Das Interview mit Christian Marclay fand am 27. Januar 2008 in der Lobby des Ibis-Hotels am Berliner Ostbahnhof statt. Gegenstand des Gesprächs sind die musikalischen Arbeiten Marclays und die bevorstehende Aufführung von tabula rasa gemeinsam mit Florian Kaufmann im Rahmen des Club Transmediale.
Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein
I am not sure if I should address you as a turntablist, considering the fact that you are focussed much more on the medium itself, the vinyl, whereas most turntablists are interested in the grammar of the instrument. And the grammar, of course, plays a role when you pĺay the turntable. But I would say that that is not really your focus. If I were to say that you are more interested in content, would you agree?
When you say grammar of the turntable: for me, that is an instrument. But the record is also an instrument.
Would you then say that the record also has a grammar?
Yes. I would say, very much so. I mean, they need each other. It is hard to separate them. A record without a turntable is quiet. Though I have been able to make sounds and I even made a piece, it is called Record Players, and it doesn't have any record players, only people handling, manipulating, scratching with their nails, breaking records, making sounds, acoustic sounds with the record. But yeah, the record and the turntable are hard to separate. Though it seems like, you know, you can also work with the turntable by itself and not use records, which a lot of people are doing now, and I think Otomo Yoshihide does a lot of that and Martin Tetreault in Canada also seems to be doing some of that stuff. I haven't seen them live in a long time. And part of the project I am doing here will have an element where I use a turntable, because the premise for this performance, for tabula rasa is that I don't use prerecorded music. I don't use records, LPs that are ready-mades, but I am starting with nothing. But nothing isn't really the word, because I start with the turntable. So there is, I have to create a grammar, a vocabulary using the turntable, and I start the performance by making sounds just using the turntable. Which then are recorded by Florian and then put on a disk, which he hands me and then I start, or I continue rather. So it is more about the turntable in a way, but it is hard to dissociate, because once I have a sound that it recorded, then I use it. But there is this interesting meshing of the two. So the turntable becomes the record, and the record gets manipulated and goes back into this loop system basically. But so if there is a tabula rasa it is the turntable, the empty turntable.
Or the empty disc?
Well, I see it more from the point of view: I am in front of the turntable. Florian maybe will tell you that it is about the empty disc. But his role is to put the sounds onto the record. During the process he does make modification with EQ-ing and effects. So he doesn't give me a pure translation of what I am doing. So there is a slight modification already there. So this looping becomes a duet. But you know, the cutting lathe is the negative of the turntable, you know, it does the opposite. It is like a mirror image or something like that. And again, there is no record, no turntable without a lace. So, you know, there is all these metaphors, and of course you make a mother based on the lacquer, so there is this kind of origin. But it is very much caught into this repetition. So it reflects the nature of the recording. Which is all about repetition.
The interest in starting from scratch, from nothing. This is something new in your work? Before you were dealing with the patina of the aged. So would you consider this to be a paradigh shift, a new way of thinking?
No, I think for me this is the project that I find the most interesting right now. For different reasons. I mean, I did use found, ready-made records that are prerecorded and it was very much about the medium of the recording, but also what is recorded on these records, about the content. And often I would quote in a way. This is more about the technology. And it is also very challenging as a performance. Because I can't rely on the recording. I can't say, OK, I will play a little bit of this, while I try to get my things going. It is very improvisatory. It is very hesitant. It is a struggle for me. And it really puts me in a position, uncomfortable, dangerous, you know, you are in front of an audience, you have to do something. So there is this tension. You want to make interesting sounds and in the end make an interesting concert, without being purely demonstrative. Because there is that danger in the process that I just show the process. But I have to go beyond that. Also for me it is a reaction, you know, I have been DJ-ing for many years, I don't find records to be very relevant today. When I started making this music with records, people listened to music with records. So it was the medium of choice, it was the medium that made sense. And it was also a very fragile medium, that people understood. They understood its fragility. You had to handle the record carefully, that you had to dust to make sure that no dust was on it, and a scratch was taboo. So I was playing a lot with these conventions and these habits and disrupting that order. And embracing all these accidents and damages and the fragility of the record. So it made more sense. Today everything is digital. Recordings have a very nostalgic quality, vinyl. Even though there is always young people rediscovering vinyl, but for me it doesn't have the same impact, that I could have when I would brake a record on stage and get a "oh!" reaction. Now it is like "oh yeah". It is just like breaking a guitar on stage. It has no more meaning. It is just a ritual. And there are so many DJs and a lot of them do interesting things. So I let them do that. I am more interested in doing other things. I am more interested in finding other ways to make music. But it is not necessarily a revolutionary idea. I am just interested in the challenge, this kind of simplicity in the medium and really kind of addressing the whole process of recording and playback and putting it in one system. So you know, the other aspect of this project is, that it is very hard to travel with. Because the lathe is so big and so heavy and so costly to travel with, so Florian, who lives in Switzerland, drove to Berlin. Last year we did it in Japan and he put together a small cutting lathe. But still it was a nightmare and it took month for his machine to come back, and it is also very fragile. So it is not an easy thing to do. Just technically. So we do it but not so often. And that also keeps it fresh for me. I don't feel the need to DJ or do the kind of music that I did. The only problem is that it is the only instrument that I know how to play. So it is kind of sad to see it become outmoded and obsolete and lose its kind of impact. But I still make things in the recording studio, but then I don't have to stick to the turntable. You can use all kinds of digital editing tools. So I am still working on recordings and things. But I try to find ways of creating music. But I am more interested in the situation in which music can happen. Creating environments or creating social situations in which music can develop. So i have been sort of interested in this score idea. Even though I don't write music, I can't read music, but I am trying to find visual ways to translate to the musicians an idea or a possibility of sound. And these projects are very open. No two interpretations is going to be the same. So it is more of a graphic score. And actually the first one that I did came out of Berlin. A graffiti composition, which I did in 96 I think and which then became a score which now some people have interpreted. And I like this kind of openness, and the fact that other people are performing and it is not my show. I step out of the picture and I can listen, which is nice. And so I have lately been doing other experiments like that and also using video as a way to convey information to performers.
The video as a score?
The video as a score. Yeah.
The video telling the musicians what you intend them to do in order to perform the piece?
They are very open. So I call them video score, and the audience and the musician see the same thing. Which is also interesting in making the score something public rather then something that is only for the musicians that the public is not privileged to see. Grafitti composition, even though it is a visual score, stays for the musicians, it is not for the audience necessarily to see. But it interesting to see what triggers the sound, and to see musicians struggling with what they are looking at and understanding a little bit about the process. But this also creates this nice tension between what the audience thinks they might do or should do and, I don't know, it is this interesting tension between the score and the music. The audience participates in that struggle. Though the one piece that I referring to is calles Screen Play. And the musicians are invited to rehearse the music and not just improvise. Of course, they end up improvising, because it is not structured, it is structured in time. There is sometimes indications maybe to pitches. But it is more the power of the image, of film image, because it is all black and white film images, that come from all kinds of films, from documentaries, from fragments of Hollywood films, and then on top of it I have a layer of graphic signs, which are very free and can be interpreted any way you want. But mainly it structures the piece in time, a lot of graphic functions as sort of clocks, you know. Giving you a sense of time and indicating when something is going to change or when there is a possibility for change.
Does the audience see the footage?
So it is a little like film music?
Yes, it becomes like a score, and the way I have been enjoying presenting it, it is half hour, the length of the movie, and I present it three times in one evening with three different groups. Yeah, the audience sees the film. But you see it three times with different sounds attached to them. And you become aware of how the music affects the image. And vice versa, of course. But sometimes you might think that one version is slightly different? Especially if you are not that familiar with the film as a first time viewer, you might think it is faster or slower. And it is interesting to see how the sound really effects the perception of the image. And I had started these ideas with a project that I did around a large glass, Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass, in Philadelphia, for the Relâche Ensemble, they commissioned me to do a new piece and so I paired to icons of Philadelphia. The liberty bell and the Large Glass of Duchamp, which are both cracked and they are both in Philadelphia. And they have no other relationship, besides the fact that they are cracked and in Philadelphia, but of course I found all these relationships, and the video is like the Large Glass, it is two projections, one on top of the other, and that was the basis for this composition for the Relâche Ensemble, and again, they look at the images, the audience looks at it. But this was part of an installation in a museum, so it functions as an exhibition, and sometimes there was live music, and sometimes you didn't know when it would happen and other times it was scheduled. And it is a loop so there is no real duration, so the musicians would play whenever they wanted, leave, and the instruments stayed there. So then i thought of developing this idea more. And then I did Screen Play. So it is finding ways to create an environment or a situation in which music can happen. I mean, that is sort of what I am trying to do. So for me I have this need to be involved with music but less this need to play records on turntables.
I would nonetheless like to ask you about your work as a "DJ". One question would be about the set-up. What is the set-up? How many turntables did you use? What kind of turntables? Did you know beforehand: I am going to use these five records and they are going to stay on the record player? Or was it much more free than that?
Well, the number of turntables that I use vary a lot. It started with a lot of turntables and got kind of smaller and smaller. As much as a lot of turntables seem challenging, in fact, it is a lot more challenging to have only one turntable. And so you are controlling a lot things and you have to keep in mind where the sounds are coming from. Some early performances I had six turntables, I don't even remember, six or eight.
How many arms did you have?
Two, so far. I didn't start growing. But the control of all these layers. It was very much about layering sounds and building atmospheres. As time went by, I reduced the amount of turntables. For a long time I was very comfortable with four. I am using three for this event. But I went from four to two, and I have done a few performances where I use just one. Of course, I use effects and other things so I can capture a sound, keep it going while I am changing the record. Gives me a little more flexibility. But I think it was also a way for me to demonstrate this idea of the mix, right. There being two turntables, which is the most traditional set-up for a DJ, because it comes out of a tradition of using two things or transiting from one to the next. So how do you seamlessly pass from the one music to the other, which is more what the disk-jockey was doing in the club, matching the tempos and trying to make it seamless. Of course, I have never been too interested in seamlessness, more interested in showing the breaks and the rupture and the juxtaposition. So when I started it was very much about skipping records, loops, and showing the source material. Of course, video now allows you to show more of the turntables and the detail of the action, which is something in the 80s that was not really available, or very expensive and definitely not available. These days you can go to a festival and everybody has video projectors and cameras and everything. But really DJ-ing is a micro-activity, it is very small, it all happens between this tiny needle and this little groove, and that is where the eyes should be, that is where the audience should be. And I think in tabula rasa we are using video to demonstrate, to show more what is happening. But in the 80s I used a lot of turntables just to show the process as well as giving me more, it is like a palette of sound. The more colors you have, the more you can do.
Lots of the recordings, the Encore pieces for example, have something quite delirious about them. There is a certain speed, the turning makes you dizzy. This idea of raving, in the way the 18th century used the term, ecstasy and delirium – is that of any importance.
Well maybe more dream and memory. I mean, and especially the record you are mentioning, More Encores, is playing with people's memories of certain sounds, certain composers, certain performers. Because in this album I focus only on one composer at a time, one performer, one interpreter, and use only his or her music for each piece. So you know what you are listening to. The titles are based on it, so if one is called John Cage, that is what I am using. I am only using records by John Cage. Or I am only using records by Chopin. So there is this element of memory. You know what this music sounds like. I am presenting a totally different version of it. Sort of a remix. So there is always this element of memory. You are always trying to hear the original, but it is not quite there. And it is taking you a more delirious trip if you want. And sometimes it really plays with the medium. This kind of looping or off-centering. There is in the sound an understanding of the process. But I think that is very much about a period in time. Because the more you are detached from the daily handling of a record, the less you are going to understand what these sounds mean. So it is very much attached to a certain period. And now there are so many effects, so many things that you can do with visual editing processes, so kind of lose that response. Taking something so familiar as a Chopin record and doing something with it, seems like, you can do it, and people do it wonderfully, like John Oswald, but it is not about the medium of the record. It is about something else.
I know. I have a brother who is 24. I think he wouldn't understand.
So maybe all my work is a failed effort because it dies with its time.
I think not.
But I think there is something to say: things become obsolete, but as much as your 24 year old brother can not understand it the same way you do, he gets something out of it which is completely different, and that I have no understanding of. So I think that is always interesting how things age and the meaning changes over time.
That would probably be also true of a Beethoven symphony.
Beethoven might not recognize his own music.
You mentioned the change of possibilities of making music like that. When you are now making pieces that end up on a CD and you describe performing with turntables as something performative, tactile, is the idea of the performing still alive on the CD? In other words: do you edit it afterwards?
It depends what it is. I would tend to edit it. I don't think performances necessarily translate very well to recording. I think you try to retain the liveness of it. But I have released very little live recordings because of that, because I don't necessarily believe that a good live performance is a good recording. Your attention is very different if you are not participating to the event, if you are not there. Sharing the struggle, because the performer is always struggling to do something and you are more forgiving if you are there, experiencing it first hand, seeing the artist doing the thing, there is a totally different understanding of time. At least for me I feel. And often, once you have it on a recording you have so much distance as a listener to that original moment that you have different criterias to judge this performance. But so that is why I would rather just work in a recording studio and make a piece for a recording, like I am doing right now, I am working with Zeena Parkins on an new CD and we decided to really just work in the studio. And see how long it would take us. And whenever we have time we work on it and it is very much about recording. I mean recording involves recording and all the possibilities of editing. So yeah, for me a live recording is a document. And a record or a CD that you work on can be a recording of this music, that is not necessarily a document only, but addresses the medium sometimes. Like my record without a cover is really a record about records. It doesn't document live performances. It completely addresses the medium with CDs it is a little harder, especially when you use records as sources. It is not ideal.
Have you tried using CDs as sources?
No. Maybe in a recording studio, when I needed a sound I might capture it on a CD or something. But it is just another source for sounds. But no, I mean I have worked with Yasunao Tone who uses skipping CDs. So that has it. That creates that same kind of tension between the playback medium and the tool, the medium, the instrument. But that is a very interesting debate. Recording and live performances. And I think this tabula rasa project addresses this a little bit, and until we release it as a document, because it will remain a document, it still play on that awkward situation of recording, because it is instant recording, it is instant playback. It is like watching tennis or soccer on television. You get to see the action repeated and repeated and repeated again. It doesn't change.
Only the interesting parts.
Yes. Only the interesting parts.
In slow motion.
I can do slow motion, but I can't guarantee the interesting parts.
You worked with Otomo Yoshihide. You mentioned the studio recording being a studio recording, nonetheless, how can I picture you working in a studio? You are standing with two turntables each and you are battling each other?
We recorded in San Francisco in a recording studio there. Because it was in a recording studio I wanted to take advantage of that situation and really work on it. I think Otomo wanted to get it over with and move on. And I tend to be a little bit of a perfectionist, if I can improve certain things and edit it and make it more interesting I will spend that extra time. Because you have that possibility, because that is what the recording studio offers. But I can't remember how much time we spent working on it, but yeah, we had our turntables set up, and either we played together or I did something and then he added something on top, you know, very much how recording sessions happen. Multitracking. Cutting. Pasting.
A studio situation. You play. You listen.
And also overdubs. This is the CD Moving Parts I did with Otomo. Moving Parts was really done like that. Very much a studio situation for that CD. It retains that live quality in a way. But the studio just offers a lot more possibilities. I think what is interesting about that record is that you don't know who is doing what. And that it the magic of an ensemble of turntable players, because everybody is using the same tool. You know, if you know the style of people, you can recognize and say, OK, unlikely that Otomo would make this trumpet sound or this kind of funny little sound. But a project that, I am still sometimes organizing it, is called djTRIO. Which features three DJs. It is usually myself and two other DJs. And performing together. And it is this idea of the DJ that is not a soloist. Because I very much realize that the whole DJ culture is such a ego trip, it is all about the DJ as a solo artist, basically. And to put the DJ in a group situation forces you to do other things. And you have to listen. A lot of DJs don't listen. They listen to themselves. But to able to create something collectively, and it is hard, because you have to hear yourself in that mix, we are all playing records, so it gets even sometimes confusing for the players, not just for the listeners. Sometimes you think, I am doing that sound, but no, it is someone else. Its very tricky. And I have released some documents of that project. And with DJs like DJ Olive, Toshio Kajiwara, Marina Rosenfeld and Otomo I think is on that CD also. And I basically worked with people who have an affinity for this kind of music. Who do have this openess and are good listeners, which is a very important quality in an improviser. You don't want just good players, you want good listeners.
Of all the people working with turntables, you are the only one who acknowledges hiphop as being important for the development of the turntable. Whenever I ask people working with turntables, that there is Cage on the one hand, hiphop on the other hand, the say, no, neither. Part of it is, that you want to have a genuine way of working with the turntable. But I guess since you have been working with it for so long a time, starting in the 70s, gives you the liberty of acknowledging hiphop as being something that has developed parallel to your own activity. Whereas someone who starts working with turntables in '95 or in 2000 is obviously going to try and restrain themselves from the hiphop DJ. So maybe I can just ask you: Did hiphop have any part in your development as a DJ.
Well, hiphop was brought up to me in the early 80s, where I was kind of ignorant of it. And actually most people were at the time. Because, you know, someone saw what I was doing and said, you know that there is some DJs up in the bronx that are doing similar stuff, so I went up and saw some of it. And you know, I saw the genius in it, and even though the intentions, musical intentions were very different, but this idea of mixing records which I was doing, and you know, I came more from this Cagean tradition or Musique concrete, but that is not a tradition, nobody was talking about it as a tradition, because they were just some experiments, but I was aware of what John Cage was doing and I came to it very accidentally, just because I was interesting in making music, I was interested in punk rock, I was interested in performance art, and I started this duett, which was as much about performance art as it was music, but my collaborator at the time was musically trained and played guitar. And I had no knowledge of playing an instrument. So I thought, how can I make sound and a simple thing came from skipping records, and I saw the potential, the rhythmic potential in that. So I started creating loops as a background for the performance that we did. On top of which I was singing, terribly, but trying to sing. (lacht) I realized that I could bring the turntable on stage and show how these loops were created. And also created this unpredictability. The records are so fragile. And the more you play that loop the more it disintegrates. And I realized that we couldn't really rehearse and spend our time rehearsing, and I had started another band after that, called Mon Ton Son, and I realized we were rehearsing too much, and it so anti to what I was doing with the records. The records didn't have that potential. It is not like a cassette were you play and it is not going to disintegrate. I realized that improvisation was more interesting. And early on John Zorn invited me to participate in his group pieces, and that introduced to me suddenly a totally different world of music. And I started improvising with these musicians and I learned a lot doing that. And trusting improvisation and trusting my limitations. So it became more music and less performance art in a way.
Is there a reason for your affinity to music in the first place? You mentioned also being interested in the sound of a visual work.
Music was always interesting. It was always mysterious in a way, because it didn't have that knowledge and I never studied music, so I was more an outsider being fascinated with it. And I am still fascinated with people who have the skills to play an instrument. But you know I realize that there is a natural need for music, and it is also a nice balance to keep, because it is such a different type of activity, between making visuals and making music. There is something very liberating about music and it is very much about the moment and about the instance, and I can put myself into a state of mind where I am going to play music and then it just happens and it is over. And you feel good while you are doing it. Everything else disappears. You are creating this music and that is all that is counting in that moment. Which is something that keeps me interested. I wished I played more instruments, multi-instrumentalist would be good, but unfortunetaly I am stuck in these record grooves.
One more thing: the model you use when you play. I saw some pictures of very old record players which a huge cartridge.
It is just that they are very practical, very strong, they have four speeds, these turntables, they are called Calliphone, they were made in the 60s and the 70s, they were made mainly for schools for audiovisual presentations. They were meant to be borrowed every day by students and mishandled. So they are nice and sturdy and then I slightly modified them and it is just that I am used to those. They are not as sensitive to movement as a Technics turntable, the classic DJ turntable, wich is hyper-sensitive to any little damage on the groove is amplified. It is just habit. It is just like any player of an instrument. You get used to some things and you like the way it sounds.
And the way it looks?
No. That is not important. I mean some of these I've had since the 70s. It is just that I got them there in Boston at the art school where I was a student. And nobody was using them and eventually they gave them to me. No, it is just they are very dependable, the fact that they have four speeds is very good. No, the way the look, that is just what they look like. I know they look like antiques now, but that is just a question of time. Look at the record. The record looks like an antique already.