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Christian Marclay recently got a lot of attention for "The Clock," a 24-hour video montage splicing together thousands of pieces of cinematic timekeeping imagery. Some might remember ducking into the installation at Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea for a minute or two. Others might recall watching the hours pass by as the installation accurately kept the time.
But Marclay's groundbreaking work with turntables put him on the map. He used records he'd found at thrift stores to create his first sonic collages in 1979; he'd modify the vinyl itself to give the scratches, pops, and crackles of the beat-up records' surfaces equal—if not more—sonic emphasis to the recorded material. Instead of scratching with two turntables like his hip-hop brethren, Marclay would set up multiple turntables that would play records at the same time. Sometimes he would hold one record in his hand and run it across the needle in different directions, sometimes riding the grooves, sometimes tearing across them.
Now that "The Clock" has run out, Marclay is returning to records and collaborating live with guitarist/turntablist Otomo Yoshihide at the Japan Society this weekend.
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"A live concert feels good because it is so immediate," Marclay points out via e-mail from Japan. "You show up for the gig, and you just do it. Making 'The Clock' required sitting in front of a computer every day for three years before I could experience the result. A live improvised performance allows you to get instant feedback, not just from the players, but also the audience."
Marclay's early audio work announced the arrival of turntables as instruments in avant-garde and improv circles. He worked with the likes of Laurie Anderson, the Fluxus group, Sonic Youth, John Zorn, and Elliott Sharp. "I started using records because I did not know how to play an instrument," Marclay says. "It was also a way to react to the recording industry, to be critical of the transformation of music into a commodity."
In his work, though, Marclay makes both music and commodities from the records he uses. He'll literally cut records up and reassemble them so that his turntables' needles will track across the reassembled pieces. The result sounds like a broadcast breaking up or a rhythmically bad cell phone connection and looks striking enough to be displayed at museums. In 2009, Marclay installed "2822 Records" at P.S.1. The installation invited visitors to the Long Island City museum to walk on records that had been affixed to the museum's floor.
Neither Marclay nor Yoshihide knows what is going to happen when they take the Japan Society stage, but they do share some history. Marclay first met Yoshihide in 1986 during a tour of Japan with vocalist and percussionist David Moss; Yoshihide helped them set up some concerts. This led to them collaborating in the '90s, and eventually they released Duo (Asphodel) in 1999.
"I consider Christian to be the pioneer of bringing the idea of 'collage' into improvisation music performance," Yoshihide says. "For me, there was a period of time when I thought that whatever I do would have a trace of Christian Marclay, and that whatever I do Christian had already done. However, after many years, my approach to the turntable is no longer a 'collage,' but to use the turntable as a machine to create sound."
Technically speaking, this performance is Yoshihide's gig. Japan Society artistic director Yoko Shioya first began talking to him about performing in 2007; it was then that she saw "Without Records," an installation in which needles dragged over turntables that had no vinyl on them. The piece was a tribute to Marclay's 1985 Record Without a Cover—an album sold with no cover or jacket, so it's not protected from the elements when not being played. When Marclay's name came up, it was a full-circle moment.
But the history will mean nothing when the two hit the stage. Yoshihide claims that he doesn't put any thought into the nature of their collaboration. Marclay, for his part, is just as inscrutable. That mystery is crucial to the appeal of this endeavor, for the artists and the audience.
"You have to forget about plans when you improvise," Marclay explains. "One needs to stay open to what is going on and accept the moment. When improvising, one should forget about everything, while at the same time remember everything. It's a balancing act with no safety net."
Christian Marclay and Otomo Yoshihide perform at the Japan Society on November 19