Damn that DJ made my day….
by Andrew Johnson
The great innovation brought about in our present age of the DJ has been the making turntables into instruments: the art of using record players to make records sound unlike themselves, to make them sound like something musically new. For many, the sound of a record being played at the wrong speed (slowed down enough to make, say, Dolly Parton sound like a man, or sped up to the point that Elvis sounds like he’s rapping) is at best novel and at worst irritating. Yet for some those sounds are the exciting raw material for further creation.
From that eureka, which was probably exclaimed in most places record players have been found, the possibilities inherent in manipulating the amplification of needle meeting vinyl being powered by a spinning machine have been known.* With Mike Hansen’s Itch that eureka has been expanded to power of twelve. By giving us twelve turntables that are to be played together, Itch throws both the imperious party-directing DJ and the kid fooling around in her basement into the realm of group improvisation.
In my initial experience of Itch, my friends and I, along with a good-sized crowd for an arty sound event, listened attentively to the difficult music on the program (John Oswald’s A0 and a piece by Paul Dolden), took a short break and returned to find turntables set about the circle of seats. Hansen, playing music director, then told us the simple rules of the game: organize ourselves into groups of two or three and then take turns playing the record on the turntable any which way we please. Our group knew it was our turn to play when the coloured light turned on that corresponded to the coloured centre of our record. The various lights went on randomly, singly and in various combinations, leading to unpredictable ebbs and flows and combinations in the sounds we were making.
With no one in the lead, Itch allows participants to perform performances with no regard to fidelity, with no regard to the usual respect that we give our favourite performer’s recordings (such as playing a song from beginning to end). What we gain is a new awareness that records are merely special collections of organized sound. The records used in Itch play back a layer of dust, hiss and pop, underneath which may be polka music or an earnest narrative about space exploration. By using unfamiliar records that seem to have been rescued from garage sales and Salvation Army stores, Itch gives players licence to not privilege one sound over another or one way of playing over another. The talk amongst the performers, the rough handling of the tone arm, the happy accidents when one snippet of rhythm links up with another all become a significant part of the whole.
When it was my turn to play Itch, I first listened to my own racket, then to everyone else’s and then to how mine was sounding relative to everyone else’s. The result was that a bunch of strangers became a rather rough-around-the-edges band. It is hard not to regard that kind of relationship, one based on listening closely and responding to the other as providing a glimpse, even if it is an earglimpse, of an ideal kind of listening and responding where self-consciousness gives way to play and skill and mastery matter less than spontaneity. Here the openness of listening rather that rather than the surety of direction is what brings about unison.
[*While the great innovators, the likes of Kool DJ Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash and Christian Marclay, need to be acknowledged because they each made us more conscious of what could be done with a turntable, it must be remembered that DJs and DJ culture has a much longer history. For instance, recall that from the early days of the 20th century having a Victrola in the home was important to the status conscious and that the desire to call the tune is probably as old as social music itself.]