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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Maximum Turntablism, Part 1

Music for experimental turntablism

Turntablism is the use of the turntable as a musical instrument. Experiments with music-making and turntables go back to the dawn of records, really. Anyone who accidentally dragged the needle over the record surface or put a recording on at the incorrect playback speed can attest to this. The original wind-up gramophone would gradually slow its playback speed to a stop when the power wound down. There were some vital and important experiments in the use of turntables prior to 1950, but then the availability of the magnetic tape recorder supplanted the turntable as a creative device left it to the playback of vinyl records. But all things become new again and in the 1970s a vital and broadening DJ performance culture emerged and has been growing ever since. Since about 1977, when Grand Wizard Theodore (b. 1963) invented the “scratch” technique, turntablism has been at the center of several musical idioms, most notably hip-hop, techno, electronica, and other kinds of house or dance music. Each style has its own use of the turntable. What they have in common is an affinity for active sound mixing as a performance element and the application of electronic effects and synthesizer modules to broaden the sound spectrum of the turntable.

For this episode, my intent was to provide a history in recordings of the turntable in experimental music. This isa two-part series. We’ll go from 1924 until 1979 in this episode, finishing with a more modern work by Marina Rosenfeld from 1999. In the next part, we’ll take a broader listen to turntablism and the related style of CD-glitch music in more recent times.


1. Ottorino Respighi, “The Pines of Rome,” an excerpt from a 78 rpm recording made in 1928. The Pini di Roma is a four-movement symphonic poem for orchestra completed in 1924 by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. As part of the original performance, Respighi provided a sound effects recording of a nightingale to be played for about a minute at the end of the quiet third movement. This element has forever remained a part of this piece and a copy of the sound effect is still provided with the orchestral score. If you follow the score, you can spot the place where the record is to be played. This recording is from November 1928 and was made by The Milan Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorenzo Molajoli.

2. Paul Hindemith, Trickaufnahmen (1930). This recording made available by Mark Katz, author of Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music (2004). This is an example of what we might call the first known instance of disc manipulation. Although there is insufficient documentation to prove exactly how this recording was created, it appears that Hindemith recorded and then re-recorded each part, which consisted xylophone, violin and cello, were recorded and then re-recorded using a disc lathe, to create the canon that you hear.

3. John Cage, Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) from The 25-Year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage (private, 1959). A little more out there is this work by John Cage from 1939. Cage specified that two 78 rpm disc recordings of test patterns be played according to specified instructions. For two variable-speed phono turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano and cymbal; to be performed as a recording or broadcast.

Next, we turn to Pierre Schaeffer and his original musique concrete work for French radio in the later 1940s. Prior to 1951, all of the musique concrete created by Schaffer and Pierre Henry was made using disc recordings. We will hear three works associated with this kind of turntablism. The first two by Schaeffer are studies in sound:

4. Pierre Schaeffer, “Study For Piano” (1948) from Panorama Of Musique Concrète (1956).

5. Pierre Schaeffer, “Study For Whirligigs” (1948) from Panorama Of Musique Concrète (1956).

Both of those tracks were recorded in 1948 and released in 1956 on the album. Panorama Of Musique Concrète. Then we will hear:

6. Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul (1949-50) from Panorama Of Musique Concrète No. 2 (1956). This was the first major collaboration between Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Although the work underwent many revisions over the years, the original version, composed using only phonograph machines, was striking and ambitious, even by today’s standards. It was based primarily on two categories of sounds as defined by the composers:

  • Human sounds (breathing, vocal fragments, shouting, humming, whistling).

  • Non-human sounds (footsteps, knocking on doors, percussion, prepared piano, orchestral instruments).

As an approach to composing the work, these sounds were either modified using the technical resources that were at the composers’ command or left alone and simply edited into intriguing patterns. The work freely employed spoken voice, broadcast music, prepared piano (an early approach to modifying the piano credited to Cage), and various mechanical or natural noises. Disc loops (repeating grooves) were effectively used to create rhythmic passages of spoken words. The piece was originally structured as a series of 22 movements or expositions on certain combinations of sounds. We will hear parts 1 through 4.

7. John Cage, Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952). This was written for any forty-two phonograph recordings and was realized as a magnetic tape. In Cage's realization, he mostly used jazz recordings. The score is a block-graph, wherein each square equals 3” of tape. No specific albums are indicated by name or style of music. The composition used the I Ching to make choices for all edits. Since no recording exists of an authentic Cage realization, I have selected a more recent version created by Anthony Braxton and the Maelström Percussion Ensemble Conducted by Jan Williams.

Fast forward to 1979 and a curious work by Czech composer Milan Knížák. Knížák had roots in the Fluxus movement of the 1960s during which he created various works of music and sculpture that were broken or distorted in some way. In 1979, he created his Broken Music series for which he first broke records and then glued the shards back and played them again. This, of course, created a lot of noise. We’ll hear

8. Milan Knížák, “Composition No. 1’ from Broken Music (1979).

9. Milan Knížák, “Composition No. 3” from Broken Music (1979).

For the nesxt track, I wanted to acknowledge the influence of hip-hop and DJ music in the popularization of turntablism about forty years ago. We’ll hear a “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.

10. , Adventures on the Wheels of Steel (1981) from the 12” single

We’ll jump ahead to 1999 and listen to a piece of contemporary composer and improviser Marina Rosenfeld called “theforestthegardenthesea.”

11. Marina Rosenfeld, “theseatheforestthegarden” (1999), from theforestthegardenthesea (1999, charhizma). This earlier work of hers illustrates how the turntable was effectively blended into a broader ensemble of musicians and electronics. I’ll be playing this track in entirety.

Now for the Archive Mix in which I play two additional tracks at the same time to see what happens. Here are two more tracks of modern turntablism:

1. DJ Shorty Blitz, a mix created for the collection Hip Hop The Golden Era 1979-1999 (2018).

2. Otomo Yoshihide, Turntable solo from TV Show "Doremi."

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