A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

DJ Sniff
DJ Sniff                                                                                                                  Caroline Forbes©2011

It’s surprising how many people bemoan the obsolescence of the vinyl LP. Audiophiles claim (with more than a little justification, I suppose) that the sound quality of grooves cut into virgin vinyl and spun the faster the better (all other conditions being equal, 78 rpm should sound better than 33 1/3 rpm) will offer a fuller, richer, more “realistic” listening experience than any other format, especially the CD, which requires the sound to be compressed as it is digitalized, or, god forbid, the mp3 file, which to them is the sonorous equivalent of squeezing a two-inch scorpion through a one-inch glass tube (an image borrowed from Michael Ondaatje’s poem “Sweet Like a Crow”) – without mentioning that you might require a sound system of such nuance and sophistication as to cost more than your current car to notice the differences, or that human ears vary in their ability to recognize certain frequencies. Others love to fetishize the object itself; the size of the packaging allows for a bigger, better reproduction of album cover artwork, the liner notes are prominently displayed and not of a miniscule typeface tucked away inside a booklet, the technology is of a time when you could seemingly hold the music in your hands and not download it from an invisible source and fit your entire record collection, unseen and intangible, onto a storage vehicle the size of a postage stamp. So a few specialty labels continue to issue music on vinyl, either for collectors or as a novelty. Personally, I don’t miss LPs – with my somewhat faulty ears and modest stereo equipment, I can’t hear that much difference in sound quality for its own sake, and I do appreciate listening to the quietest passages in a Ran Blake piano solo or Morton Feldman string quartet free of hiss, crackles, and pops, not to mention the opportunity to occasionally experience Jelly Roll Morton’s piano without the haze of nearly a hundred years’ sonic debris.

But at the same time we can’t ignore the fact that the LP has gradually become something more than just an out-of-date storage unit – there is its function (in conjunction, naturally, with a phonograph and amplification system) as a musical instrument, capable of being manipulated in modes of creative expression. It’s probably impossible to discover the first time this occurred; conceivably, records may have been used in unorthodox ways as part of vaudeville acts or on early radio shows, as in the Happiness Boys’ 1928 comedy-with-music skit “Twisting the Dials,” a scripted but prophetic precursor to John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), where Cage devised a score in which the dials of 12 radios were indeed twisted to achieve an indeterminate musical performance. Previously, in 1939, as an attempt to exploit the then-available technology to add new, inconceivable sounds to his compositional palette, Cage had used two variable-speed phonographs and records of tuning frequencies to inject electronic swoops and drones in his otherwise percussion-oriented Imaginary Landscape No. 1. Three years later, his Credo in Us sanctioned the use of either radio or phonograph with records (he suggested the music of Beethoven, Dvorak, Sibelius, or Shostakovich) to provide an unexpected, surreal component to the percussive score, and by 1952 he had conceived a work (Imaginary Landscape No. 5) whose sole sound source was phonograph records, again manipulated so that the music was fragmented and reorganized – familiar sounds abstracted and set in an unfamiliar context.

By doing so, Cage was obviously referencing the collagist tendencies of the Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, but not strictly for the same disoriented emotional responses that they sought. For example, in a visual collage, when recognizable images are used, such as Hannah Höch’s photomontage “The Beautiful Girl” (1919-20), where a bathing beauty’s body has a light bulb with an exotic filament for a head adorned with an oversized wig, set alongside and interwoven with an automobile tire, a giant hand holding a pocket-watch, unidentified machine parts, and BMW stickers – equating modern industry with a fresh perspective of beauty – it is the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images that offers a new, dreamlike, symbolic view of reality. However, in a collage like Kurt Schwitters’ “Squares in Space” (1920), the irregularly cut pieces of plain paper and fabric, for the most part simply shades of brown and rust with a few grey and black, overlap each other in an apparently random fashion, and not only are there no recognizable representational images to relate to, there’s not even a square to be seen, despite the title. This piece is not an abstraction of some familiar aspect(s) of our reality, but a concrete image that is complete in itself and identified only by its own form and reality. We could say then that Cage’s use of familiar pre-recorded music (say, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in the version of Credo In Us by the Percussion Group Cincinnati on the Mode label), despite being torn up and re-imaged, is like the Höch photomontage, while the use of the non-recognizable frequency recordings in Imaginary Landscape No. 1 is similar to the emotionally distanced Schwitters collage. But Cage, at this time, was interested in technology as much as aesthetics, and so included phonograph records as an affordable, available musical instrument capable of generating an unlimited range of sounds – not unlike, though not as adventurous as, Pierre Schaeffer’s use of phonograph records as the initial source material for his even more disorienting, improvisatory musique concrète.

In fact, Schaeffer’s transformational approach to phonograph records as a musical sound source (the 1948 equivalent to sampling) initiated techniques still common to turntablists and dj’s today – slowing down and speeding up the turntable, repeating isolated sections of a disc, playing a sound event backwards, sustaining or fragmenting sounds, distorting a recognizable sound into noise. Quickly, however, composers like Schaeffer, Cage, and others in their wake lost interest in using records as at first tape recorders and then synthesizers became more versatile, more easily programmable, and offered a wider range of maneuvers. The return of phonograph records as imaginative sound resources in the 1970s can be attributed to hip-hop turntable artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Kool DJ Herc, and Grand Mixer DXT, and there’s little doubt that their popularity and creativity inspired a subsequent generation of turntablists equally influenced by free jazz, free improvisation, and post-Cage compositional tactics. Among them, Christian Marclay is probably the best known, perhaps moreso today for his visual art using records and record jackets, but he also devised or adapted extended techniques like cutting apart LPs and gluing back together sections from different records – another manner of visual and aural sound collage. Records (Atavistic) shows off a variety of his intuitively composed constructions, where More Encores (ReR) finds him focusing on the recordings of one artist per track – from Louis Armstrong to John Zorn, Johann Strauss, and Jimi Hendrix – as source material. His most Cagean work may be the Record Without a Cover (Recycled Records), a 1985 sound collage released on vinyl only, without a protective jacket, so that fingerprints, dust, and scratches would increase its surface noise (I had a copy nailed to my down beat office wall back then), thus changing the listening experience over time. One comparison to visual art could be Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, intended to change the viewer’s experience over time as dust, shadows, dirt, and other circumstances affected the surface of the canvas. On the other hand, Montreal turntablist Martin Tétreault frequently, though not exclusively, ignores records and creates a startling range of percussive and quasi-electronic effects from amplified manipulation of the turntable and phono cartridge (an extension of Cage’s 1960 Cartridge Music) – both approaches can be heard on his collaborations with guitarists Kevin Drumm (Particles And Smears, Erstwhile Records) and René Lussier (Dur Noyau Dur, Ambience Magnetiques Records), respectively.

Though there are countless other turntablists working in styles ranging from hip-hop and dance music to ambient and free-form (and no doubt several others), Marclay and Tétreault – as part of the continuing legacy that includes Cage and Schaeffer, Flash and DXT – represent the complex, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting attitudes that have led us to an artist like DJ Sniff (Takuro Mizuta Lippit). But the path that connects DJ Sniff with Evan Parker is even more circuitous. To begin, in 1971, Steve Lacy improvised a soprano sax solo while a record of cornetist Ruby Braff – “Was I to Blame?” – played in the background. The resulting recording, “The Cryptosphere,” works on several different conceptual levels – the implication of the novice musician learning by playing along with records (I did it years ago), although Lacy was no novice; the pinched, micro-pitched, nearly transparent saxophone line trying to fit into the “cracks” of the Braff recording without any correlation, the scratched reed and breath sounds nevertheless audibly punning on the idea of LP surface noise; the stylistic incongruities between the simultaneous musical performances; Lacy’s abstract saxophone juxtaposed with Braff’s “tuneful” cornet in the manner of Schwitters’ non-representational image set against Höch’s recognizable images in visual terms; and the playback and layering of one record as an intrinsic part of another. As Lacy explained, “I asked the sound engineer to choose a record of normal jazz by chance and he brought me the Ruby Braff! Perfect! We played the record and I experimented with unusual sounds. … I scratched the reed through my hair. It’s an image, a cryptospheric painting. … I wanted to make a music between writing and painting.” (Steve Lacy: Conversations, ed. Jason Weiss, Duke U. Press.)

Twenty years later, Evan Parker decided to comment upon and add another punning layer to the “The Cryptosphere.” Since the early ‘90s Parker had been searching out new, increasingly varied responses to and environments for his improvising, from the internal developmental changes created within his longstanding trio with bassist Barry Guy and percussionist Paul Lytton to an increasing number of one-time musical collaborations, the investigation of the acoustical properties of various performance venues, and eventually interaction with sound technicians like Walter Prati, Marco Vecchi, Lawrence Casserley, and Joel Ryan, who devised programs to alter or react to Parker’s improvising in real-time, changing it in ways beyond his control – philosophically, not unlike the effect on Marclay’s Record Without a Cover or Rauschenberg’s white paintings. Likewise, Parker chose to change the experience of “The Cryptosphere.” To quote annotator Steve Lake “…the microphone is inside [Parker’s] soprano. Parker drums rhythm patterns upon the keys, and the horn ‘listens’ to a record of Steve Lacy playing to a record of Ruby Braff. How much we hear of Lacy’s ‘Cryptosphere’ hinges upon which soprano keys are open at any given moment.” In other words, a recording of a transformed recording of a transformed recording. The name of the album on which this piece (titled “Lapidary”) appeared? Process And Reality (FMP).

In a sense, DJ Sniff’s ep (psi) is the next step in this ongoing reconceptualization of Parker’s own music, using the transformational qualities of the phonograph record and the hands-on technique of the turntable as musical instrument. With Parker’s (and on occasion a few unnamed others’) LPs as source material, DJ Sniff is composing radical variations on a theme, creating elaborate new images of unpredictable form from Parker’s original intentions. By speeding up the turntable (either mechanically, by hand, or through a related computer program), we hear faster episodes of note patterns, and more complexly shaped patterns, than even Parker’s remarkable saxophone technique could manage. The saxophone’s tone and texture are transformed into noise-generated rhythms and musique concrète sound images, some evocative and others abstract. There’s quite a bit of wit involved in his procedures – his critical, compositional process, whether spontaneous or not – so that, for example, “Moers” suggests an imaginary meeting between Parker and Miles Davis, “Itchy Throat” sounds like Parker visiting Jurassic Park, and “Two” even  ironically, artificially, channels something resembling Lacy’s particular soprano saxophone tone and phrasing. On the shorter, more abstract pieces his advanced turntable techniques result in concise, hyperdriven mosaics from shards of Parker’s characteristic high-strung, tightly controlled, fervent improvisations, but a longer piece such as “Seven,” a haunting spatial drama of cavernous effects, wind, foghorns, seagulls, and echoes, reflects a broader compositional perspective.

But as with any instrument, the music is not in the hand, but in the mind. DJ Sniff is a composer, old school. Only his materials are new school. Next stop, Bach?

Art Lange©2011

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