracks need a sonic supplement. Having listened to a number of the original tracks on MiniDisc for over a year now, though, I'm more inclined to see the extra disc as a bonus, no more — an added dimension, but neither a distraction nor a detractor. Unfortunately, I've only got one CD player, so for the time being my imagination will have to suffice. That, of course, is the real risk of the combinatory album — it's an experiment that may not be replicable in the laboratories of most listeners.

++ To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Tellus audio magazine — a subscriber-based cassette series featuring new music and sound art gathered from New York's "downtown" scene — has issued the Tellus Tools compilation on double LP, making a selection of radical sound art from its archive available in the form of a DJ tool. The "cassette underground" was a crucial (and largely undocumented) counter-cultural institution in the 1980s. In the case of Tellus, as the liner notes explain, "With the advent of the Walkman and the Boom Box, the editors perceived a need for an alternative to radio programming and the commercial recordings on the market at that time. As a team, they began to collect, produce, document and define the art of audio through publishing works from local, national and international artists. They invited contributing editors, experts in their fields, who proposed themes and collected the best works from that genre. Historic works were juxtaposed with contemporary, unknown artists with well-known artists, and high art with popular art, all in an effort to enhance the crossover communication between the different mediums of art — visual, music, performance and spoken word."

That strategy sounds a lot like recent attempts to "democratize" art using the Internet's vaunted potential to bring information together and bring users to information — but decidedly more low-tech. And that's one of the marvels of Tellus' editorial model: the combinatory logic with which it brought together different artists and artworks. Reflecting that scope, Tellus Tools includes Christian Marclay's turntable-based "Groove" (1982); Kiki Smith's "Life Wants to Live" (1983), documenting a fight between herself and David Wojnarowicz; and Louise Lawler's "Birdcalls" (1972), in which she chirps prominent male vanguard artists' names in the form of birdcalls. On "Nivea Cream Piece" (1990), Alison Knowles "plays" a jar of cold cream. Nicolas Collins' "Devil's Music 1" (1986) samples bits of radio broadcasts in real time, a fascinating cut-up barrage that provides an early template for techno. And Isaac Jackson's "Messages" (1982) documents a live radio broadcast featuring beats and freestyling from early B-boys A-One, Toxic, the mystifying Ramm-ell-zee and even Jean Michel Basquiat.

The latter piece suggests the way that hip-hop was once more closely tied to vanguard art; appropriately, Tellus Tools mimics the form of the DJ tool, offering two identical platters of the same record. Listeners are encouraged to mix and combine at their leisure, using two turntables and a mixer, and even to record the results and send them to Tellus. Harvestworks (Tellus' parent organization) director Carol Parkinson explains, "It offers the DJ experience to a general audience and even crosses over into being a conceptual art piece... I challenge both experienced and novice DJs to use the sound recordings as tools in the most inventive and far out ways possible." The finer points of her rhetoric might be off target — the "general audience," whoever that is, is unlikely to own the tools to replicate the DJ experience (and in a pressing of only 500, it's unlikely that anyone other than the specialist audience will purchase the record anyway). Also, turntablist/"conceptual art" crossovers have a well-established tradition, including Philip Jeck, Christian Marclay, DJ Spooky, and even John Cage — not to mention the legions of turntablists without museum affiliation.

Nonetheless, the record is a fascinating and at times hilarious document, and the extra disc is a brilliant bonus. In my laziest intervention, I've simply played them against each other, side A against side B, allowing chance to create weird sonic fortuities. More frequently, I've taken to playing both of them simultaneously, in quasi-unison but with a few-second delay, resulting in a bizarre and disorienting spatial effect, tweaking my EQ to highlight the echo within certain frequencies. Jackson's "Messages," with its steady breakbeat, works especially well; the Spartan hip-hop vibe actually benefits from being dirtied up a bit. Or you can start both records off at the same time, but, by pitching one up and one down, create a sonic tortoise-and-the-hare scenario that drags a dust storm of chaos into the yawning chasm. Remarkably simple little games, all of them, but that's all they need to be: reminders of why we play vinyl, reminders that we can still "play" the music we buy, reminders that music is always itching to flee the boundaries of its medium, if only we'd give it the chance.


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