How do you draw a scratch? It’s easy enough to see one created when we observe a DJ‘s deft handiwork producing vinyl-warped screams and stutters. But how do you notate a sound that’s neither melody, harmony nor rhythm, but a stylus-generated collision of the three?
At the recent Skratchcon conference in San Francisco, scratch notation was one of the important new topics for discussion among the several hundred participants. Skratchcon‘s organizers gave away copies of the TTM (Turntablist Transcription Methodology), a notation system developed by documentarian John Carluccio, industrial designer Ethan Imboden and DJ Raydawn. Adding to the dialogue were presentations on scratch notation by Montreal’s A-Trak and Arizona‘s Radar.
Up until recently, scratch notation was practically nonexistent. Scratch DJs (a.k.a. ”turntablists“) swapped techniques through live performance or instructional videos, explaining their craft with complicated descriptions of hand movement and timing. However, as scratching has become more complex and compositional, notation advocates claim that a need exists to map scratches out on paper. Carluccio’s TTM, which closely resembles A-Trak‘s system, attempts to visually represent techniques needed to execute scratches. For example, a long, sloping wave represents the movement of a record moving slowly back and forth under the stylus, while sharp, angled lines represent more jabbing cuts.
In contrast, Radar’s notation system, partially captured in a booklet accompanying his new ”Antimatter“ 12-inch single, is based on conventional Western music composition, i.e., the bar staff — though Radar adds ”articulations,“ small symbols denoting hand movement that appear above his extensive score. ”Antimatter“ was initially written three years ago, and Radar‘s notation of it has become the blueprint for a larger ensemble work. ”I’m developing an orchestra piece that centers on the turntable,“ he explains. ”The only way I was able to communicate what I was doing on turntables to my colleagues was by writing it down.“
While neither notation system is particularly intuitive on first glance, the TTM‘s visual representations have struck a chord with DJs who’ve worked out similar systems. According to DJ QBert, one of Skratchcon‘s organizers and a pioneer among turntablists, ”Radar’s notation is a little too complicated for me — you‘d need to take up music, I guess. The TTM is more of the way I see it, and the way I’d try to notate it as well. What would be really cool would be to understand both.“
Radar sees QBert‘s critique of his system’s learning curve as pointing to one of its strengths. A classically trained drummer and a music student at Arizona State University, Radar argues that his system makes scratching understandable to trained musicians who otherwise wouldn‘t understand or appreciate its complexity. In fact, Radar, along with ASU composer Raul Yanez, is working with Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music to develop a scratch-notation handbook. ”It‘s a challenge to me to get people who are older and conservative to understand what we’re doing as artists on turntables, and for them to recognize that it has its place in music history.“
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it‘s because scratching isn’t the first musical form to struggle with notation. The classical-music canon often dismissed various non-Western musics, even jazz, on the premise that their focus on rhythm — rather than harmony or melody — made them impossible to properly notate. Says the University of Virginia‘s Professor Joseph Schloss, currently working on a book about hip-hop music production, ”Notation is the language of privileged art music, and people who want to be taken seriously in that world speak that language.“
While Schloss believes that scratch notation ”can definitely be useful if the notation reflects the way turntablists think about music,“ he’s quick to argue that ”as far as using Western notation, that‘s just ridiculous. That notation was created to represent the aesthetic values of a musical form that is very different from hip-hop. You basically end up arguing that Mozart would have dug turntablism. My question is, Who cares?“
Carluccio raises a concern about how transcription might threaten the human element that’s ingrained in scratching‘s historical development. Noting that ”all technology replaces a human function,“ Carluccio wonders whether notation of scratching is going to ”replace the human function of how to compose a routine without [notation].“ Finding the silver lining in his own cloud, he points out that no transcription system, not even the TTM, ”can teach style. It’s a tool and it allows you to re-create something, but re-creating something needs a person, and the way a person handles his or her instrument is always going to be something different.“
QBert concurs: ”Style in the sense of rhythm can probably be put on paper, but style as in your own personal soul, that may be a little harder.“#
For more information on the TTM, visit www.battlesounds. comttm. Radar‘s ”Antimatter“ (and its notated score) is available on Om Records. A-Trak and Radar’s Skratchcon presentations can be found online at www.skratchcon.com.