John Cage once said, “…music instructs us, that the uses of things, if they are meaningful, are creative; therefore the only lively thing that will happen with a record, is, if somehow you could use it to make something which it isn’t.” (quoted in Block & Glasmeier, 1989, p. 73). As much as any legitimate Hip-hop turntablist, Christian Marclay has made a career of repurposing vinyl records. Exhibits that include rearranging record cover art into new pieces, lining a gallery floor with records for patrons to walk upon (and then playing those trampled records later), and of course manipulating records on turntables to create new sound collages have all been parts of his extensive body of work.
The punk movement was a liberating influence, with its energy, its non-conformism, its very loud volume of sound. Its amateurish, improvised side gave me the courage to make music without ever having studied it — Christian Marclay (quoted in Szendy, 2000, p. 89).
Like two of his more obvious forebears, John Cage and Brian Eno, Marclay is more artist than musician. Hew told Kim Gordon (2005), “I went to art school, not to music school. I don’t think like a musician” (p. 10). To wit, he’s worked in many other media besides sound. Readymades, collages, video, and performances all find their way into his work. “The more I worked with records,” Marclay told Alan Licht (2003), “the more I realized the potential of all the sounds generated with just a turntable and a record and started to appreciate all thes eunwanted sounds that were traditionally rejected: skipping, clicks and pops, all this stuff that people didn’t want. I started using these sounds for their musical quality and doing all kinds of aggressive, destructive stuff to the records for the purpose of creating new music” (p. 89).
In On & By Christian Marclay, edited by Jean-Pierre Criqui (MIT Press, 2014), Marclay adds, “I try to make people aware of these imperfections, and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion; the scratch on the record is more real” (p. 42). He questions each medium itself in terms of itself. One of the most extensive explorations of his work, On & By Christian Marclay boasts pieces by Douglas Kahn, David Toop, Zadie Smith, and Roalind Kraus, among many others, as well as several artist statements and interviews with Marclay himself. It’s as good a place as any to start and an essential text for anyone already familiar.
Borrowing term “telegramophony” from Derrida (1987, p. 90), Peter Szendy writes of Marclay’s Telephones (1995), “The fact remains that Christian Marclay does not reject this ghostly, phantasmal telegramophony. He plays with it, trifles with it, turns it into the tacked-on plot of his story/ies. Of his stories without a story, abstract like the color charts of memory, but each time concretely arresting like a call that cannot be delayed” (p. 115). Marclay uses the broken metaphor, “Memory is our own recording device” (quoted in Khazam, 2000, p. 31), but his works can be seen as montages of broken metaphors. There seems to be something damaged or at least slightly off about the connections he makes and breaks. “For a fragment of the past to be able to be touched by the present,” wrote Walter Benjamin (1999), “there must be no continuity between them” (p. 470). This temporal discontinuity and its interstitial ghosts are the raw stuff that Marclay works with. Records, tapes, telephones—the fragmented ghosts of history are in there, speaking out and seeking their way out of the threshold.
Is history simply a matter of events that leave behind those things that can be weighed and measured—new institutions, new maps, new rulers, new winners and losers—or is it also the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language?
— Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces
Greil Marcus (1989) describes punk as remaining “suspended in time” (p. 2), an unfinished nihilistic revolution. And just as punk has a dubious relationship with Dada and the Situationist International, so does Marclay. Guy Debord‘s first book, Mémoires (1959), was bound in sandpaper to wreck the books filed next to it on the shelf. Noise-punk band White‘s “Life on the Ranch of Elizabeth Clare Prophet” 7″ record (1996) came bound in a self-destructive sandpaper sleeve. Christian Marclay released Record Without a Cover (1985/1999), which is just what its name implies, with the same thought in mind: This record will sound different every time you play it. Its slow decay will become a part of its performance. Leaving the record unsleeved and unprotected was an act of creative destruction.
“The loss of control in music is actually what interests me the most,” Marclay tells Russell Ferguson (Criqui, 2014), “The struggle between control and loss of control is so much the core of improvised music. Many artists have been interested in that threshold between determinacy and indeterminacy, and not just John Cage, but also Duchamp, Pollock, Burroughs, and others” (p. 76).
The exploration of the land between those lines now belongs to Christian Marclay.
Here’s Marclay live on the October 29, 1989 episode of the short-lived music television show Night Music:
Benjamin, Walter. (1999). The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Block, Ursula & Glasmeier, Michael. (1989). Broken Music: Artists’ Recordworks. Berlin, Germany: Berliner Kunstlerprogramm des DAAD.
Criqui, Jean-Pierre. (2014). On & By Christian Marclay. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Debord, Guy. (1959). Mémoires. France: Allia.
Gordon, Kim. (2005). Interview with Christian Marclay. In Christian Marclay (pp. 6-21). New York: Phaidon Press.
Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 4.
Szendy, Peter. (2007). Christian Marclay on the Phone. In RE:Play. Zurich: jrp/ringier.
Szendy, Peter. (2000). Le son en Image. L’Ecoute. Paris: Ircam/L’Harmattan.