I first heard of Christian Marclay because of my interest in the more fucked-up aspects of turntable-style mixing — the sound collage of midperiod John Cage, who wrote scores including parts for turntables as early as the 1930s, the musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in Paris and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, and the weird collision that occurred in the ’80s between their progeny and pop culture. This Modernist collage treatment of commercially released vinyl records and tapes as material to be cut and pasted into new art crossed improbably into the mainstream with the advent of hip-hop. Marclay first gained respectability by cutting up records into pie slices and gluing mismatched sections back into a working — in the broadest sense — platter. Shortly after getting his BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art, he began turning up on interesting records using turntables to combine unlikely fragments of pop culture into surprisingly fresh experimental forms, often as part of New York avant-garde impresario John Zorn’s early ensembles.
“I worked with John a lot in the early ’80s — playing his ‘game’ pieces, like COBRA [the regularly performed composition where small groups of improvisers are loosely conducted with cue cards], really discovering improvisation and meeting a lot of musicians,” Marclay told me on a recent visit to L.A. “As an untrained musician, it was amazing to me to be playing with these guys who — y’know, that’s what they did.”
Wouldn’t that be pretty intimidating?
“It was, but they were extremely supportive, because they enjoyed what I was doing. I was sort of the naif — but I brought something to the table that they didn’t have. I learned to trust what I was doing because of their support. It was a real nurturing environment.”
More nurturing than grad school, which he (like Bill Viola and Matthew Barney) managed to avoid. Marclay’s solo improvised mixes also found release, first on experimental compilations, then on his own discs — the criminally out-of-print More Encores, whose tracks featured reworked material by individual artists from Johann Strauss and Maria Callas to Jimi Hendrix and Cage. Sensitive to the potential beauty of the aural palimpsest made up from accumulations of scratches on the surfaces of thrift-store vinyl, in 1985 he issued Record Without a Cover, each copy of which became a more original and less determined work of art over time, recording every physical contact with the world as an audible layer of percussive texture. Alongside such musicians as John Oswald and Negativland, Marclay achieved a portion of quasi-fame as one of a handful of composers straddling the worlds of European avant-garde academic music and street-credible turntable culture.
For some reason I haven’t quite figured out, L.A. seems unusually receptive to the aesthetic legitimacy of turntablism. DJ Spooky recently created a fine interactive project for MOCA’s Web site (Errata Erratum at https://moca.org/museum/digital_gallery.php). Then there’s Turnament, an ambitious two-day summer festival of avant-garde and old-school scratchers (curated by David Cotner of the indispensable Web site hertz-lion.com), which, after numerous delays and lineup changes, was recently canceled — at least as a UCLA Performing Arts event. Cotner is at the time of this writing locating a new venue for the vinyl orgy’s scheduled July 11 kickoff. Marclay, who was at one point scheduled to spin alongside Non and Grandwizzard Theodore at Turnament, will instead be performing three different collaborative concerts as part of the programming for his midcareer art retrospective at the Hammer Museum. You see, all the while that Marclay has been spinning, he has also been racking up an impressive track record in the visual arts.
In spite of his pursuit of both sound and vision, resulting in mutually exclusive audiences, there’s no clear division between the two. Marclay’s visual artworks merely extend his treatment of sound and recordings as material further into the three-dimensional world and popular culture. He has assembled record covers so that the image on one connects to the next, resulting in Jim Morrison’s torso sprouting the arms of Diana Ross and Cat Stevens, or a guitar neck stretching priapically across eight octaves. He has set a reel-to-reel deck — minus the second reel — on top of a ladder (Tape Fall, 1989), and fed it an unending stream of magnetic tape that tumbles down in massive clots, spewing its signal (the sound of trickling water) into the void. He’s created numerous crowd-pleasing Surrealist mutations of musical instruments, grafting — for example — an enormous extended bellows into a Titano accordion, transforming it into an even more unwieldy monster (Virtuoso, 2000). He’s modified stereo speakers, crocheted the collected works of the Beatles (on tape) into a pillow, cast 750 mute replicas of a phone receiver in hydrostone, and dubbed the soundtrack of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out over the video of its inspiration, Antonioni’s Blowup — creating an out-of-phase meditation on the gap between auditory and optical methods of recording experience. (His Up & Out screens at the Hammer on July 10.)
“I’ve always been fascinated by the way sound gets visualized through objects like records — some people have claimed they can actually read the music just by looking at the groove,” said Marclay, flipping through the rough draft of his catalog. “In something like Candle , a phonograph horn — which is a way to project the sound — becomes the mold for an object which is an actual candle with a wick. Potentially you could light it, and it would disappear. So it’s dealing with this idea of sound as being ephemeral. With recordings we always try to trap sound, to catch it, keep it and preserve it. Which in the early days was done with wax.”
The literalist poetics of some of these pieces have disturbed some critics. But even skeptics who have dismissed Marclay’s work as one-liners couldn’t fail to be won over by his latest major work, the four-screen DVD projection Video Quartet, which is like nothing you’ve seen before: a video installation piece assembled from hundreds of fragments of Hollywood films, all showing the creation of some kind of sound — mostly music. At one point you’re able to witness Glenn Gould, Thelonious Monk and Groucho Marx simultaneously tinkling the ivories. Elsewhere, Michael J. Fox’s poorly received time-warped appropriation of Chuck Berry from Back to the Future segues into the “Dueling Banjos” sequence from Deliverance. Sinatra whistles, the Phantom of the Paradise screams, Pa Kettle sounds the jalopy horn, and quadruple Maria Callases hit the high C’s.
While this barrage of imagery is pretty sensational in and of itself, what makes V.Q. truly remarkable is that its organizing principle seems not to have been the numerous visual thematic synchronicities apparent in the array of imagery, but the soundtrack that results. With your eyes closed, Video Quartet is a masterful example of dizzy, dazzling aural pastiches made from hundreds of meticulous edits and only feasible in the era of digital technology. With your eyes open, it’s an entirely new order of entertainment, and a fleeting burst of fecundity that places Marclay’s more elegiac contemplations of ephemerality in a less bleak light. And you can dance to it.
CHRISTIAN MARCLAY | At UCLA HAMMER, 10899 Wilshire Blvd. | June 1–August 31