The Record as Secular Icon


The increasing importance of records within popular culture has undoubtedly contributed to the interest that they have held for modern artists. They are, indeed, icons of the twentieth century, representing the pop stars that are worshipped. This is particularly true for the current generation of young artists so overtly influenced by the media.

At the beginning of the century, too, there was a considerable interest in records, if not fetishization of them. As early as 1925, artists developed an interest in records as objects. In 1922, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy advocated the use of phonograph records for purposes of production as well as reproduction. By this he meant that rather than simply using records to transcribe audio material from the ‘real’ world, they be manipulated manually to produce original as well as mimetic sounds. The following year, Moholy-Nagy elaborated on this proposal suggesting that conventional records be examined to determine what types of grooves make what types of sounds so that a phonetic groove-script alphabet could be established:

Since the grooves on the mechanically produced record are microscopic in size, we shall first have to devise a method for reducing by technological means down to the normal size of a present-day record any large-scale groove-script record that can be conveniently worked by hand. It would be desirable to make a photograph of a present-day (reproductive) record and to make a photo-clich6 or photo-engraving of the photograph by a zincographical or galvanoplastical process. Should such a record prove to be just more or less playable, the basis for subsequent work along these lines will be established.

By 1963, Czechoslovakian artist Milan Knizak had realized direct manipulation of records, but not quite as Moholy-Nagy had intended. Knizak created his Destroyed Music series by altering popular records: scratching, burning, cutting, gluing and applying adhesive tape to them. Some scratches created endless loops, with the stylus remaining stuck in one damaged groove. Other objects were reassembled from broken pieces of several different records. Knizak considers this work to be musical composition. They were intended to be played.

The idea of damaging records was manifested in a number of other works at this time, and continues today. New York artist Christian Marclay employs some of these same techniques to create his altered discs, but with more specific intention in terms of the resulting sound. In his performances, Marclay spins up to eight altered records simultaneously on individual turn-tables. He composes with several piles of records that he prepares and sorts in advance, thus knowing from what pile to select a disc for a desired effect at any time during the performance. The individual records are notated with stickers that identify specific passages and are sometimes applied to create loops. He drops the needle on to the record after the first of two stickers and when it hits the second it jumps back to the first and repeats. Sometimes the records are played at non-standard speeds. Into other records, he drills additional centre holes (off-axis), creating a wobbly effect. His Record Without a Cover is a recording of one of these performances. The studio performance is pressed onto one side of the disc. On the other, embossed lettering instructs the owner not to store the record in a protective sleeve. The scratches that result from handling enhance the quality of the sound and make each copy unique.

Marclay also makes unique objects. Cutting intricate patterns out of several records with ajeweller’s saw, he then glues the different pieces back together to construct a collaged disc. His Dialogue LP with Two Profiles, for example, fuses two profiles of faces cut from black vinyl spoken word discs onto an orange musical disc. As the record spins, music plays until the needle pops at the splice and a voice speaks when the needle passes over the black vinyl figure. The cycle then repeats, resulting in a conversation between the two figures. Other pieces use geometric designs and discs with different content. The splices in all of these records create pops that become rhythmic elements of the total piece.

San Fransisco performer Boyd Rice comes out of the punk movement of the late 1970s. Since 1977 he has released several altered recordings. Early pieces were made on tape, splicing pieces of different recordings together. One consists of every recording of Lesley Gore singing the word ‘cry.’ Later records utilized off-axis holes and instructed the listener to play ‘at any speed.’ Still other records include several sound-tracks of endless loops pressed deliberately into the record that endlessly repeat short sound effects. Listeners are encouraged to listen to these closed grooves as songs.

Boston composer Roger Miller (not the country and western singer) emerged from the new wave band, Mission of Burma. His Pop Record is an acetate pressing (used for test pressings of commercial records and not a stable enough process to withstand more than a few plays before deteriorating) on which he assembled the scratchy sounds from in-between songs of his favourite records. As the record of these ‘pops’ is played, new pops are quickly created. A protective cover becomes irrelevant because playing it actually destroys it. It is certainly not a pop record in the generally held sense of that term. As extreme as Miller’s brand of pop seems to us today, it has its precedence in Marinetti’s use of radio static in 1933.

The ideas in the air at the beginning of the century are still very much present in the work of many contemporary artists. Performance artists still use records to preserve their work. Pop artists have realized and extended the notion of concrete composition that Marinetti and his contemporaries began. In the streets of Baku, the cabarets of Zurich and Berlin and the auditoriums of Paris and Milan, artists of the early twentieth century turned music, as it had once been known, on its head. Speech became abstract and music became concrete. And today a generation of art students has seized that once sacred and magical phonograph record and profaned it to the point that the line between the fine art and popular practice of record-making is as tenuous as the grooves of Miller’s record.

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