The Tables Have Turned

Hey, if you spent long days with a turntable as your only companion, you might let yourself get felt up by a koala, too: Janek Schaefer
Courtesy of Janek Schafer

Christian Marclay may be the father of experimental turntablism, scratching and mutating and finally crushing a selection of battered vinyl in his 1984 short film "Record Players." But Janek Schaefer is the genre's clown prince. With his Tri-Phonic Turntable, the London-based artist unintentionally invented the best tool for extracting subliminal messages from Black Sabbath albums: a home-built record player modified with three tone-arms that allow the performer to mix several sections of a record together simultaneously, shift speed, or reverse the record at will. Schaefer cut custom dub-plates of locked grooves, then sent the tone-arms shuttling across the vinyl, mixing chance loops into dense aggregations of field recordings. The Tri-Phonic even earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for The World's Most Versatile Instrument--though, if you ask me, the title should have been Best Experimental Music Invention Since Harry Partch's 31-Tone Zoomoozophone.

Still, Schaefer--who performs at the Walker Art Center for its all-night Valentine's Day bash--isn't just a one-trick three-disc jockey. His sound art career began in 1995 with Recorded Delivery, an album that followed his voice-activated recorder on an overnight voyage through the vans, mailboxes, and sorting rooms of the Royal Postal Service. The fascinating and slightly creepy results, climaxing with the gauche small talk of grumpy old mail carriers, premiered at the Brian Eno-curated Self Storage exhibition in Wembley, London, where Schaefer earned enough notice that he abandoned his architecture studies. Instead of designing buildings, he decided, he'd provide soundtracks for them.

Not that Schaefer entirely forgot his roots in architectural theory. His sonic work has always approached audio assemblage from a sculptor's point of view, layering washes of hiss and buzz with a keen ear for space. This technique is most impressively deployed on 2000's Above Buildings (FatCat): Schaefer collected field recordings (a prepared piano being retuned, the neon buzz of Las Vegas streets, an amplified microphone capturing a solar eclipse) and processed the results into sinister scrapes that build from near silence into foreboding cinematic drones. Listen to it in complete darkness and it's truly terrifying, burning with a slow-boiled menace that David Lynch might find useful.

The Walker's upcoming "Let's Spend the Night Together" party marks a homecoming of sorts for Schaefer, who recently spent two months living in Uptown as a McKnight Composer in Residence. During his December 2002 sojourn, Schaefer recorded a mobile phone's transmissions floating over a frozen lake, taped Dictaphones to weather balloons for recordings of the sky, and miked the beeps and buzzes of tornado-chasing and -testing equipment. Using none of the postproduction equalization that so attracts many modern knob-twiddlers, Schaefer cut and pasted the results together with archival meteorology sound bites to produce Weather Report (Alluvial), a 21-minute mini-narrative that artfully invokes Minnesota's bipolar climate.

But his February concert suggests something far warmer: Schaefer promises on his Audio H label's website to deck out his performance room at the Walker with a Valentine's theme. But if his other edgy reworkings of traditional themes are anything to go by, this particular V-Day event promises to be a world removed from Hallmark card romance. Will he play love songs? Maybe. But only if "love" is what made the punk girlfriend on The Real World: London give her boyfriend a pig's heart with a nail through it.

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