Where Records Go To Die

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

The basement of the main Salvation Army on the northern fringe of downtown Minneapolis is quiet and empty as an anchorite's cave. It's not hard to understand why. The low-ceilinged room's fluorescent glare seems more conducive to open-heart surgery than shopping. The candle holders, board games, and cordless electric frying pans arrayed sparsely along the off-white metal shelves hold little allure for anyone but the most intrepid bargain-hunter. Only a few small kids make any noise, and they never stay downstairs for long. The record section is worst of all: a pauper's grave for the city's most unwanted vinyl. Which is exactly why Christian Marclay is here, his fingers flipping eagerly through the racks.

"Look at this," the beaming visual artist and composer enthuses, holding a tattered LP jacket aloft like poor Yorick's skull. "I'm going to have to get this just for the cover." The object of Marclay's admiration, The Joys of Christmas, depicts a late-'70s living room holiday scene that somehow screams cocaine--probably because of the cover's viciously garish hues. Sofa, fireplace, chair, tree, and ornaments all glow with a ferociousness that's positively radioactive. And the grapes in the fruit bowl look good enough to eat.

Marclay pulls the record out of its sleeve. But it's the wrong one, a collection of marches. "That happens all the time," he sighs.

If anyone knows the trials of vinyl pillaging, it's Marclay. A little over six feet tall, with short brown hair and a gentle, almost sleepy voice that makes him seem far more Buddhist monk than museum circuit star, the Walker artist-in-residence has been drawing the dust of abject retail into his nostrils since 1979, when he first started using turntables as instruments. Unlike most DJs, Marclay cherishes pops, clicks, scratches, dirt, and all the other signs of degradation your average LP acquires over time. Never a club or hip-hop DJ, he has always been the O.G. of avant-turntablists, reanimator of dead records and creator of intricate sound collages that often resemble the early compositions of musique concrète pioneers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Mambo, waltz, flamenco, and bebop collide like cartoon ducks in his real-time cut-and-paste excursions, along with a hundred other styles.

"I have about this many records for actual listening," he says, holding his hands about the length of a tennis racket apart. "But I own a lot of them. Some I use for visual work, some for performance. I've been trying to cut down lately."

One would think the slim pickings in Sally's basement might help him stop. Back in the '90s, this place was three browsers strong; now it has shriveled to one. Are old people dying with fewer records, leaving thrift store shelves emptier than they used to be? Is Percy Faith making such a quiet comeback that no one wants to get rid of his albums? No matter; even with the used vinyl stock dwindling, Marclay manages to rescue an impressive selection of holiday cheer from the stacks. He's amassing a collection for "The Sounds of Christmas," a database he created from more than 1,000 Christmas LPs, which he makes available to adventurous DJs for performance and remixing. The task finds him playing instigator as often as performer.

"For this project, I try to force young DJs to remix Christmas music, which is the last thing they want to do," he says, drifting in and out of conversation in a state of vinyl hypnosis. "For years, I saw so many Christmas albums. They were telling me, Do something. They're the most disposable and disposed-of recorded music you can find, the same 12 songs repeated ad infinitum, so they're a perfect way to get DJs to deal with records as pure sound."

Marclay admits that the project also gives him an excuse to buy records. "I've never thought of myself as a collector," he says as he strolls past a motley selection of used table ware. "If I get something for cheap and I like it, then I save it. Otherwise, it just goes on the work pile."

Most diehard vinyl fetishists would be appalled at some of Marclay's working tactics: painting records, breaking them, sawing several LPs into sections, then recombining the pieces to create frankenrecords--which he then plays. He doesn't keep his records in jackets, though he uses album covers for other purposes: One of Marclay's contributions to "The LP Show," a massive 2001 record cover exhibition at New York's Exit Art gallery, was 80 copies of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream and Other Delights cover arranged in a massive square. Given his willful vinyl abuse, it's surprising that Marclay has never been accosted by angry record geeks after a show.

"The only time anyone has ever said anything to me is when I was using this guitarlike turntable device I had rigged up," he recalls. "I was playing this yellow vinyl Jimi Hendrix record--apparently very collectible--scratching with it and whatnot. Afterward, this fellow came up to me and said he thought that it was really cool that I wasn't a slave to commodity worship."  

As Marclay searches for more music to manhandle, a middle-aged man walks by with a big keyboard like a mounted barracuda jutting out of his shopping cart. "Does it work?" Marclay calls out. The man smiles and nods. "A classic Casio," Marclay comments softly, like a man discussing life insurance in church.

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.

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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