Knights of the turntable

The DJ — from Alan Freed to the Electrifying Mojo, from Jam Master Jay to Carl Craig — has been an irresistible force in American music. For more than two decades now, disco booty-motivators polishing their segues and mixes, hip-hop rhythm masters scratching their way to the top, and techno pilots layering and programming the night away, have turned the spotlight on the turntable. And throughout the last 20-plus years, working at the outer reaches of DJ soundcraft and conceptual installation, has been audio artist Christian Marclay, the vinyl visionary who brings an extraordinary turntable experience to the Detroit Institute of Arts this Saturday.

Marclay, whose inspirations have come from various summits and streams of avant-garde practice — composer John Cage, conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, free jazz and no-wave punk, among others — began his career as an art student in Boston, which helps explain why he hasn’t limited his inventiveness to the sonic realm. As a sculptor whose raw materials are everyday products of the music industry — vinyl, audio tape, cassettes and other sound artifacts — he transforms objects that are so familiar as to be nearly invisible into installations that’ll make you blink, catch your breath, scratch your head and laugh. He has exhibited stacks of LPs that have been sliced, diced and otherwise ravaged, reels of tape that unwind endlessly in piles, brilliant tongue-in-cheek sleeve designs for albums, etc., in major international galleries and museums. And his approach to the art of the turntable has been as surprising as all that.

A spinner of demented discs, a creator of dizzy, dense sonic collages, this avantest of DJs has delved into thrift-store bins for sounds of every kind, not limiting himself to playing the latest hits or up-and-coming styles. “I like the recycling idea — using the stuff that people don’t want anymore, and make new music out of it,” said Marclay in an interview for the online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever ( “Once different, unrelated records are combined, they sometimes have the power to trigger the memory of a tune.”

But Marclay’s performances aren’t just about juxtaposing unexpected discs. To make music that’s radically new, yet hauntingly familiar, he sands, hacks and otherwise alters the surfaces of his vinyl memorabilia, pushing (past the outer limit, some would say) the snap-crackle-and-pop quality of old LPs.

A scratcher before hip hop and a looper before techno, Marclay started making his unique form of turntable jazz in the late ’70s. His early associations were with such avant-rockers as DNA and Rhys Chatham, and with ’80s hip-hop DJs, but he eventually began thinking in terms of a turntable band:

“When you think DJs, you think of them as solo artists with big egos. But if the turntable is really an instrument then why not have a band and play the instrument in combination with others? To react to sounds that don’t come out of your own records, that’s the ultimate challenge for a DJ. I’ve been trying for many years now to push this notion of the DJ as a band member, and I have been interested in groups of DJs improvising together like a jazz band.”

Marclay’s performance at the DIA will involve just such a unit, called djTRIO. The collaborative group, which includes New York illbient DJs Toshio Kajiwara and DJ Olive (The Audio Janitor), will also have its every gesture projected by video cameras and monitors. A sound and vision rendezvous at the DIA.


Christian Marclay performs with djTRIO at the Detroit Institute of Arts Auditorium (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, John R entrance), Saturday, Dec. 21 at 7 p.m. Also on the program are the crunch beats of Wolf Eyes from Ann Arbor. Tickets are $10.

George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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