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Friday, May 23, 2003

++ Otomo Yoshihide's Turntable Assaults

++ Any repair technicians in the audience must have been biting their nails. A Technics sales rep, however, would have glowed. Not just playing the turntables but lifting, shoving, jostling, smacking, indeed, all-out attacking them, Otomo Yoshihide pressed his instruments far beyond what must be recommended in the owner's manual. Not only did his 1200s withstand the abuse, the ensuing noise was heavenly — even if Yoshihide did leave a workspace littered with broken records, aching cymbals, and Ortofon cartridges surely much, much worse for the wear.

Yoshihide's Bay Area appearance saw him at Naut Humon's Recombinant Lab Compound, an unlikely outpost of high-end technology tucked away in a forgotten corner of the economically depressed Hunters Point. It's hidden at the end of a dirt road, wood smoke pluming from an oil-drum stove and the bayside soil underfoot sprouting sad, toxic dune grasses. Yoshihide's approach to turntablism — outfitting twin Technics with an array of jerry-rigged attachments (cartridges dangling outsize springs, coiled tonearm extensions that scraped across the surface of the platter) and then coaxing unholy blasts of feedback and broken tone from them — only reinforced the Mad Max feel of the site.

The Compound, a surround-sound studio where visiting musicians regularly record "modules" specially designed for the space, lived up to its recombinant aims: Yoshihide's solo set was in fact a collaboration, if only a virtual one. As he sat at his turntables, an electric guitar in his lap, and eased tentatively into his performance with open-ended bell tones and quiet bursts of white noise (the product of the needle kissing the naked metal platter), several video screens flashed into life, ringing the perimeter of the room above the heads of the shoulder-to-shoulder audience. On each screen, Yoshihide sat before a setup identical to the one he was using at the Compound: two turntables, a translucent blue Vestax mixer, a prepared guitar, cymbals and sundry ambiguously-purposed objects, and scads and scads of scratched, unsleeved vinyl dully reflecting years of punishment.

Yoshihide's performance played off the videos, allowing his multiple selves to establish a buffered ambiance that grew in scope and intensity with his own. (Naut Humon, who had recorded the videos with Yoshihide three days prior, controlled their timing and volume.) The virtual accompaniment allowed the set to achieve a startling density, since at any given time there were six or even eight decks in play.

++ To watch Yoshihide was to witness the concentration of the musical mind. Multitasking in a way usually seen with office workers juggling cell phones, IM and a PDA, the artist was forever doing innumerable things at once: chicken-pecking for grooves, powering down a deck to let the record slow to a crawl, adjusting the mixer, changing cartridges, back-spinning, forward-spinning. Many of his actions defied conventional wisdom — lifting the record just above the spindle to yank the slipmat out from underneath it, playing the needle against the metal platter (and setting up a delicate click rhythm with every revolution of a long-faded sticker glued to the surface, playing records on top of other records, in stacks three or four high (recalling nothing so much as the cover of Let It Bleed — if there had been a cake in the room, you can bet he would have tried to play it.)

Despite the frenzy of activity, though, calculation always trumped abandon. While hardly coolly methodical, every movement, no matter how slight, seemed to be considered. During quieter passages, for instance, Yoshihide would be content to touch the needle to the bare platter once or twice, letting loose a quick buzz of static, before turning to another procedure, seemingly satisfied with that sound. Several times, he held a business card (from a Parisian hotel, it seemed, judging from the phone number) perpendicular to the spinning platter and pressed it gently against the edge, producing a sound like a grass-blade whistle.

++ Beginning with exploratory strummings and restless needling, Yoshihide's set soon swelled into a full ambient swirl, with microtonal vibrations colliding and colluding across the threshold between live and virtual. Spring-sheathed cartridges swept across the decks, prompting rhythmic groans of feedback His assaults increasing in intensity, Yoshihide began thumping against the turntable bodies, making the needles skip as deep bass kicks traveled through the pickups. The metal 45-inserts would slap up and down in their hollowed depressions, jerking like silver fish breathing their last on the deck of a boat. Several times he picked up a turntable from beneath, raising one side until the needle tripped like an exhausted mountaineer down the 45-degree surface of the record.

The finale was a relentless crescendo of noise. Clamping down cymbals over records, tonearms and all, Yoshihide leaned into his gear with all his weight, shifting slightly to alter the pitch and timbre of the feedback. It was loud, it was shrill, and anyone standing directly in line with the speakers — and in a surround sound environment, it was hard not to — felt as though the midrange of their hearing had been sheared away. But despite the damage, the feeling was exhilarating. Looking at the wreckage Yoshihide left behind — a pile of scratched and broken vinyl, scattered detritus, and styli ready to be put out of their misery — it felt like having come through a storm and emerged unscathed.


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