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Turntablism Before and After Hip-Hop (MP3)

Like the violin, just to point to one parallel example, the turntable has different uses in different settings, means different things in different settings. The violin seen on its own may signal “classical” (whether that means chamber or orchestral is left to the viewer’s imagination), but could just as likely be jazz or bluegrass. The turntable, seen on its lonesome, tends to signal hip-hop — more to the point, the turntable, when seen in pairs, tends to signal hip-hop.

But, of course, the creative employment of the turntable as not just an audio-playback system but also as a means of artistic production, as a performance instrument, is a long tradition. John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” included turntables in 1939, which means just as long prior to the birth of hip-hop as we now are far from it. Hip-hop by and large has left the turntable behind in favor of digital samples, but avant-garde use of the turntable continues apace.

Take the work of Jay Sullivan, as recently displayed in a live performance broadcast as part of the Rare Frequency radio show, on WZBC 90.3, and later disseminated more widely as a podcast MP3.

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The piece begins with the texture of the turntable, the slow warble and mechanical cadence of its rotation, the surface static noise. The introduction of a bellows sound, likely a harmonium (the credits on the site are minimal), serves several compositional purposes. It provides a drone that suggests an affinity for the underlying currents of Indian music. It shifts the opening texture from foreground to background. It suggests the turntable texture as the most minimal of rhythms, to be contrasted with the most minimal of melodies that is a drone. But most importantly, it simulates that distinction between foreground and background: The airy breath of the bellows, like a harmonica or organ on some surreally attenuated sustain, hovers above the texture of the turntable. The turntable surface doesn’t adversely affect the sound, as would be the case if the bellows noise were in fact recorded on the vinyl we hear. Instead, a cavern opens, and we listen to that void as much as we do to what is on either side of it.

Track originally posted at rarefrequency.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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