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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Maximum Turntablism, Part 2

Modern Experimental Turntablism and CD Glitch Music

Like any performance medium, turntablism has its experimentalists, who push the form in unexpected directions. The omnipresence of turntable music in today’s culture has been likened to an earlier generation that grew up emulating rock and roll artists. Turntablist Christian Marclay once said that “Today’s new guitar is the turntable.”[i]

For this episode, we are going to listen to examples of turntablism from its more recent history, where the turntable is combined with other electronics and audio processing. It will also include some examples of glitch music made with manipulated or damaged CDs. But before we get to those examples, I want to revisit a theme from the previous episode in which I explored the roots of what I call Maximum Turntablism.

There is a story about the origins of French turntablism that will be of interest to anyone today who has attempted to organize their records into a library. Any record collector or DJ can relate to this.

For more than four years, from 1947 into 1951, the RTF studio under Schaeffer’s direction mastered the process and art of composing music using turntables. Until 1949, Schaeffer operated largely as a producer of radiophonic works, collecting sounds on disc and laboring over their recording, editing, and organization. Accompanied by a mobile recording crew, he traveled about Paris collecting a variety of sounds: musical, industrial, and ambient. These remote recordings were done using a mobile sound unit equipped with a disc lathe.

The collecting of sound samples appealed to Schaeffer’s innate passion for organization and cataloguing. He viewed his endeavours as “research,” and conducted his sound manipulation and editing activities as experiments or studies. As the library of sound samples expanded, discs were being stored in every available cupboard and cabinet space. By the spring of 1949, the collection of sound samples had amassed to nearly 6,000 disc recordings.[ii]

At this time, Pierre Henry had started working alongside Schaeffer in the studio as collaborator and creator of his own works. Henry’s wife, Michèle Henry, volunteered to help organize the sound library, performing a task that many volunteer assistants before her had been incapable of completing. She made progress by color-coding and sorting the material into broad categories, and the collection of “sound objects” continued to grow exponentially. One reason for this was a new turntable device, built for Schaeffer, that could record discs at variable speeds, multiplying the possibilities for any one sound object. In early 1951, Schaeffer returned to the studio after a lecture tour to find that Pierre Henry had essentially co-opted the machine for his own use and had been producing scores of additional sound samples that Michele was storing and classifying. “In his hands,” lamented Schaeffer, “the new machine had created extraordinary sound objects by the hundreds,” all of which were given some sort of transformative development by Henry.[iii] Accordingly, further attempts were made to categorize and classify the sounds by type, source, and even disposition. Schaeffer admitted that every attempt at organizing their vast sound library had failed. He and Henry essentially disagreed on a schema for doing so, down to how best to name each sample. Where Schaeffer favored the categorization of sounds by their source (e.g. locomotive, orchestra, prepared piano, bird calls), Henry arrived at a completely different method based on the musical temperament of a sound: he favored categorizing them as Incidents, Climates, and Punctuations.[iv] The latter plan proved somewhat useful for making the sound libraries available to radio broadcasters in search of sound effects and mood music, a secondary enterprise that occupied the time of GRM as early as 1950.

By 1951, tape recorders, audio signal generators, filters, and other audio equipment had become available to Schaeffer, Henry, and other composers at GRM, providing a much higher resolution audio recording medium than disc lathes and turntables. The early tape work at the French studio continued to use the massive sound library of disc samples as a primary source of audio content. There was no going back after the arrival of the tape machine, bringing a rapid though unceremonious end to this era of French turntablism.

Yet, for a short period from 1949 to 1950, the library of sound samples grew exponentially at the French studio and the composers, especially Pierre Henry, tackled the challenges of how to compose with turntables and sound samples.

Therefore, I would like to play several parts from one of the final pieces of pure turntable music that was created by Henry. It was called the Concerto of Ambiguities. The entire work consisted of 8 parts and lasted for a little more than 20 minutes. I’ve selected some parts that demonstrate how well Henry utilized the turntable both in editing sound samples on disc, but also using the technology to modify the result. No electronic effects were used by the composer. He focused on using editing to maximize continuity and contrast, applied variable speeds to modify the sound, played it backwards, and employed lock grooves to create repeating patterns. You will hear examples of all of these in parts 1, 2, 3, and 5. I inserted a 3-second pause between part 3 and part 5 to indicate that this was not the intention of the composer.


1. Pierre Henry, Concerto Des Ambiguïtés parts 1,2,3 and 5 (1950) from Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul / Concerto Des Ambiguïtés (1972, Philips). Premiered on August 7, 1950.

2. Christian Marclay, “Smoker,” (1981) from the album Records (1997). Christian Marclay, turntables and processing. Recorded on a cassette deck at home.

3. DJ Shadow ... And The Groove Robbers, “Hindsight,” from In/Flux/ Hindsight (1993)

4. Institut Fuer Feinmotorik, “A1” from Wenig Information: Kein Titel (1998). Recorded live between April and June 1998 in Cloister Bad Säckingen, Germany. For turntables, mixer, compressor, various processed records, paper, cardboard, scotch tape, household rubber, wire, various other odds and ends.

5. Peter Cusack & Nicolas Collins, “Hazlitt” from ‎ A Host, Of Golden Daffodils (1999). Recorded live in concert at STEIM (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) June 1996 and at Museum für Gegenwart, Hamburger Bahnhof, (Berlin, Germany), November 1996. Electronic processes, CD, radio sources, trombone-propelled electronics, Nicolas Collins; guitar, bouzouki, whistling, electronics, sampler triggers, Peter Cusack.

6. Gen Ken Montgomery, “Droneskipclickloop”(excerpt, 1998) from Pondfloorsample (2002). Using four CD players and curated sounds in the categories Drone, Skip, Click, and Loop. Mixed in real time at a performance at Experimental Intermedia Foundation (NY) on March 17, 1998.

7. Crawling with Tarts, “Trecher Track” from Turntable Solos (1999). By Michael Gendreau and Suzanne Dycus-Gendreau.

8. Yasunao Tone, “Part 1”(excerpt 1999) from Solo for Wounded CD (1999). All sounds used were from scratched CD's.

9. Philip Jeck, “Untitled 2,” from Soaked (2002). Turntables, Philip Jeck, electronics, Jacob Kirkegaard. Recorded live at the Electronic Lounge, Moers Festival, Germany.

10. Maria Chavez, “Jebus” from Tour Sampler (2004), recorded in Houston, Texas. Turntables and electronics by Maria Chavez.

11. Marina Rosenfeld, “Three” from Joy of Fear (2005). Piano, turntables, dubplates, electronics, sound processing], vocals, Marina Rosenfeld. She said, “This record couldn’t exist without the small collection of one-off ‘acetate records’ (dub plates) that I’ve been making since 1997, when I first encountered Richard Simpson and his disc-cutting lathe in Los Angeles.”

12. Luc Ferrari and Otomo Yoshihide, Slow Landing” from ‎Les Archives Sauvées Des Eaux (2008). Composed by Luc Ferrari and Turntables, Electronics, prepared phono cartridges by Otomo Yoshihide.

13. Christian Marclay, from Record Without a Cover (excerpt, 1999). Marked with instructions, "Do not store in a protective package," my copy is a reissue of the disc first released in 1985, done by Japanese label Locus Solus. The naked record will naturally become increasingly damaged from shipping, storing, and playing the record, all becoming part of the work. In essence, the owner is implored to progressively destroy the release, allowing it to become scratched and bruised from accumulating damage that make each copy unique. My copy actually skips a lot. In the passage I am playing I often had to press the needle down a little bit to get through a skip. There is faintly recorded jazz music found on some of the disc, while other parts are pretty much composed only of surface noise.

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 experimental turntablism:

· Tsunoda Tsuguto, “Air Pocket” (1997) from Turntable Solos (1999).

· Merzbow, “Batztoutai—The Nightengale’s Song” (1985) from Turntable Solos (1999).

The incidental music heard while I’m speaking is from a damaged and skipping CD that I have of Sun Ra. The track is “Sound Spectra/ Spec Sket” from the album Other Planes of There (1964).

[i] Mike Doherty, “Interview with Christian Marclay,” Eye (November 30, 2000). Available online: (accessed July 30, 2007). [ii] Pierre Schaeffer, In Search of Concrete Music, trans. by Christine North and John Dack (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 60. [iii] Ibid., 69. [iv] Ibid., In Search of Concrete Music, 70.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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