© Kasper Vang
Peer-reviewed article

Turntable Materialities

This article argues that as historic avant-gardes made visible the destruction of art, so modified records attempt to make audible the destruction of sound.
15. november 2017
Fokus: Sound Art Matters
  DOI https://doi.org/10.48233/seismograf1908


This article considers a history of electroacoustic music from the perspective of modified vinyl records, one of the media through which it has been disseminated and heard. It is argued that the physical alteration of 12” and 7” records attempts to make the materiality of the medium audible, and interrupts the otherwise seamless commerce of music that relies on a functional commodity. By interfering with the flow of music and noise, some of these initiatives show commitment to a negative engagement with sound, whereby its ready appreciation and interpretation are halted in favour of detours, complications, misinformation and uncertainty. These approaches are discussed in relation to the history of the evolving technologies of record production, where it can be seen that experimentation with material properties has been inherent to shellac and vinyl manufacturing.

These strategies of negation develop as legacies of early twentieth-century historical avant-gardes, which themselves find epistemological and procedural precedent in philosophies of refusal that initiate with Diderot, Hegel and Nietzsche, amongst other writers. The argument is made that as historic avant-gardes made visible the destruction of art, so modified records attempt to make audible the destruction of sound.

Making music bad 

The world is fuller than ever with bad music, confirming the fears of Arthur Sullivan,after hearing Thomas Edison’s first wax cylinders and recording his response at a dinner party on October 5th, 1888. In his celebrated address, Sullivan effusively compliments Edison’s invention. Conforming perhaps to the pattern of after-dinner bonhomie, Sullivan remarks that his host may have drunk excessively, and then makes a joke about just how much appalling music will now be ineradicably recorded. The possibility of high-fidelity and digital sound greatly shifts the criteria by which we evaluate audio quality; and yet from the earliest recordings there is clearly awareness of relative good and bad sound, as manufacturers continually experiment with different materials from which to produce something playable. Whereas Alexander Graham Bell’s wax cylinders deteriorate after about thirty plays, Edison is after something more durable, and develops the Blue Amberol in 1908. Comprised of a plaster core coated in plastic celluloid this sounds better and runs for longer than Bell’s cylinders. For reasons of sound quality, Edison holds off from making flat records until he can produce the better-sounding Diamond Disc in 1912, named after the stylus required to play it. The history of subsequent record manufacturing is, predictably enough, determined by factors of cost and material availability. Compromised sound quality, bad music of another category, is an intrinsic concern of commercial innovations with record manufacturing materials. 

Musicians’, rather than manufacturers’, earliest experiments with records show a curiosity for the qualities of recorded sound affected by the material. Where their initiatives use the materiality of records as a variation on the conventions of concert performances and conveyance of musical sound, more recent sound artists and musicians see the vinyl record as a tool to impede sound reception altogether, effectively using it to engage in a negating action. The intensity of this negation may vary from ludic to annihilatory, but in all cases the gesture challenges accepted practices of production and reception, in order to create possibilities for the previously unheard and unthought. 

Although the practice has intensified in the last forty years, musicians have been experimenting with records and gramophones as performing instruments since the early 20th century. There is an account by Mark Katz of Paul Hindemith’s and Ernest Toch’s performances at the 1930 Neue Musik Berlin festival, where records were played simultaneously with live music, their pitch and timbre altered by speed variation. At the time, Toch explained the motivation behind these performances as a wish to reevaluate the gramophone’s application ‘by exploiting the peculiarities of its function and by analyzing its formerly unrealized possibilities…thereby changing the machine’s function and creating a characteristic music of its own’ (Katz, 2010, p. 112). John Cage was in attendance, and had been struck by Toch’s innovations. We might speculate on the stimulus this gave him to push use of the record player to a new threshold as an instrument, freeing it from the roles its manufacture prescribed. 

While repurposing record players and questioning the conventions limiting performance instruments, Hindemith and Toch are intent on making canonically acceptable, if unusual, music. Stefan Wolpe’s 1920 Berlin action with eight Victrola gramophones playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at different speeds is recognized as a vituperative Dadaist sonic assault, the conversion of a nationally affirmative anthem into bad music, and characteristically directed against German institutions. Most likely unfamiliar with Wolpe’s action, Cage nevertheless moves towards a practice of institutional subversion with his experiments using records and turntables in the Imaginary Landscape series that starts in 1939 and ends with ‘No. 5’ in 1952. Rather than modifying the records themselves, Cage alters the record players by swapping the stylus for other sharp items, and by varying the rotation speed. He speaks critically of people treating records as a kind of mobile museum or performance space and feels they should instead be retooled for new compositional functions. In the catalog for a comprehensive exhibition of artists’ records at Berlin’s daadgalerie in 1989, Hans Rudolf Zeller writes of Cage’s initiatives that: ‘Perhaps within that lies one of the roots of the 20th-century development, collage procedure: that every action which negates alienated objects, frozen actions which, as it were, have come to rest, does so by means of an act of liberation: by disassembling them, and combining parts of the material anew’ (Block and Glasmeier, 1989, p. 73). ‘Imaginary Landscape No. 5’ enacts this negation of the purpose of records most comprehensively. Cage records two versions, sampling from forty-two respective selections of jazz and classical records where the sequence and duration of samples is determined using chance procedures. To grasp the force of this repudiation, it’s worth remembering Cage’s ambivalence towards jazz, as well as his comments later in life that he would walk out of an Anton Webern concert, as the music had nothing to say to him about his contemporary experience. For Cage, the exigencies of the present make classical music inadequate, and his conversion of records into violently juxtaposed samples expresses his alienation from the idiom and categorizes it as a kind of bad music.

This alienated repudiation of Cage’s echoes a section in Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew where the narrator runs into the eponymous musician in a Paris café. This nephew expresses resentment towards his former bourgeois patrons, who have ejected him from their salon for making an ill-timed offensive joke. He responds with anarchical-revolutionary statements and a wild pantomime of musical bricolage. ‘There he goes’, Diderot observes, ‘—losing his wits and working himself up into a scene’ (Diderot, 1964, p. 67). The youth starts singing so loudly and distractedly that everyone in the café gathers round to laugh at him. Diderot continues: ‘He jumbled together thirty different airs, French, Italian, comic, tragic—in every style. Now in a baritone voice he sank to the pit; then straining in falsetto he tore to shreds the upper notes of some air, imitating the while the stance, walk and gestures of the several characters; being in succession furious, mollified, lordly, sneering…he is a priest, a king, a tyrant; he threatens, commands, rages…never overstepping the proper tone, speech, or manner called for by the part’ (Diderot, 1964, p. 67). This explosive externalisation of the nephew’s alienation entails the massacre of the musical tradition on which he has based his livelihood. The narrative so impresses Georg W. F. Hegel that he quotes it in the master-slave dialectic of Phenomenology of Spirit, where it can be read as a discourse on self-alienation, on internal psychic dynamics, as much as a model for analysing social conflict.

However, in relation to the trail of damaged records left by musicians and artists like Wolpe and Cage, it is Hegel’s Science of Logic that offers a second point of origin for the arguments here. Concepts of the negative developed by Theodor Adorno, Alain Badiou and Boris Groys in their writings on aesthetics draw on Hegel’s use of the negative as a dialectical tool in the course of elaborating, or complicating, ‘mind’ in the Phenomenology, and ‘knowing’ in The Logic. In the latter, our thought, instinctual and conscious, engaged with the world or just moving internally, is shown to initiate by oscillation between moments of recognition of ‘being’ and ‘not being’: ‘Being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing…Nothing is, therefore, the same determination, or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as, pure being’ (Hegel, 1989, p. 83). Thought acquires understanding of the world, or of itself, by a progressive surmounting of plateaus where negation acts as a means of differentiation. We think of one thing as not being another thing, but then this one thing, so defined, is only itself by virtue of not being that other thing, which is thereby contained within it. Hegel’s term ‘sublation’ entails the dissolving of opposites (Being and Nothing, for example), without their complete disappearance, into a new concept, in this case Becoming. The point made here is that the process of modifying records resists such implied progression from partial to greater knowledge, to fuller integration with consensual discourse and criteria of value. Instead the altered records hold close to the condition of nothing, enjoying the play and implications of a pure negative that will never progress into comprehensible sonic experience.

Another point of origin for this essay occurs in the intensely pessimistic third section of Friedrich Nietzsche’s first book about the origins of art, The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche’s proposal that Greek tragic drama emerges from a dynamic negotiation between Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies engenders the familiar representation of the former as an aggressively anti-institutional, irrational aesthetic force. This Dionysus, who flaunts social conventions and means-end rationale, is a nightmarish personification of the subject of nineteenth-century anxieties about anarchic and self-destructive artists found in representations by Honoré de Balzac, Cham, Honoré Daumier and Emile Zola. Nietzsche’s narrative of incursive force enables him to present a coherent model for artistic process aligned directly with social and political change and which is ultimately redemptive. The Apollonian mode is stable enough to generate representations of the gods that present the image of a controllable environment whose social relations are fixed, or at least predictable. The actions and outcomes of the Dionysian mode are by contrast in constant mutation, with destabilising effect on the Apollonian. This dynamic structure of two forces, out of whose antagonisms issues a resolution, relies on clearly prescribed terms: the Apollonian individuality principle and the intoxicated, desubjectivised Dionysian. One is stable and constructive, the other is fluid and destructive; one is virtually entropic, the other dynamic energy.

An aberrational moment occurs however, when Nietzsche narrates the story of King Midas’s interrogation of Dionysus’s companion Silenus. Midas’s desire for knowledge and meaning, essentially paradigmatic of the academic models of which Nietzsche is so critical, provokes him to torture Silenus into revealing what is optimal for mankind. The absolute negativity of Silenus’ response is the provocation for these artists of modified vinyl: ‘“Miserable, ephemeral race…why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second-best thing for you—is to die soon”’ (Nietzsche, 1993, p.22). This condition of nothingness, of unrecogisability, is the threshold of acoustic and material presence that interests the musicians considered here. Although the experimental sound artist of radical intent can’t reverse their own birth, they can certainly work to ensure their medium, or their practice, dies soon.

The materiality of nothing

How damaged records configure this nothingness is frequently determined by performance practices, by the sculptural configuration of sound, or by relations between a sound event and its presentation. In his exhaustive taxonomy of the practices of damaging records and turntables, Caleb Kelly starts with the least invasive, such as removable tape stuck to the disc, and ends with what is irreversible: ‘Sound is produced via the destruction of the turntable…smashing the tone arm down on the platter…” (Kelly, 2009, p. 95-7). Yet these only acquire dimension in the context of each modification or performance, and the sound that these generate. It is less, as Kelly writes, that ‘the devaluation of the record as a functional commodity, and as a fetishised object, leads in the end to its complete destruction’ (Kelly, 2009, p. 94) than that unforeseeable new functionalities and material states which seek to poise on the brink of nothing, arise from these transformations.

For example, Scott Konzelmann/Chop Shop records and processes environmental noise to be played through hybrid speakers constructed to correspond to that sound. The artefact Steel Plate RRR-075, 1991, contains two 10” records in tarpaper sleeves and a booklet of photographs of the speakers that share the four titles ‘Spinal’, ‘Speed’, ‘Cobra’ and ‘Hot Box’ with the tracks they broadcast. The records and booklet are bound to a thick steel plate by metal straps. As expected, the densely layered industrial noise of the recordings corresponds to the weight and appearance of the packaging. 

A 1990 7” record, with ‘Piece of Wood’ on its A-side and ‘A Smooth Finish’ on its B-side (Plastikville Records), is the work of New York sound artist Jim Sharpe Project (aka Fabio Roberti). The record comes in a sandpaper sleeve turned inwards, so that the more it is played, the more scratched it sounds. While the A-side is a recording of someone sawing and sanding wood, the B-side is entirely without grooves, causing the stylus to careen across the surface. An enclosed spoof review by a ‘Jayne Austen’ lampoons late-90s theory to highlight the likelihood of critical redundancy for reflexive sound artists: ‘Here, we have entered the realm of active destruction. From the moment we confront the abrasive sandpaper packaging, we have entered another era. For this is not the fin de siècle gesture of a negativity…but active negativity turned within to the surface of the vinyl only the better to leap outward: the record will instantly destroy your stereo needle—the very means of commodified mechanical reproduction—if played uncleaned’. The absurdist self-referentiality and humour of the project retrieves that component of historical avant-gardes that, like Wolpe’s 1920 assault on meritorious music, relishes its disaffirmation in withholding value and purpose. 

In Vinyl Terror & Horror’s performances, Greta Christensen and Camilla Sörensen work with multiple record players and radically altered vinyl records, often used simultaneously. Records are cut up or broken apart and then pieced together in barely playable configurations. Record fragments are sometimes embedded in pools of melted vinyl such that the stylus struggles to hold to a groove for even a few seconds before skidding away unpredictably. Milan Knížák began his Broken Music works in 1963 using similar processes that included melting, cutting, painting, glueing, sellotaping and collaging vinyl records. Broken Music was a mistranslation of his declared objective, ‘destroyed music’. Knížák’s interventions on many of these records render them virtually unplayable, but he has always maintained they are primarily musical instruments made to generate unpredictable sounds. The idea of displaying them like pictures in a grid on the wall was not Knížák’s, although the visual effectiveness of these installations shows an awareness of design decisions made in the modification of some of the records. They may destroy music, but they are reborn as polychrome reliefs. Christian Marclay’s more ludic practice has always taken pleasure in the visual idiosyncracies of his record or film collages, drawing content from the correspondences between image and sound. His early 80s ‘Recycled Records’, which insert parts of one LP into another to generate surprising designs, are used in performances that sometimes involve four record players and elicit rhythmic and sonic patterns from the overlaid fragments of music. This foregrounded performer role references rock-and-roll stagecraft, and also derives from Marclay’s emergence at the origin of DJ scratching in New York. 

While Marclay is visibly engaged as a player, Vinyl Terror & Horror withdraw as individual performers, avoiding rhythmic and melodic citations in preference of a shifting landscape of noise, generated sometimes by tossing fragments of vinyl into the path of the stylus in an explicit courting of sound demolition. An effective way of situating this kind of work in the history of destructive artistic actions would be to repurpose a comment by Boris Groys concerning the impact of the avant-garde on the materiality of the work of art: 

Malevich continually tells the story of the new art…as a history of the progressive disfiguration and destruction of the traditional image…What can survive this work of permanent destruction?
Malevich’s answer to this question is immediately plausible; the image of the destruction of the image. The destruction cannot destroy its own image. (Cox, Jaskey, and Malik, 2015, p.76)

Following Groys, these vinyl performances then reveal the sound of the destruction of sound. They hover near, and at times cross, the threshold of a reinstitutionalisation of the unlistenable and unheard where genres of noise aggregate into finding audiences and venues for their consumption. Yet their fundamental motivation is to shut off, even invalidate, acceptable music in order to work in a realm of previously occluded sound. Obviously enough the modified records negate something in some way, but does this cancellation of sound have anything in common with the models of negation inherited from Hegel? Hegel’s own negative is the oscillation from being to nothing that finally arrives at the determinate being that is not nothing—‘a negative nothing is an affirmative something’ (Hegel, 1989, p. 102). By contrast, the modified vinyl record is not quite the thing (being) that plays sound (as that function has been interfered with), nor on account of its emptiness is it the non-object (nothing), as it still indexes the presence of sound, even if the sound it produces is indecipherable noise. Some of these altered records function in a liminal zone where the negating, the nothing, repeats over and over (like a stuck stylus, perhaps), as they refuse to become anything determinate. Staying in the negative, turning their back, as it were, on the inevitability of acquiring coherence and form, they resist becoming something. That sticking with nearly nothing provides a sense of authenticity. At the same time these records, or sonic objects, make some kind of matter real that was once invisible, transparent, inaudible or absent. The erasure of sound, or sometimes the impeding of conventional ways in which sound is made, introduces qualities that lie outside what is usually acceptable in recorded sound. Here is a kind of arch refusal, a rejecting of appropriate ‘work’, in the sense of research or musicianship.

But what of the lingering musical and formal traces in these negations? If there are recognisable remnants of destroyed musical practices in Marclay’s resculpting of noise sources or Vinyl Terror & Horror’s inevitable accidental concessions to salvaged timbres, does this invalidate their iconoclastic impulse? In two recent books, Alain Badiou has given an account of the avant-garde’s iconoclasm by reformulating Hegel’s dialectic of being and nothing. The chapter on Pasolini from The Age of the Poets broaches two sides to radically innovative artistic acts as affirmative and destructive negations. For example, he considers Arnold Schoenberg’s extraction of twelve-tone serialism from compositional processes of the tonal harmonic system as the destructive side of negation. Here tonality is ignored, if not effectively annihilated. As a counterpart to this concept of erasure, Schoenberg’s affirmative negation consists in creating a new set of rules and practices salvaged from the destruction of tonality. Badiou uses the term ‘subtracted’ to emphasise an act that appropriates what is necessary for proceeding while turning away from the remainder. Practices like those by Knížák, Marclay or Vinyl Terror & Horror repeat such a formula of destructive and affirmative negation by establishing procedures for generating sound, while comprehensively rejecting musicianship and conventional instruments. The socially transformative goals that serve to justify aesthetic radicalisms of early avant-gardes may have retreated, but an affirmative negation nevertheless subtracts and works on the noise, so integral to the representation of the experience of late twentieth- and early twentieth-first century urban life, that lies beneath the superficial content and commerce of music. 

Badiou’s The Century is an extended reflection on aesthetic radicalities, iconoclasms and avant-gardes that applies Hegel’s negative to a compelling reinterpretation of the early twentieth-century intertwining of revolutionary art and politics at their most creatively liberating and ruthlessly purifying. The intense drive for authenticity is conducive to fictions of realness like Josef Stalin’s show trials or Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and to relentless aesthetic purification, as with Kazimir Malevich’s reductive monochromes. There isn’t any reality, Badiou notes, that can’t be suspected of semblance. Therefore the teleology of the century’s art is purification, the bringing onto centre stage of Hegel’s nothing as the one manifestation of the real that can’t be accused of pretence. Yet, as with contemporary reductions of music to indistinct noise, taking this as a straightforward liquidation of sound limits the meaning of the new work. The meaning of the practice always lies in the difference between what remains and what has been destroyed. The musicians hold to the place of negation to resist reincorporation and interpretation, but the difference between what is salvaged and what is renounced, in effect the affirmative negation, inevitably signals towards the old content and prior models. Considering Webern and Stephane Mallarmé, Badiou explains that the most discerning and meaningful art develops ‘not through an aggressive posture with regard to inherited forms, but through arrangements that place these forms at the edge of the void, in a network of cuts and disappearances’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 132-7), and that there are ‘pieces which, in a matter of seconds, graze against the silence that absorbs them; or of certain plastic constructions that are there only to be effaced, or of certain poems eaten away by the white of the page’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 136-7). In other words, for these contemporary sound artists modifying vinyl, the inevitable retention of traces of melody and timbre are fragmented clues to the properties of their negations.

Punk as ‘composition’

The assault on musical norms through interference with the materiality of records is not confined to experimental art and music. In the late 70s, punk rock enacts its celebrated sonic reduction of popular music to a raw core of sound. The startled 70s listener’s encounter with incommensurable qualities of noise and voice began with certain key records released in the last months of 1976 and the first of 1977. Though talking about noise bands from a decade later, Paul Mann accurately captures the epistemological collapse of this kind of experience as ‘intensely material, an exaggerated idiocy, a subideological cocoon, a tear in the fabric of the social world within which it might still be possible to endure it, if one can endure the volume itself. What we must ask then is whether, at its most intense, loud is a thought’ (Mann, 1999, p. 168). Punk, besides being a fulcrum for the invention of all kinds of sonic tactics for making the world tolerable, is also the site of interventions into vinyl records through the brand new culture of self-financed DIY productions with eccentric packaging, improvised labeling, and entertainingly pointless frustrations of the listener. Even though he totally misses punk, this is much what Jacques Attali asks of ‘composition’, his term for radical noise, ‘an activity that is an end in itself, that creates its own code at the same time as the work’ (Attali, 1985, p. 135), and a negation, he says, of prescribed labour roles. Attali praises Cage for giving back to disenfranchised audiences the power to make sounds. For Attali this kind of radicality ends the old system, but without new networks of production and distribution nothing lasting will replace it. However, this is exactly what happens in the late 70s with DIY recording and distribution. It is, as Attali dreams, ‘A music produced by each individual for himself, for pleasure outside of meaning, usage and exchange’ (ibid, 137). 

A surprising number of these records list the costs of production on their homemade, photocopied sleeves. This is the case with the first 7” releases by Scritti Politi (Skank Bloc Bologna EP, 1978) and The Door And The Window (Subculture EP, 1979), as also with the second single by The Desperate Bicycles, ‘The Medium Was Tedium/Don’t Back The Front’, 1977. The short third-person statement on the obverse of the latter yields a celebrated instruction: ‘“No more time for spectating” they sing and who knows? They may be right. They’d really like to know why you haven’t made your own single yet. “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it” (the complete cost of ‘Smokescreen’ was £153)’. 

In many locations, the communities built up around experimental electroacoustic music prove to be cohesive and mutually supportive. This is the case with New York in the 60s and 70s, with Britain in the late 70s, with Beijing in the early 2000s, and in many instances continues into the present at the same locations. Attali’s claims that for new music to remain subversive it must be played on new instruments would seem to lend credence to the radicality of using turntables and records as production tools. His view that the old instruments, whether violins or guitars, compromise the musician for being the very items that enable music to represent power, as well as encouraging speculative commerce, is one reason he feels that radically innovative musicians like Jimi Hendrix ultimately fail to engender permanent change, and why Attali can’t anticipate the subversion of punk’s sound, nor its appropriation of music recording, product design and distribution. He maintains that ridding music of all that alienates the musician, its exploitative commerce and stabilising of the ruling order, is to restore ‘the unsayable and the unpredictable’ (Attali, 1985, p. 142). 

Some punk bands went further than this by making records that interfered with playability and therefore impeded their commerce. Gerry and the Holograms’ second single, The Emperor’s New Music, 1979, is a definitively unplayable record, as all five-hundred copies are glued into their sleeves. Printed text on sleeve and label caution the listener not to attempt to play it, ‘NO – NO – NO – Whatever you do…don’t play this record…’. The Freshies second single (Straight In At No. 2 EP, 1979) embeds the pretense of a defect in its opening track ‘Johnny Radar’ where the record seems to skip grooves until there is sudden silence and we hear band leader Chris Sievey exclaiming ‘God, there’s a lot of dust on this needle’, followed by two sharp puffs of breath before the record resumes playing, this time flawlessly. In 1877, when Edison tried to raise support for his invention, he had his machine ask the audience at Scientific American how they liked the phonograph. In Sievey’s case, the record-playing process that announces its own faults is a clever reversal of what from the start of recording practices consists in an acclaim of new technologies.

There is criticism that this music - so often capitalised on by the marketing of its qualities - collapses back into Attali’s networks of ‘repetition’ and commercial stockpiling, once its moment of enfranchisement of musicians and audiences has subsided. This is to overlook several incommensurable aspects of punk innovations, including the irreducible qualities of voice and instrumental noise that comprise its incursive force in the first place, and which endure as exemplary negations, regardless of attempts, both in their own time and subsequently, to neutralise them through commerce. And then the vinyl artefacts themselves were issued in quantities too small to be speculated on, and, in cases like The Desperate Bicycles, despite commercial pressures were never rereleased. Furthermore, those first DIY bands inspired successors in a chain reaction that so valued discourse and participation as to annul any prospect of ‘repetition’-  exactly as foretold by Attali at the end of his chapter titled ‘Repeating’: “all of these things herald the invention of a radical subversion, a new mode of social structuring, communication that is not restricted to the elite of discourse” (Attali, 1985, p. 131-32).

The term ‘anti-record’, used by curator Trevor Schoonmaker for vinyl interventions like Marclay’s that take records to the verge of unplayability (Shoonmaker, 2011, p. 18), certainly sustains connotations of the historic avant-gardes. For example, in a reprise of avant-gardist tactics of iconoclasm and dysfunctionality in the degradation of material, Marclay’s ‘Footsteps’, 1989, invites others to contribute to qualities of unplayability by walking over LPs that carpet the gallery floor. Those records, later distributed as an edition, have their recording of tap dancing and footsteps interfered with by the real scuffs and scratches of visitors’ shoes. However, as virtually all punk DIY records are materially just like any other black vinyl records, Schoonmaker’s term obscures nuances of their intentional imperfection. The stranger qualities of late 70s punk music aside, there’s seldom any intervention to the material itself that might throw its reception out of alignment with conventional listening practices. In the end though, far from the stances of aggression and iconoclasm with which it is usually associated, what stands out in punk rock is the profound pleasure taken by musicians in their own unconventionality and inventiveness, as well as their easy resignation towards the likely inconsequentiality of such approaches. This does correspond with Mann’s interest in the possibility of marginal practices that completely turn away from visibility, the ‘stupid undergrounds’ of post-avant-garde milieus: ‘We move from the masterpiece to avant-garde art-against-art to non-art (folk, brut, etc.) to the end of art (autodestructive art, art strikes) to the most vigilant refusal, a refusal that never puts itself on display at all…’ (Mann, 1999, p. 131). Punk’s incandescent non-cooperation is also a reminder of the qualities of Bataille’s engagement with Nietzsche’s writing taken as a tool for living ecstatically, for designing a new kind of intoxicated life. Bataille is critical of ethical claims about the impact of thought being measured according to the extent of its external transformations. For him, the value of Nietzsche’s proclamations also resides in their remaining ‘unfocussed…dazzling radiances…untraceable’ (Bataille, 1992, p. 87), and that is exactly what is notable in many of these records.

Past Future Technologies

What of the future for modified records? There is an emerging DIY culture amongst young artist musicians making laser cut masters or lathes, while reviving the most rudimentary casting techniques for producing playable objects. This suggests that the history of record making is undergoing a kind of practical reexamination. Innovative design engineers such as Amanda Ghassaei are using laser cutters that read algorithms to burn the grooves out of a matrix in ways that resemble inveterate carving processes. Similarly, Kazuhiro Jo laser-cuts circles and spirals of sound in cardboard matrices, in one case transposing the earliest known recording, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s ‘Au Clair de la Lune’, which, as a phonautogram of marks on paper, has remained inaudible until recently. 

At the other extreme of fabrication processes, Michael Ridge and Ian Watson return to casting methods. Ridge, for example, makes objects out of cast glue that play recorded sounds of voices or singing birds, commingling with the more brutal noise of the impact of the record’s imperfections on the needle. These are part of a larger group of discs that he terms Anti-Releases, in part because they are one-off or small edition productions, but also because of frequent interventions, like hole-punching, that reduce their playability. Watson’s 7” Only Surface Noise Is Real, containing his own music, is made from a silicon mould that was itself cast from a vinyl master. He explains how the process appealed to him as a way to make short-run editions without resorting to more lathe cutting. It is expediency rather than iconoclasm that provokes Watson to make a record this way, and although he is drawn to the pops and crackles of the resin’s imperfections he is not making work that engages the potential of those kinds of noises. Those chance sounds and the recorded music coexist on the same terrain held by Ghassaei’s 3D-printed discs, on which she reproduces well-known records for sound comparison. Processes like these may come to be used with more negative intent or more accommodation to aberrant sound. At present, as if they were reincarnations of Thomas Edison, both Ghassaei and Watson approach the sound with a desire to improve its quality, despite their suggestions of interest in the records’ imperfections. 

From wax cylinders onwards, recorded music has always had an unusually intense engagement with materiality, due to the wide range of approaches by which the grooves followed by the stylus can be manufactured. Predictably enough, these manufacturing processes are affected by costs and availability of materials, as well as by new technologies. For example, the record’s core, which at the start of the 20th century was made of cardboard, plaster, or even cement, was then coated in shellac, a brittle secretion of the lac beetle. With the scarcity of shellac, caused by its use in bullet casings in the Second World War, many substitute materials were tried out, including aluminium and glass for record masters (although glass was also used at the start of recording history by Bell for storing his recording of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’). Alongside many innovative plastic formulas for records in the 1930s, one of the most resourceful experiments in alternative materials was for ‘Hit of the Week’ productions, made of cardboard laminated with durian, an edible fruit from South East Asia. During this time of shellac shortage, RCA developed Vitrolac as an early form of vinyl. The initially slow take-up of the new material was accelerated by radio, as DJs recognised that vinyl records sounded better than what they were usually playing, and when VDiscs—the armed forces records produced from 1943 to 1948—started to be made out of the more durable vinyl to protect them when they were dropped onto ships.

The 7” record was not made until 1949, when RCA Victor introduced colour-coded discs: red for classical, yellow for children’s and green for country music. As companies experimented with mass marketing and low-cost materials, the quality of some kinds of records declined. Taking the technology back a giant step, Columbia Records developed a degradable soft plastic disc as a giveaway promotion to record clubs. It isn’t until 1955 that we arrive at what are now standard vinyl albums, with the raised edge and centre distinguishing the objects used by most of these artists discussed here. One of the most successful experiments with coloured vinyl by a contemporary artist revisits RCA’s 1949 innovation. Jack Goldstein’s 1976 A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records with Sound Effects links colours with sounds—a purple record with a recording of a tornado, for example. For Goldstein, the materiality of the record is crucial: ‘…I arrive at a sound through an image. Through being manipulated the records become sound objects…There should be a direct relationship with the object for it to be effective, not just a sound coming out of a loudspeaker’ (Schoonmaker, 2011, p. 189).

We typically define materiality in terms of human use, but one approach by writers on ontology - including, for example, Martin Heidegger, Francis Ponge and Jane Bennett - considers material properties more from the side of the object, apart from human need. Even Adorno, writing in Aesthetic Theory, makes the unusual proposition that materials, in their inherent properties, offer up a resistance equivalent to the modifications being acted on them: ‘The violence done to the material imitates the violence that issued from the material and that endures in its resistance to form’ (Adorno, 1997, p. 50). Is there a way, then, in which the materials used to make records push back? Adorno suggests there is an intrinsic materiality to things that we are never able to reach, even at our most aggressively invasive. In his recent essay ‘Sonic Thought’, Christoph Cox asks how to counter philosophy’s occlusion of objects’ own volition and voice: ‘How might one challenge this domination, allow the object to speak…permit it to generate concepts rather than solely to be subject to them?’ (Cox et al., 2015, p. 123). In this sense, what else might the record want as material, or object? Think of how Francis Ponge considers the behaviour of objects in light of what he acclaims as the painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s ‘indifference’: ‘There is nothing special, no merit in choosing such objects. / But their way of encumbering our space, of coming to the fore, or making themselves (or appearing to be) more important than our way of looking…That is unquestionably one of the grandest designs’ (Ponge, 32). In exactly what ways might a record ‘come to the fore’? Where records can now be made from resin, paper, glass and metal we expect other material histories to be in play. However, the vinyl record, Dario Robleto points out, is made from fossil fuel, carrying this deep history of plant and animal life within it: ‘Every time a new groove is cut into a vinyl record, we are literally carving our history, our hopes and dreams of today, onto the chest of life of the distant past…The record needs us like we need it’ (Schoonmaker 2011: 196). If that life, those properties of shellac, of vinyl, which allow us to press grooves into the material in a pattern that stimulates the movement of a diamond stylus to generate electronic signals, is a use of material in response to a need for recordings that can address our present-day realities, then what properties of resin or paper might be addressed by Ghassaei or Jo as they use those materials to inscribe sounds? 


In 1934 under the telling pseudonym ‘Hektor Rottweiler’, Adorno published an essay highly critical of the market demand for records, suspecting that the phonograph would sooner alienate consumers from their culture than stimulate any new kind of musical creativity. In his opening paragraph, trying perhaps to figuratively lay bare the dumbness of this ubiquitous commodity, Adorno provides a remarkable account of a record coming to the fore, as if encountering it for the first time: 

One does not want to accord it any form other than the one it itself exhibits: a black pane made of a composite mass which these days no longer has its honest name any more than automobile fuel is called benzene…It is covered with curves, a delicately scribbled, utterly illegible writing, which here and there forms more plastic figures for reasons that remain obscure to the layman upon listening; structured like a spiral, it ends somewhere in the vicinity of the title label, to which it is sometimes connected by a lead-out groove so that the needle can comfortably finish its trajectory. In terms of its ‘form,’ this is all that it will reveal (Adorno, 1990, p. 56).

For Adorno the record, in this case the 78rpm shellac disc, intercedes negatively in life as a mute commodity having nothing to do with genuine human needs and owing its dominance to advertising’s artificial manipulations. The point has not come, will never come he surmises, when we will regain control over this commodity and use records in ways that answer our real needs - that is, in ways where we treat them independently of their mass marketing. In spite of this skepticism, it’s plausible that today’s artists who modify vinyl continue to reverse this loss of control by misusing record players and discs in practices that start with Wolpe, Hindemith and Toch. Theirs is a negation of commerce’s own negation of human needs. As part of this misuse of technology, it is a property of much of this kind of sound work that it turns its back on decipherment to make a stubbornly negative absence of sound, a kind of non-sound, a sound that is so scratched, impure, or unfathomable that it yields very little to interpretation and remains in the realm of the negative. At the same time, if this kind of sound belongs to a subgroup of recalcitrant things, it evidently still has its own circles of appreciation and hierarchisations in terms of notions of quality or interest. Perhaps it’s reasonable to conclude that these kinds of records straddle two realms - one of an absurd pointlessness and resistance, the other of a tentative institutional validation - and that these two realms are themselves interpenetrable, intermittently indistinguishable and blurred.


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bad music
negative aesthetics