Category Archives: Performers

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 13, Grand Wizzard Theodore’s Turntables

 

Two Vestax PDX-2000 turntables

In the years between the invention of the phonograph and the rise of digital audio, aural playback devices were considered to be a one-way form of communication. The media they played back was fixed and finalized, ready for passive consumption. As the inventor of the needle drop, and the primary innovator of “the scratch,” Grand Wizzard Theodore helped to shift this mindset by lifting the stylus out of the entrenched path of the groove—dropping it down on other parts of the record, shifting its direction into reverse and back again, slowing down its motion and speeding it up. Based in part on his innovations, freed from the shackles of a non-responsive medium, DJs could suddenly respond to their live audiences in real-time, and in particular to the body language of dancers, bringing pre-recorded music back into the ebb-and-flow of oral tradition.

Granted, long before the birth of hip hop, there were a handful of avant-garde composers who willfully subverted the “fixed object” status of sound recordings. Seeking to break with tradition, composers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer took recorded artifacts and playback devices (radios, record players, etc.) and tried to turn them into experimental musical instruments. Still, the first wave of hip hop DJs did something unique in comparison. Unlike the avant-gardists, DJs like Grand Wizzard Theodore, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa kept the groove going even after they removed the needle from the groove. Their music was danceable despite being experimental. It flowed even though it was built on rupture. It could be just-as-if-not-more-funky than the source materials it was built on. And it all began with the reinvention of the wheel—that is, the “wheels of steel”, i.e., two turntables placed in mutual musical dialogue. In taking this object out of its familiar “groove” and dropping it into another one, the record player was made amenable to an entirely new cultural and aesthetic matrix.

In the first video below, Theodore demonstrates his needle drop technique, and in the second video, he describes the genesis of the scratch. The origin story of the second video is well-known by now: After his mom reprimanded a young Theodore for playing his music too loud in the house, he stopped the turntable manually and held the record in place. Nudging the record impatiently back and forth with a rapid motion, he waited for his mother to leave the room. The sound that was inadvertently produced led eventually to the distinctive, futuristic-sounding rhythmic and timbral effect of the scratch, a sonic innovation added to the DJ’s arsenal. But it was an innovation achieved on an old and familiar technological device being used to play (for the most part) old records.

Record scratching is now part of the familiar sonic vocabulary not just of hip hop but also of electronic dance music, ranging from big beat anthems to melancholy trip hop tracks, and also mainstream pop hits like Hanson’s “MMMBop” as produced by the Dust Brothers. In taking an object once viewed as the very antithesis of “creative,” with the record player as delivery mechanism for “canned music,” and showing that in the right hands it could be just as flexible and adaptable as a standard musical instrument, a revolution of sorts was begun. And so it’s fitting that scratching itself has been adapted in so many musical settings over the years.

In the book Hop-Hop DJs and the Evolution of Technology, Andre Sirois describes DJ culture as being “founded on the notions that text and technology are manipulable.” When “hip hop DJ culture uses consumption as the starting point for production,” it “create[s] the meanings/uses of texts and hardware rather than accepting what is created by industries.” Through this “manipulation and…re-coding of recorded sound technology,” the DJ “undermines the read-only ideology of sound reproduction encoded into vinyl records and turntables,” an ideology derived “from more than 100 years of standardization and the exploitation of intellectual property rights by corporations” is subverted. There’s an obvious political dimension to this argument, where an object can be used and consumed in a way that undermines the underlying power relations through which it was created, distributed, and sold. But the object, and the conditions of its production, must be bought and “bought into” before this subversion can take place—resulting in a kind of consumerist double-consciousness that may likely have special resonance for many people of color (consider, for example, how the name “Grand Wizzard Theodore” borrows a white supremacist title only to subvert it).

This resonance has been seized upon in hip hop, in particular, when it comes to the turntable-as-object. As the stylus moves across the spiraling groove of the vinyl record, both linear and repetitive, it enacts a form of movement that echoes Black American history, where progress in civil rights has been repeatedly offset by the reincarnation of past travesties, reborn in new guises. On a more mundane level, it also echoes the back-and-forth interplay between consumption and production in hip hop, the disembedding and reembedding of found sounds in the music, the push-and-pull of rhythmic syncopations that define the music and its funky forebears, and the fuzzy line between innovation and repetition that’s at the heart of the creative process. These and other circular structures, movements, and aesthetics have long played a central role across the multiple pillars of hip hop: from call-and-response vocal interplay to the DJ riding the wheels of steel; from looped breakbeats to emcees battling in a cypher; from dancers’ uprocking and downrocking, executing headspins and backspins, to the rounded bubble letters of graffiti artists; and finally, in the very name of hip hop itself (“When you say hip, I say hop!”). There could be no better visual metaphor for all of this than Grand Wizzard Theodore’s turntables—objects than helped spawn a whole new process of music-making, a process rooted in the give-and-take interplay between music-as-artifact and music-as-oral-tradition.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, RILM

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Chang, Jeff. “Needle to the Groove: Snippets from an Omnidirectional History.” In The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker, 116–119. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

The article recounts the accidental invention of “the scratch” by Bronx DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, going on to survey the DJ’s power to conjure alternative worlds of space and time–worlds where sound, not geography or chronology, binds the universe. These worlds, however, are endangered by the culture industry and its ownership (in many cases) of the sonic raw materials used to transform time and space, a claim to ownership that is constantly and creatively subverted by collectors, crate diggers, and DJs.

 

D’Arcangelo, Gideon. “Recycling Music, Answering Back: Toward an Oral Tradition of Electronic Music.” In Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, 55–58. Hamamatsu: NIME, 2004.

This essay outlines a framework for understanding new musical compositions and performances that utilize pre-existing sound recordings. In attempting to articulate why musicians are increasingly using sound recordings in their creative work, the author calls for and shows examples of new performance tools that enable the dynamic use of pre-recorded music such as record scratching and sampling. By using two variable speed turntables connected by a mixer, hip hop DJ began blending recording songs in seamless continuity. Blending and mixing gave way to scratching, or backspinning a record in rhythm. This gave DJs a way to put more of their own musical selves into the playback, featuring their rhythmic skills. Grand Wizzard Theodore is attributed with inventing scratching in 1975. Similar practices emerged concurrently in the New York art world around the same time in the work of conceptual artist Christian Marclay. If recorded sound creates fixed musical experiences that sit in our memory like non-biodegradable plastics, then the digital sampler is a kind of music recycling machine that breaks down, digests and processes these memories for reuse. This points the way to a new form of give and take in creative influence. The sampler has been a first step in re-establishing the process of call and response, familiar from oral traditions, in the all-electronic medium.

 

Jam, Billy. “Creator of the Scratch.” Hip Hop Slam. Accessed August 9, 2019. http://www.hiphopslam.com/articles/int_grandwizardtheo.html

An interview with the hip hop DJ credited with the invention of the scratch. For someone who lives for scratch music, visiting legendary DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore (GWT)–the creator of the scratch–at his Bronx, New York home could only be compared to an Elvis Presley fan making a pilgrimage to Graceland to visit the King of rock ‘n’ roll in his day. Like many of the great pioneers of hip hop that created the genre on these Bronx streets three decades earlier, GWT was not rich from a culture that he helped shape and form. But unlike many of his contemporaries from hip hop’s seminal years, who are embittered by the fact that they live in comparative poverty/obscurity while contemporary “hip hoppers” are making millions off something they created, GWT is not at all bitter. In fact he is a warm and humble man who is gracious to be a part of a cultural movement that he never thought would spread from the streets of the Bronx to every other corner of the world.

 

Katz, Mark. Groove Music: The Art and the Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

It’s all about the scratch in this book about the figure that defined hip hop: the DJ. Today hip hop is a global phenomenon, and the sight and sound of DJs mixing and scratching is familiar in every corner of the world. But hip hop was born in the streets of New York in the 1970s when a handful of teenagers started experimenting with spinning vinyl records on turntables in new ways. Although rapping has become the face of hip hop, for nearly 40 years the DJ has proven the backbone of the culture. Here the author (an amateur DJ himself) delves into the world of the DJ, tracing the art of the turntable from its humble beginnings in the Bronx in the 1970s to its meteoric rise to global phenomenon today. Based on extensive interviews with practicing DJs, historical research, and personal experience, a history of hip hop is presented from the point of view of the people who invented the genre–from the 1970s beginnings of DJ Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore, to 21st-century Concertos for Turntablists and Academies of Scratch. More specifically, the author focuses on what he calls the “performative DJ”: those who not only select recordings but manipulate them in real time for audiences. Interviews are included with figures such as Grand Wizzard Theodore (the man credited with inventing turntable scratching) and DMC-winning turntablist DJ Qbert. DJs step up to discuss a wide range of topics, including the transformation of the turntable from a playback device to an instrument in its own right, the highly charged competitive DJ battles, the game-changing introduction of digital technology, and the complex politics of race and gender in the DJ scene.

 

Sirois, André. Hop-Hop DJs and the Evolution of Technology: Cultural Exchange, Innovation, and Democratization. New York: Peter Lang, 2016. Smith, Sophy. Hip-hop Turntablism, Creativity and Collaboration. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

Armed only with turntables, a mixer, and a pile of records, hip hop DJs and turntable musicians have changed the face of music. However, whilst hip hop has long been recognized as an influential popular culture both culturally and sociologically, hip hop music is rarely taken seriously as an artistic genre. This book values hip hop music as worthy of musicological attention and offers a new approach to its study, focusing on the music itself and providing a new framework to examine not only the musical product, but also the creative process through which it was created. Based on ten years of research among turntablist communities, this is the first book to explore the creative and collaborative processes of groups of DJs working together as hip hop turntable teams. Focusing on a variety of subjects–from the history of turntable experimentation and the development of innovative sound manipulation techniques, to turntable team formation, collective creation and an analysis of team routines–the author examines how turntable teams have developed new ways of composing music, defining characteristics of team routines in both the process and the final artistic product. This author also introduces a new turntable notation system and methodology for the analysis of turntable compositions, covering aspects such as material, manipulation techniques, and structure, while also outlining the impact of individual musicians such as Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Flare, and DJ QBert.

Explore over 120 records on Grand Wizzard Theodore or turntablism in RILM’s catalogue

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Cathy Berberian and pop art

 

In the 1950s and 1960s the musical avant-garde developed a new type of vocal composition that incorporated everyday vocal sounds, such as gestural utterances or expressions of affect, into aesthetic parameters. Cathy Berberian took center stage in this development thanks to the extraordinary range of her vocal capabilities; she inspired numerous composers to write in this emerging style, and was herself engaged in the creative process.

Berberian’s composition Stripsody (1966), a sounding glossary of typical onomatopoeia of comic strips, can be understood as a musical pendant to the paintings of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Her creative process was closely intertwined with input from the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, who was a close friend of Berberian and her former husband, the composer Luciano Berio. Eco encouraged her to create a composition out of her interest for comic onomatopoeia, and he acquainted her with the Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, who created the first visual transformation of her vocal glossary.

The connection to pop art, however, is not restricted to the aesthetic approach; in form and content, Berberian and her Stripsody relate to pop art characteristics on several levels: (1) with her appearance, performances, and image, Berberian stylized herself as a pop icon; (2) with Stripsody, she took exactly the same path that Umberto Eco described in Apocalypse postponed, from avant-garde music through pop art to comic strips; (3) several components of Stripsody allude directly to typical popular themes that can also be found in the works of contemporaneous pop artists; and (4) the work directly quotes comics that enjoyed pop-icon status.

This according to “Musical pop art: Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody (1966)” by Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, an essay included in Music and figurative arts in the twentieth century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016, pp. 150–65).

Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing Stripsody.

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Captain Beefheart’s “Trout mask replica”

 

The release on 16 June 1969 of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Trout mask replica, a double album comprising 28 stream-of-consciousness songs filled with abstract rhythms and guttural bellows, dramatically altered the pop landscape.

Yet even if the album cast its radical vision over the future of music, much of its artistic strength is actually drawn from the past. Beefheart’s incomparable opus, an album that divided (rather than united) a pop audience, is informed by a variety of diverse sources. Trout mask replica is a hybrid of poetic declarations inspired by both Walt Whitman and the beat poets, the field hollers of the Delta Blues, the urban blues of Howlin’ Wolf, the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman.

The album was not so much an arcane specimen of the avant-garde, but rather a defiantly original declaration of the American imagination.

This according to Trout mask replica by Kevin Courrier (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Today is the 50th anniversary of Trout mask replica’s release! Below, a lively and informative introduction to the album.

BONUS: A detailed analysis of Frownland, the album’s first track:

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Benny Goodman goes classical

 

Benny Goodman was only 28 years old when he reached the pinnacle of his career, bringing his big band to Carnegie Hall in January 1938.

Joseph Szigeti, who took an interest in jazz and admired Goodman’s playing for its expressiveness and technical proficiency, was present at that tremendously successful historic concert. That same year, he suggested the idea to Goodman to underwrite a commission for a short concert piece by Bela Bartók for clarinet, violin, and piano, with virtuoso candenzas in the vein of the violin rhapsodies.

Bartók completed the piece in September 1938, and Goodman returned to Carnegie Hall a year after his famous jazz concert with the premiere of two movements of Bartók’s work. The reviews of the sound recording of Contrasts, made during the composer’s visit to the United States in the spring of 1940, were unequivocal in their praise of Goodman’s performance.

This according to “Bartók: Kontrasztok, Benny Goodman és a szabad előadásmód” by Vera Lampert (Magyar zene: Zenetudományi folyóirat LIII/1 [február 2015] pp. 48–65).

Today would have been Goodman’s 110th birthday! Above and below, the 1940 session.

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Maldita Vecindad and activism

 

La Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (usually referred to as Maldita Vecindad, or La Maldita, for short) produces music that is frequently categorized as fusion, due to its blending of rock, ska, reggae, and punk with traditional Mexican styles like danzón and bolero.

Deeply rooted in the working class, Maldita Vecindad is a pioneer of the rock en español movement, and its easily recognizable fusion rock—as well as the pachuco fashions favored by the members—have helped it to become one of the most influential groups of contemporary Mexican rock music.

From the group’s beginnings in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, Maldita Vecindad’s members have drawn on their fame to make their fans more aware of leftist ideas and social causes, including the need for actively participating in relief efforts following the 1985 quake, political campaigns, and raising consciousness about HIV and AIDS. The group’s motto is paz y baile (peace and dance), a perfect combination of social message with ritual.

This according to “Maldita Vecindad, ritual, and memory: Paz y baile” by Lori Oxford, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 355–72).

Below, Maldita Vecindad performs in 2014.

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Girija Devi and ṭhumrī

 

In an interview, the Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi recalled how some performers of khayāl—the dominant North Indian classical tradition—looked down on ṭhumrī, which was considered a light-classical tradition.

“The new khayāl establishment appeared to create a climate of opinion in which the ṭhumrī and its allied genres were regarded as either easy to master, or otherwise inferior.”

“This bothered me immensely, so I decided to match the competence of khayāl vocalists on their home turf, and challenge them to match me on mine. I worked very hard on my khayāl, and performed it more widely and consistently than any other Benares vocalist in recent times. I make it a point to perform a khayal at every concert, and it consumes almost half of the duration of my recital. After that, I perform a few semi-classical pieces.”

“In the khayāl we get to the root of the raga’s melodic personality, and elaborate upon it according to the established presentation format. In the ṭhumrī we get into the emotional depth of the poetry, and express it as musically as we can. I was brought up in a family with a very deep involvement with literature, particularly poetry, so I handle poetry in ṭhumrī with sensitivity.”

Quoted in “Girija Devi: The queen of Benares” by Deepak S. Raja (Sruti 250 [July 2005] pp. 41–50).

Today would have been Girija Devi’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2015; below, performing the ṭhumrī Babul mora in 2014.

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Pete Seeger’s legacy

 

Pete Seeger essentially created the folk revival movement in the United States—carrying on the work of Woody Guthrie and helping to spawn the careers of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others—while also linking this movement to political protest and iconoclasm.

As a result of his anti-war crusading and open Communist leanings, Seeger was a central target of the infamous HUAC witch hunts, and was widely blacklisted and condemned. In the process, however, he ended up inventing the college circuit and becoming the cornerstone of the 1960s folk revolution.

Galvanized by the 1998 tribute album Where have all the flowers gone?, the late 1990s and 2000s saw a reawakening of interest in Seeger’s music and cultural legacy, which included Bruce Springsteen’s album-length We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions.

This according to “Voice of America” by Phil Sutcliffe (Mojo February 2007).

Today would have been Seeger’s 100th birthday! Below, his iconic 1968 broadcast of Waist deep in the Big Muddy; the antiwar song was censored by CBS when he taped it for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, but the following year the network caved to pressure from the show’s hosts and allowed it to be aired.

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Merce Cunningham’s concept of freedom

 

The freedom that Merce Cunningham advocated involved the performer becoming independent mentally, facing himself or herself, and reaching the state of mind of , true freedom achieved by overcoming ego.

Cunningham attempted to discipline the dancer’s body and mind in order to attain this ideal state of mind of at all the phases of his practical activity, by stipulating an environment where the performer must concentrate on his or her own movement—in particular on two elements, the shape of the movement and the energy that serves as its basis.

Cunningham’s concept of freedom did not stay only within the scope of negative concepts, in which freedom and liberty indicate “free from…”, but also connotes a creative and positive meaning, indicated by the Zen word jiyū (free to…).

This according to “Merce Cunningham’s concept of freedom and its philosophical background” by Sako Haruko, an essay included in Proceedings: Society of Dance History Scholars (Stoughton: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2002, pp. 125–28).

Today would have been Cunningham’s 100th birthday! Below, a collaboration with the video artist Nam June Paik.

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Musiri’s moustache

 

The revered Karnatak vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer only acted in one film: Thukkaram (1938), in which he portrayed the 17th-century Hindu poet and saint Tukaram.

The shooting of the film ran into an unusual problem. The hero had to sport a bushy moustache, and in those days makeup materials were crude and even primitive. Moustaches and beards were stuck to the actor’s face with spirit gum, and when the gum dried the skin would burn and pull, the degree of irritation depending on the sensitivity of one’s skin.

Musiri suffered unbearable irritation, and he threatened that he would walk out if he had to endure the suffering any longer. Left with no choice, the producers permitted him to grow his own moustache. The shooting had to be stopped while Musiri waited for his lip hair to grow to the degree of bushiness required by the script.

This according to “Filmsinger in saint’s clothing: Tuka-ram” by Randor Guy (Sruti 176 [May 1999] pp. 35–38).

Today is Musiri’s 120th birthday! Above, a publicity shot for the film.

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André Previn, musical polymath

 

André Previn may well have been the last of the great 20th-century American musical eclectics. He had it all, making a mark on Broadway and in Hollywood, on classical concert stages and in jazz clubs, in pop songs and violin concertos.

He was not a mere dabbler: In every context, he was always plausible, and often inspired. He was also a great popularizer, a figure who, like his idol Leonard Bernstein, suggested that it was possible to know about, and even love, all kinds of music.

When a young Mr. Previn conducted symphony orchestras, he typified the verve and boyish enthusiasm of a pop star; performing lighter fare on television, he carried himself with a rarefied swagger. Even Dizzy Gillespie was a fan. “He has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get,” Gillespie said.

This according to “André Previn: Hear the many facets of a musical polymath” by Zachary Woolfe, et al. (The New York times [online only] 1 March 2019).

Today would have been Previn’s 90th birthday! Above, conducting from the piano in 1965; below, performing Jule Styne’s Just in time in 1961.

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