Photo by Pablo Sanz Almoguera.
Photo by Pablo Sanz Almoguera.

Christian Marclay began experimenting with turntables as an art student in Boston in the late ’70s. He had no formal music training and no interest in learning how to play a traditional instrument of any kind, but he had been to New York and witnessed the raw energy of the early punk bands performing there. However, instead of reaching for an electric guitar like so many would-be rock ’n’ roll stars before him, Marclay chose as his instrument old, cheap, and unwanted vinyl records that he’d found while digging among the dollar bins of thrift stores. His spinning, scratching, cutting, and splicing of LPs eventually brought the physical spectacle of punk to a new musical realm. This summer the Whitney is hosting a two-month festival featuring a variety of musicians interpreting Marclay’s scores from the past thirty years, which will also be on display throughout the galleries.

Marclay’s work often deals with aural/visual synesthesia, or in his words, “the power of images to evoke sound” (and vice versa). He brings us drumsticks made of glass and fleeting samples of Hollywood orchestra hits that recall colossal dance numbers down golden staircases. Marclay also invented his own instrument: the Phonoguitar, a turntable (of course) worn with a strap about the waist like a guitar. The image of him wearing the instrument brings to mind the archetype of the rock ’n’ roll guitar hero, a phenomenon he also addresses on his album More Encores, which includes a sound collage of Jimi Hendrix records. The “More Encores” track effectively pulls the rug out from under the worship of virtuosity, revealing the source records’ perpetuation of the fetish of technique, abetted by the audience’s cheering; at the same time Marclay seems to be jocularly asserting himself as the Hendrix of the turntable. Marclay originally created the Phonoguitar for purely practical reasons—to avoid being stuck behind a table hunched over his equipment all the time and to get better mobility as he was collaborating with dancers. But look again and he appears like an astronaut gauging the atmosphere of a new planet.

For his “Graffiti Composition,” Marclay pasted up five thousand pieces of blank sheet music all over Berlin. Sometime later he recovered 150 of them and photographed them with all their new anonymous musical notations, tattered and torn sections, and other random markings. Musicians are instructed to make further selections and use them in performance or as inspiration to compose something entirely new. “Graffiti Composition” takes the Cagean idea of indeterminancy out into the streets and puts the composer’s materials into the hands of the anonymous passerby. It is Berlin’s musical self-portrait, instigated and brought to life by Marclay, but authored by the average man or woman on the street.

Marclay’s influences are legion, but positing a direct link to someone like Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, or Fluxus is a disservice to the complexity, innovativeness, and whimsy of Marclay’s work. While his music is highly referential, he tends to avoid politics or polemics and favors humor and playfulness instead. His compositions “Shuffle” and “Ephemera” are drawn from the observation of musical notation found throughout the modern city on store awnings and everyday household objects. In these works Marclay investigates the overlooked semiotics of music, the unspoken language that precedes any acoustic experience. As he puts it, random music notes printed on a T-shirt, for example, don’t simply stand for sounds but also point to some anonymous artist’s (or computer’s?) imaginary promise of music: “They stand for the essence of music, not specific notes…They are [their] kitschy cousins…” Marclay’s musical practice is born out of this sort of engagement with what’s already out there in the material world. His music invites the listener to picture its continued realization in time and space, perhaps visually as well as aurally—hence the use of fragmented samples constantly interrupting each other—and his sculpture invites the viewer to wonder what it might sound like.

Marclay’s own signature turntable sound is drawn from a diverse palette ranging from chintzy, faux-exotica lounge music to big Hollywood musicals to remixes of John Cage. (That’s another track from More Encores.) It is the sound of a constant juggling of genres, moods, instruments, rhythms, and tempos, re-imagining things like movie soundtracks or advertising jingles as fresh creative material, which listeners recognize without being able to recall the exact source. Anyone who grew up watching television in the ’90s or earlier remembers advertisements for compilation records in which about five seconds of a song is played, the title highlighted in yellow on the screen, and then it’s gone. They hook you with ten seconds of the chorus and then that’s it—a list of other titles scroll by forever lost at the bottom of the screen. So many choices, so much history to catch up on, so many hair-metal ballads.


Ben Tripp

BEN TRIPP will be reading his poetry alongside Drew Gardner's Poetics Orchestra this month on Oct. 17, 2015 at the Zinc Bar, as part of the Segue Reading Series. Perhaps you will see this bio in time to attend, or if not...your loss.


JUL-AUG 2010

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