“We are the Cartridge Family!” exclaimed an enthusiastic Martin Tétreault to a hall filled to the rafters with vinyl devotees. In the wake of Christian Marclay and Invisibl Skratch Piklz, it has become commoaly accepted that turntables are instruments for generating music as well as the hi-fi connoisseur’s playback machine of choice. Yet tonight’s concert, organised by the Contemporary Music Network, was the first experimental turntable meeting to hit London on a large scale. Curated and conducted by Québécois sound/installation artist Tétreault, Turntable Hell assembled eight musicians into a turntable orchestra: vinyl wrecker Paul Hood, Improv drummer and LMC stalwart Steve Noble, muiti-instrumentalist and general non-conformist Lepke B, composer, installation artist and Sheer Frost Orchestra ringleader Marina Rosenfeld, triphonic turntable inventor Janek Schaefer, Sydney based electronic artist Martin Ng, and, last but not least, Otomo Yoshihide, noise maestro and turntable thrasher par excellence.
Expecting to see a series of solo sets with the possibility of a jam at the end, it was surprising to be confronted with a stage full of turntable tinkerers hunched over their tools. The first half was taken up with a single, loosely held together abstract piece. Starting as a drone of vinylderived whirrs and hums, it eventually peaked into a scratch frenzy before relapsing into near silence. The second half featured a series of shorter pieces, each directed by a single performer who would cue in the other musicians according to the piece’s requirements, thus enforcing more of a group dynamic. Tetréault’s Pass The Loop was like a game of Chinese whispers: as the loops passed through different performer’s hands, they developed into a cacophonous murmur of spinning vinyl. Rosenfeld’s bouncy and frenetic Evil Twin was the soundtrack for Tom & Jerry in hell. Traces of original music from the source vinyl occasionally bubbled to the surface, like repressed children out to create mayhem before the sound controller’s strict regiment brought them back down to a melancholy purr.
In contrast to laptops or electronic boxes, where the source of their multylayered output is difflcult to identify, the simple, unadorned turntable renders the sound source transparent for the audience, especially when cameras are positioned above each turntable as they were tonight. Multimedia artist Ben Drew controlled these real-time visuals, fading between close-ups of performers’ actions and more abstract imagery. The constant broadcast of the musicians’ hand movements made for a literal experience, shifting the emphasis from the poetic to the mechanics of the performance. An orchestra consisting only of one (relatively unusual) type of instrument tends to underline its novelty value rather than the music it produces. Much like the Pure release The End Of Vinyl (Mego), which consists of runout grooves of various vinyl records, the production method and sound source threaten to become more important than the music itself.
By the end of the show, the stage looked like a radio theatre studio filled with engineers rustling around feverishly for the appropriate noise: bneathing into microphones, cartndges drumming on the turning plate, bowing vinyl. Even so, the music stayed on the polite side. After an evening of scratching, it was left to Otomo to ease the audience’s itch with a surge of raw noise. Breaking ranks with the politely seated performers and audience, he plunged the night into chaos. Holding the turntable against his waist like a guitar, he shook the turntable arm like a whammy bar in a desperate hunt for crushing feedback, before smashing down his instrument and slapping his handshell suitcase or top of it as he left the stage. It was a refreshing gesture at the end of a night dominated by too much well tempered turntable, with too little roon for the individual, energetic, Tourette-like outbursts that make improv such a spontaneous and exhilarating music.