Where Records Go To Die

Scavenging used albums and mutilating forgotten vinyl with avant-turntablist Christian Marclay

The California-born, Geneva-raised artist's unorthodox approach to turntablism grew out of a casual foray into music during his undergrad days at the Massachusetts College of Art. At the time, he used records affixed with self-adhesive labels as primitive loop-making devices, simulating the type of gouge that makes great aunt Henrietta's copy of Ethel Merman Live say "Here's Rose!" over and over. After graduating, Marclay moved to New York, and like fellow untrained musician Arto Lindsay, he was welcomed into a vibrant club scene dominated by avant-garde masters like John Zorn and George Cartwright, the latter of whom now lives in Roseville. On Saturday night at the Triple Rock, Marclay will perform with Cartwright, along with Fog frontman Andrew Broder, for the first time in over a decade. (For more on Cartwright and Broder, see "He's the DJ, I'm the Free-Jazz Saxophonist.")

Though he has a penchant for performing live, Marclay hasn't recorded much. His Record Without a Cover, released in the mid-'80s, remains the quintessential Christian Marclay artifact. Manufactured and distributed sans any kind of protection, not even an inner sleeve, the one-sided album was intended to accrue wear, tear, dust, and grime more quickly minus a jacket, making the record's early-'80s sound collage seem like a hoary artifact. As for the blank opposite side, it included instructions for proper care and handling that were etched directly into the grooveless vinyl. Essentially, they amounted to let whatever happens, happen.

djTRIO, newly released on Asphodel, is more representative of Marclay's current work and the performance he'll be doing with DJ Olive and Toshio Kajiwara at the Walker's Music and Movies program in Loring Park on Monday. Culled from live performances by the titular ensemble, whose ranks include Olive and Kajiwara as well as Erik M and Marina Rosenfeld, the disc hearkens back to the days of John Zorn's exercises in spontaneous composition. Yet the album is anything but a free-for-all. Each DJ's contributions--ranging from trumpet squeals and snippets of funk to what sound like tennis rackets falling out of a closet--seem careful and considered. This is due in no small part to the trio's avoidance of the meat 'n' taters trappings of turntablism--scratching and whatnot--in favor of carefully assembled colloquies of texture and tone.

Made from scratch: Vinyl manipulator Christian Marclay
Cameron Wittig for Walker Art Center
Made from scratch: Vinyl manipulator Christian Marclay

Marclay's success as a visual artist, and his worries about the uncertain future of vinyl, have already led him to put the heavy-duty Califone turntables he prefers on mothballs once before, in the early '90s. "A lot of what I do as a performer has to do with people's notions of the value of records," he explains as we head toward the checkout counter. "I reached a point where I'd break a record on stage and nobody even seemed to care. I figured it was time to concentrate on other matters. Then, all these turntablists started calling me. Now, I'm starting to think the end might be near again. Vinyl has already hit its second peak, and could be falling again. It's like the situation here [in the Salvation Army]; there are fewer records than there used to be. I bet they're in the process of phasing them out."

Still, Marclay has managed to find 37 albums--not a bad haul at all, given the presence of Christmas with Avon Products and A Colonel Sanders Christmas. "I'd like to think that I give these records a second life," he says. "Although, as soon as I get them, they lose whatever identities they had before, starting with the jackets. They become tools."

When Marclay sets down his finds, the silver-haired, mustachioed cashier doesn't know what kind of veteran he's dealing with. "These things are kind of antique-y," he tells Marclay, after informing him that the price is a princely 49 cents each. "Kind of valuable."

"Antique-y, yes," Marclay answers. "I'm not so sure about the valuable part."

Yet when he heads to the back of the store, he suddenly stumbles upon a huge vinyl trove--easily a dozen times the size of the basement's offerings and in much better shape. "So much for my theory," he quips, his face lighting up like a department store window. There below him is a spoken word Emily Dickinson collection.

Maybe he'll be DJing for a little longer than he'd planned.

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