Interview with Philip Jeck

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Philip Jeck’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 293–304.  Copyright © 2009

philip_jeck_aktuell_02_LIGHTQUERWhile improvisation forms a component of Philip Jeck’s music, he considers it as much arranging given his use of records as material. His work in performance, recording, and installation is linked by the equipment he uses, but is in other ways very different. In his performances, making decisions about the deployment of material can be altered by the inconsistent response of his aging record players and well-played records, necessitating the readjustment of ideas when something unexpected occurs. The installation work uses domestic time switches to control grouped banks of players set with a prepared tone arm tied to create loops, or the use of locked grooves. Over time, these too degrade and produce slippage: the time switches drift chaotically out of phase, and the arm and groove preparations become worn. Here the equipment defines the detail of the resultant music, taking its own course within Jeck’s prescribed boundaries. Both these approaches contrast with his recorded work, surprisingly created by mostly cutting and pasting minidisc recordings of live performances. The opportunity to audit the results of this process allows for more precision, although he notes the importance of surprise here as well, with a dislocation between his memory of a performance and its newfound context as sample informing his decisions. It is perhaps no surprise that collage is a common theme through all this work, given his material is derived from locked physical objects in which sound resides. It is testament to his skill at manipulating them though that subverts the music’s construction in the sounding result.

The interview was conducted by telephone on 13 June 2007.

I thought we’d begin by talking about the overall sound of your music. What is it about record players and vinyl which interest you in particular?

My background is in visual art and I’ve always had an interest – my first love in the arts is really music, and for me I found music is the strongest and most immediate of all the forms. But if I had any sort of talent at anything when I was younger it was at drawing and painting and stuff so I ended up doing quite well at A Level art and then going on to art college. But I learnt a little bit of guitar and stuff when I was younger in my teens, but what I could do on a guitar just didn’t satisfy me, I felt frustrated because what I could do on it wasn’t enough for me to feel like it was what was in my head, so to speak, and when I listened to other people playing guitar, it just sounded terrible I suppose, you know people that I like. So my way in was for the late 70s, I went to New York in 1979 and went to some clubs and stuff. It was good to go to discos and stuff and see people play records but it was the first time I’d seen people you know really mixing records, and not so much the hip-hop stuff like Grandmaster Flash, although that’s something that I also enjoy, but what particularly got me were people like Larry Levan and Walter Gibbons. They would like extend just parts of records that were interesting to them. Also it was all completely dance based so it was pretty well all round 4/4, you know four to the floor stuff, but I bought some twelve inches and stuff in New York that had been mixed by these people and bought them home then started hearing stuff anyway here in clubs and went out and bought a little mixer and another turntable and started off like trying to copy, I suppose, those people and so that was the way in. That was how I sort of started using record players, and I did stuff with friends, but at that time I was living in London and the people that I was associated with were people that were involved in performance art and dance and also like music people around the LMC [London Musicians’ Collective] so I wanted to find a way of like what I did would work within that sphere. I was also doing performance work myself at that time which was an extension of my visual background, and trying to incorporate sound and stuff into it and I bought a couple of old record players to use. But also at that time I was working with a dance tour, this is the early 80s, and I worked with him right up until about 1990 I suppose, sort of just afterwards was the last time I worked. He had like management in Europe and we got loads and loads of gigs, loads and loads of work and he then sort of had a company that did work with us, and this was Laurie Booth, and so I sort of just played on the road. I mean I spent just three or four years just …well it was just fantastic, I was being paid to learn what I do you know and like find out what was possible. Also being in the circumstance of it being a performance and stuff it wasn’t geared to, you know, getting everybody up to dance, you know playing, keeping the beat going or whatever, so it gradually in a way I suppose developed my own language. Also one of the things that really kicked me then to using old record players was that I had some 78s that I wanted to use and I found one in a junk shop, an old record player that played 78s and had like a tape out so I knew I could put it through a mixer. But in a way the thing that was then really interesting to me wasn’t the 78 it was the 16rpm, the really sloooow, and as soon as I started playing around with records at that speed it, it was one of those moments, you know ‘oh my god, that’s, how amazing is that?’, you know, that in a way the expansion of the detail of the sound even though it was very lo-fi. You know when you play a record at that speed (I think they were probably all to do with speech, learning language type records) because the fidelity is so low when they speak, but it just somehow to me opened up the sound that I could get into even further, you know, what I was playing around with. So yes, working on the road with Laurie and also meeting up with other musicians and stuff in London and sort of playing around with them and still continuing some of my own performed work and things which I incorporated the record players into. Yeah, it’s over a fair amount of time, I think in a way I became quite separate. I mean, I’d seen Christian Marclay and I knew other people and stuff that were working, doing what became known as turntablism, but in a way I think I was quite separate from a lot of that a lot of the time and was actually working more in the theatre or performance or visual field rather than in music although I knew of stuff and so probably developed on my own. I feel I’ve developed my own way of working on this, my own language that I’m working with, the way that I use records and record players. You know what the sound that is interesting to me is you know is the stuff that I can find in the records and I pretty well feel that almost any record that I use, I mean the records that I use are, on the whole, they sort of come at me at random in that there may be a whole bunch that I pick up from a junk shop or people have given them to me but there’s always something in each record that I feel that I’m able to pick up on or use. It might only be a slight little bit, but generally I only use very small parts of records anyway.

Just to pick up on the performance side of your work, when you are actually performing is it fully improvised or do you plan aspects of it in advance, do you have an idea of the sorts of things you might do in a performance?

Yeah, improvisation is certainly within it but I can’t say that it’s all improvised because generally the records that I’ve got with me I know, so I know most of the material I have with me. So in a way it’s like, I feel it’s arranging it in a way rather than completely arriving at new things, but in the nature of the stuff that I use, the old record players that I use, and the scratched up old records and stuff, that you know they do things that I don’t quite expect quite often like the record player I say is 16rpm and 33, and 45 and 78, but I think if you actually really measured them they vary quite a lot in between them. I know I mean the two record players that I’m working with at the moment I can just by eyesight tell that the 33 rpm on both record players are different. One is definitely running way slower than the other one. Yeah, because it’s these old late 50s early 60s things, so you know they’ve had a long life and so they are a bit worn out, so those things happen and so I am surprised by the things that happen with it. So in a way that forces me to improvise around those things that happen. So I mean it varies from performance to performance, sometimes I will really just go off on a tangent, find something and then just go somewhere else and then maybe that’s like seventy percent or seventy-five percent even like improvised, but you know to be honest I think it’s fifty-fifty on the whole and sometimes it could almost be the other way round, certainly twenty-five percent improvised and seventy-five percent is what’s already known to me but I feel I know that works and then it does. Although that’s the surprising thing, sometimes there’s something that I’ve done several times and has always felt really good and then I’ll do it again and it just sounds completely flat. I’m not one hundred percent sure whether that’s because my connection is not strong enough or that I’m picking up on what the audience are feeling about it. You know all those things come into it, you know you can certainly sometimes feel when people are really listening and attentive and into what you are doing. That is, obviously, it makes playing really easy because you can like float on it and then there’s other times when people are unsure, or there are not many audiences that are downright hostile but, you know, less than enthused let’s say. Then you feel like you work really hard to establish something that can be a connection between you and the audience. I mean it’s good to have those times – I wouldn’t want every show to be like that! You’d just feel, completely, I’d want double the fee! You feel absolutely drained when it’s like that. Yeah, but the other times when you feel people are really into what you’re doing it can make it possible for you to really fly in a way.

When you are selecting your records, do you pick a handful, or do you make very specific choices – ‘I need that one, that one and that one for this show’?

I mean I used to take lots and lots of records with me and then in a show I probably only use about ten different records, sometimes more and sometimes even less. But I used to take, I’d have a huge boxful, but I thought it’s crazy carrying all these things around and so over the last four or five years I’ve gradually thinned it down so I pretty well only take away about twenty records now, maybe 25, and I know probably, as I say, I’m only going to use half of those, sometimes even less, and that group of records that I take with me evolves I think over time. You know, using records like that over a long time they actually get completely worn out and so all that you end up with is just like kghkghkghk you know, just in the end the actual original music of the record pretty well just disappears and the styluses have been running round them so many times, so many times. You know these are really old fashioned styluses, really heavy, so they really do cut their way through the records. It pretty well makes it a groove without any waves in it so it’s just one kgh sound you know. So then when they get like that then they get binned really, and so some new ones come in. But every now and again, I mean I think about where I’m going to as well, I mean that does affect what I take and there might be references that I want to take to a particular festival that’s about something in a particular place or whatever. Not always, and also the other thing maybe, the other, if it’s in a festival as I say the other people on the festival make, you know, references or whatever. It may be a bit oblique but that’s something that I think about when I’m selecting them. I mean I suppose that I go through periods of favourite records that I use a lot and then they gradually fade away. At the moment there’s probably four or five for each show that I go to I always pick up and take with me.

What are they?

I won’t name him, I think he’s dead but the record company probably have still got the rights to everything, but there’s a country and western guitarist who did like instrumental albums and he played on Kitty West albums and stuff like that. He’s actually a really fantastic pedal steel guitarist, his solo records I really like and so at the moment I’ve been using him a real lot. Well I’ve just got one album that I use, I mean I also have all his stuff on CD that I listen to at home but there’s a vinyl album that I use a lot. I’ve been using that for well over a year and a half now and I’m still finding new things in it that I really like. And there’s certainly a couple of Indian classical records, not sitar but sarod. I just like that deep sound of the sarod. And a couple of, or one particular tone record that’s just simple tones at different Hertz which is you know, I find to make like some sort of thing to hang all the other sounds on is nice to have behind and also it’s always really good to sample that. You can get some clear movements of sound and I definitely always take, and they really vary, but some records that have some particular bits of percussion in it. You know I’ve recently been using some Turkish singles and stuff, but I also have stuff from reggae or whatever, and funk records.

When you are working on stage, what are you doing to manipulate the records, how do you work?

Well to start with the records themselves, one of the things that I do which I picked up off of Christian Marclay, was like, you know to put a sticker on the record, equivalent to like a little round price sticker in a way, which is the simplest way of making like a loop. What happens is the stylus just sticks in one groove as it goes round, and sometimes it will flip back two, but you know then you get a really simple loop. Then at different speeds, obviously 16, 33, 45 and 78, I can manipulate records between those speeds and also I’ll put my hand on it to stop or slow, make the record flip backwards or whatever. But then the process after that, they go into my mixer and in the mixer there are like effects in the mixer like reverb, and delay, and it’s got 99 effects, most of which aren’t very interesting, but the simple reverb and delay are actually quite nice. And there’s like a pitch thing, so you can like lower it or make it go up in divisions of a scale and that can be nice because then you have the original then you have it like played a fifth higher or whatever. Also there are several phasing things in there but there’s one that to me sounds quite good, the others sound a bit too cheesy. And then also the other effect that I have is a guitar pedal which is a delay pedal which goes from a very short delay right to a very long one, and also you can reverse it. The delay that comes back is backwards. I think it’s a Boss pedal, a guitar delay pedal. Then the other major processing part of what I do is the Casio SK1 which is like a very simple sampling keyboard. So the sound that’s going through my mixer goes into the sampler so as I’m playing I can sample anything that’s happening, any individual record, or the whole sound or whatever. That I think is just about a second and a half, the length of it when you play it back at the original pitch, and what I like about it is that again it’s very simple to use. You press one button to do it, and then press another button to loop it or whatever, and it’s not a clean sample, it does affect the sound and I think it’s actually really in keeping with the record players. It’s really lo-fi sampling and I think that to me it’s like a little magic keyboard which they stopped making quite a long time ago. That’s one thing that I’ve sort of collected off of Ebay because I’ve got two and then about a year ago one broke down. The record players I can fix, I mean you look inside, I mean it’s just this big printed circuit and it’s just a total mystery to me, but the record players are quite simple mechanics so on the whole I can usually just repair them if they don’t work. So I’d feel really a bit lost if I’d completely run out of Casios, so I’ve got about six or seven now which I’ve bought off of Ebay, and I always carry two with me in case one breaks. Since I’ve been carrying two, actually, touch wood, one hasn’t broken down but you know, I’m sure it will again but at least I’ll have a backup.

What is it that attracts you to that lo-fi soundworld in particular?

I don’t know, I think it’s something about being that little bit removed or whatever. I mean one of the things that I think that happens when I’m playing records and stuff it’s like I’m playing with sounds – they are sort of little memory things the records. Imprinted in those grooves are these recordings of all these sounds and I feel like I have the whole bloody history of music. Everything that is part of the history of music is somewhere, it’s on vinyl somewhere, and so there’s all these things, collections of stuff, and when it’s sort of affected in some way and it’s at some remove so it’s not immediate thing, that’s the Beatles’ so and so or that’s Mozart’s whatever. I think there’s still like some sort of recognition or some connection with it, and I like that sort of slight mystery or distance, and maybe even slight nostalgia sometimes, for that thing that you can’t quite put your finger on anymore. And in a way the Casio samplers also almost do that as well. As soon as I first used one it was for me like a really ‘oh what a fantastic keyboard’.

It’s interesting what you say about the whole history of music being there. Obviously there are fewer vinyl releases now than there would have been twenty or thirty years ago. How do you see that affecting your work?

Vinyl is still being pressed and in a way I think there’s been a slight bit of a revival in a way and so the stuff is available, and stuff still keeps arriving to me. You know people give me, sometimes when I play locally or play in Manchester, people come up to me and give me like a carrier bag full of records which is very nice stuff, even though sometimes I have a limit of what I can carry anyway, but I’d never be rude enough to say ‘oh, no, no, no, don’t, I can’t…no more’. Because I mean I just have boxes and boxes of stuff at home. Stuff that probably, you know, I might never ever get around to using, there’s so much of it. And so, there is just, even just in my house, there is so much material that as I say I probably won’t, even if I work until I’m 90, I can’t see me getting through it all, so the material that is there will be there. But I suppose stuff that’s more contemporary – it’s like that most of the more recent stuff that I use, the stuff that’s been recorded as of late, it mostly would be like twelve inches stuff that is more to do with club stuff that I get. I haven’t got too many contemporary vinyl records that are you know classical or recent classical, more recent modern discs you know. I mean I have recordings of stuff like that but I mostly have that on CD, thinking of people like Adams or Arvo Pärt or whatever, I mean I don’t know even if that stuff is on vinyl, I’ve only ever seen it on CD. There may be specialists that do it I don’t know. So mostly the stuff that I do see more are in the pop or club world, the only bits of vinyl that I’ve bought recently, and also people that are doing electronica and stuff as well. My next release will be on vinyl, it should be vinyl only in fact.

Do you practise?

Occasionally I do, yeah. In a way I tend to do quite a lot of shows so it’s sort of, you know, that’s sort of my practise and stuff but yeah occasionally. We’re fortunate we’ve got quite a nice big house and there’s like a top third floor which my gear is pretty well always set up in so I can just go and do something if I want, you know, without having to worry about setting it up and just basically just turn everything on and play around with stuff for however long I feel like. I mean I can go quite a long time without doing anything at home actually and then sometimes I really get the urge and then maybe like every day I’ll be up there for a couple of hours. I’m never really quite sure why that’s so but sometimes I really feel I need to and other times I’m glad to not to. I feel maybe I’m making myself stale by doing it every day.

Which areas of your playing are you working on at the moment? What do you feel you want to work on in particular?

My main concern at the moment is I’ll be releasing a new CD before the end of the year on Touch and it’s like been three years since the last one and so for me it’s really important that to me it’s really good. I’ve been working on it quite a bit already so this is a time at the moment, I mean I haven’t done anything on it today but I certainly was working on something yesterday. One of the ways that I produce the stuff for release for CDs is most concerts that I do I get recorded and so I work with them, rework them, edit them and maybe one track that ends up on a CD might incorporate up to six parts of six different concerts you know. Also then I might add some stuff at home, some links, or even occasionally overdubbing, but I don’t often do much overdubbing because it’s busy enough as it is. I might layer stuff that’s the same, like from the same recording, where I just lay some different parts of the same recording over each other, but I don’t often play over the top. I have done but I don’t often, so that’s the most important thing. It’s like if I can really get to grips, you know feeling like I’m getting to grips with it and so one of the things I do is I make stuff and then I’ll put it away and maybe I’ll be doing some other stuff then I’ll come back maybe two or three weeks later to listen to the stuff that I thought I’d finished before. Then I’ll listen to it and usually, sometimes, I think ‘oh actually that is good, that is fine and I don’t need to do anything’ but usually I always say ‘well that’s too long, that could be shorter’, and so I sort of get the virtual snipping shears out and cut lumps out and listen to it again. And then sometimes I feel I have to put stuff back and then I might put it away again and come back to it another time. I mean that could go on forever, but usually there’s some point where I feel, no, I feel good about that now, that’s something that’s better than it was you know. I mean when I spoke to you at the Faster Than Sound, one thing that is always in my head is the thing of like stepping up every time I do something, whether it’s a live show or working at home. All the time I want to step up, just get it better each time that I’m working on something and that’s purely for me and of course I think that will translate into people who listen to it. I hope that it will also for them, obviously they wouldn’t know the thing that I’m stepping up from, no, but I want it to be for me, it’s like this has got to be really seriously the best I can do at this very moment and which is different to playing live because it is then in the moment and CDs aren’t in the moment. People listen to them at any time at home and you might have six tracks on there and they listen to them in any order and they might actually fast forward through a track to go to the next. I know I do that with stuff and so it’s a completely different control. The listener at home is in control of the order and the way it gets listened to. When you’re playing in a venue as a performer you have most control because, I mean not always that – sometimes the sound system is not quite what you want or something goes wayward – but on the whole you control the volume and you control the order of the sounds that people listen to and then the audience’s choice is then to listen or not to listen. But obviously with a CD at home it’s very different, a very different thing.

Are there types of sound that attract you, and what tends to work well in your pieces?

There certainly is. Usually I find some part of a record that’s interesting, but maybe a lot of the record no, it just doesn’t work, and whether that’s because it’s too busy or I don’t know. I think I like sounds that have some sort of, to me, resonance or ring to them. I love the sound of the pedal steel guitar or whatever. And the other records that I use sometimes are records that have bells in them, like hand bells and things like that and also the sarod is in a way similar to pedal steel guitar with slides and that sort of thing. Sort of metallic ringing sounds, and sort of clear percussion is a simple element, and guitar, I like electric and acoustic guitar sounds. Brass I suppose, I probably would lean more to a trombone sound rather than a trumpet, although I love listening to trumpet, but to work with somehow a mellow trombone sound is maybe for me an easier thing to work with. So if there is a preference, I mean I’m just going through my head what are the last records that I’ve been using and there probably is something that in a way, like Chuck Berry said ‘plays guitar like a ringing bell’[1]. It’s something that resonates for me and often it’s maybe instruments like that or sounds that are like that, although sometimes when you slow a particular instrument down it actually then starts reverberating in a very different way, then lower, it gets more bassy and then you almost feel like the sound waves, especially if you slow something down to 16rpm, you really get this wooo-wooo sound that comes out.

When you are making your pieces, how many layers do you tend to have in a texture, how thick do they go? Do you ever thin it back to just one?

Let me think. Probably the usual maximum is about five, maybe four or five layers. And usually there’s probably, I’d say, usually it’s less than that because there’s, you know, the source material with which I work there’s quite a lot of distortion in all the things, when you multiply it a lot of times then in the end you are only listening to distortion rather than to what it’s distorting. But if you’re using very simple things then actually the layers can be more, or there are layers of different parts of the same record, in theory I suppose it should work together but it doesn’t necessarily always do so. You know I’ve worked in the past with lots more layers than that on top of that, when in the past I’ve done the things with the multiple record players and that was sort of almost an acoustic sort of like an unplugged thing, that’s just a sound that’s there is only the sound that comes out of it’s own internal speaker, each record player. Vinyl Requiem was the biggest one of those with 180 record players although making it actually, I discovered in the making of it once I got above about 35, 40 record players at once, no matter what you played the sound started to sound the same. It’s just that mass of sound that actually started to be the same so actually in the Vinyl Requiem piece in the end there were only two moments when all the record players were going, and that was just a big noise basically. Maybe just occasionally you could distinguish some things in it so it was more to do with shifting the sounds around the different record players, like having a certain spatial thing was happening. But rather than all these ‘I’m going to have 180 record players all playing at once’ because actually whatever you play it doesn’t make any difference.

You’ve said a little bit about making the pieces from concert recordings, so I’m assuming you do that on a computer?

No I don’t do that on a computer. No, I do it a couple of ways. I have like quite an old now, like a Fostex four-track hard disk recorder, so I can put stuff there, but actually I do do pretty like the equivalent of snipping stuff like when it used to be reel-to-reel, but I do that on mini disc, just edit and switch stuff around, on the minidisc, inside the minidisc player, so just maybe take 30 seconds out here and shift it to somewhere else or just drop it out altogether or then just butt something against something else, so yeah, jump cuts in a way, quite severe cuts although I’ve never known that people have ever really noticed it, but quite a lot of the editing I do is like that. But otherwise I put it to the Fostex recorder and then that can crossfade between stuff.

So you basically take your concert recordings and other records, record those onto minidisk and then edit and bounce them?

Well sometimes the concert has been recorded straight to minidisk anyway. Then I just do a copy of it and start editing on that, just listen, I just sit upstairs here and just listen to it and then just take bits out and listen to it again, and what’s nice about minidisk you can put it back again if it’s wrong.

And then that’s layered up on the Fostex?

Yeah, sometimes yes, and sometimes the only editing I do on some tracks is just on the minidisk and so all the bits are edited together.

That’s amazing, I would have never have guessed that. So I’m assuming you don’t plan pieces in advance in that sense? It’s about auditing the material you’ve got in a more intuitive way?

Yeah, listening through, although I do have memories of stuff, like one concert, and so when I’m starting on something and I’m thinking ‘oh, I think I remember the concert I did in Amsterdam earlier this year, there’s something there I think will really go with this’ then I’ll listen to it and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But often once I’ve started it starts triggering off memories of other stuff that might be appropriate with it, so it’s not completely at random. I mean I certainly start with part of a recording that I really like. There’s something at one concert I did that I really like and that’s my beginning and then if there are other things in the same concert that I really like and then sometimes I will go to another concert recording which maybe was dealing with the same material but in a way I’d done it in another way and so it’s another variation on the same thing that I was doing at that one, but because it was done a month later or a month earlier, whatever, it has a different feel so it shifts the whole feel of the piece somewhere else.

You’ve obviously over the course of your performance and composition work, and installations, you’ve produced pieces which have a variety of durations and I wondered if you feel if there’s a optimal scale for your work? Is there a minimum duration past which it needs to be?

Yeah, I don’t feel that I’m particularly good at doing stuff that’s very short. I wish I could sometimes, I mean I feel maybe I don’t get to the point quick enough although I think I am being a little bit more brutal with the editing and stuff now. I always feel like I need to establish over at least a couple of minutes anyway to begin with to actually make it like something that then I can expand on. So I don’t know what the usual length of the tracks, I mean they do vary but certainly between five and ten minutes is probably a more optimum length for many of the tracks, and then obviously if it’s a live thing then it’s anything between 20 and 40 minutes long.

What changes between those two durations, from 5-10 and 20-40 minutes?

I don’t know, it’s something about being really in the world, in its world, establishing its world, and I mean that’s what I really admire sometimes when I listen to great pop music. It’s so brilliant at establishing a world absolutely instantly, like Tamla Motown stuff, like you are instantly in it, which I think is a great ability to do that. But for me I’m slower about arriving and stuff and even like the stuff that that is part of a concert that’s really strong and then so I edit that out and I can start with that. It actually doesn’t sound so good without all of the stuff that’s gone before because there’s a reason for it suddenly and so I’ll maybe shorten the introduction. Certainly I’m always shortening the intros when I come to doing the editing at home, but it still always needs some introduction into that world, like an overture I suppose. You know, this is the world that this sound is inhabiting then maybe it can really fly later.

I just wanted to move on to talking about how you play with other people because we’ve talked a lot about solo work and obviously a lot of your playing is with others. I just wondered how you feel what you do changes when you start to collaborate with other people?

It depends who I play with. So if I take an example playing with Jah Wobble, I mean obviously there is always a drummer there with Jah and so pretty well I drop out most of the beat things that I play or the drum parts of records, the percussion things, because there is a bass player and a drummer there that in a way that’s playing that. So I feel what I’m doing then is creating some sort of soundscape that they can rest on. And I suppose it’s true it’s this rock solid rhythmic development going on I can sort of fly over the top of it as well. Yeah, so certainly my playing in that context is different, very different to my own, otherwise I’m using similar stuff, and then if there’s other players in the band and stuff in a way not using stuff that’s really going to conflict with their particular instruments or whatever. Although sometimes as a comment I might put, if there’s a flute, I might have a flute record but that’s very tricky because if the flute player is listening on the monitors then there’s this other flute in a completely different key playing it can send somebody mad, probably, or make it very difficult for themselves to play in the right key. The rest of the musicians are all playing in G or E or whatever, and all playing to a set rhythm, but I’m the person who has the luxury of not having to do any of that, just in a way react to what they’re doing or then introduce stuff over or in amongst what they do. For me that’s really just listening to what’s going on and also being prepared in the sense of knowing what sort of stuff is likely to happen with that playing, and perhaps selecting what I think are records, or parts of records, that I’m going to be able to work in amongst it. So playing with Jah Wobble I wouldn’t take any reggae records.

Then playing say in a very different thing is playing for Gavin Bryars, then it’s just possible to put some like rhythmic things in or depending on the piece. Like for The Sinking of the Titanic, I sort of see the themes and stuff that the other musicians are playing to do with hymns from the time and stuff, the gradual degradation of the overall sound which in a way is sort of what happens with my sound a bit anyway, stuff that gets degraded or disappears into the ether. So I just dug out of my collection of stuff sort of contemporary pieces of music and stuff, music hall songs and the stuff that mostly I already had lying around in my boxes and used that. But then for the commission that he did for Steve Reich’s 70th birthday at the Barbican, and that was playing with four singers and a string quartet, and it was a new piece of music so I didn’t get to hear that before. I mean I was offered that I could be sent the score, but anyway I don’t read music so it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. So I was quite nervous about that because I thought ‘oh god, you know you’ve got a couple of days’ rehearsal and then you’ve got to play it’ so I actually took, this is one of the few times when I did take a lot of records with me. I feel like I was going to cover all the bases, although Gavin sort of emailed and spoke to me about the feel of it and everything and also the instructions that I had as part of the score, where I should play and where I shouldn’t and so I sort of knew all those things. I just found out that the best things to use in the rehearsal time and actually a couple of things that I thought might work actually did, and a couple of things didn’t, and so I found that out very quickly so in the end that was fine. There was a couple of rhythmic things that I put in there and also stuff that was pretty way out of tune in their sense, and I know at some points that it was like a struggle for the musicians because I was playing against what they were doing. They’d each learned this piece and then somebody else comes along and starts playing something completely different loudly over, not loudly but you know in their heads. But in a way it’s quite interesting how it affects how the playing works. So that’s sort of quite different, and then occasionally I just, maybe there’s like improvised stuff that I do with other electronic musicians where there’ll be other turntablists or laptop or whatever and then it’s obviously, you play less than when you’re playing on your own because maybe there’s two or three other people. I’m thinking maybe generally when I play there’s probably a maximum of four or five layers, and then maybe if I’m playing with a couple of other electronic musicians and they’ve got their four or five layers or whatever as well then actually….it can be interesting for a few moments if it’s like that, but generally for me it’s like feeling when somebody is actually, what one of the individuals has really picked up on something and in a way then you step back then and let them expand on that and then when you feel that maybe it’s been resolved or something then interject with your own. And if they’re also people who really listen and stuff then they will let you have a little bit more. Everybody, hopefully, is really listening as well as they can.

The last thing I wanted to touch on, and you mentioned it earlier with Vinyl Requiem, was the installation work that you’ve been involved with and I just wondered how you went about determining the setup for each installation, how many players you choose, the sort of vinyl choice, placement in space, and the time structures that you use?

When it’s a pure installation for a gallery the record players, I mean they are set off by timers, those simple timers that you can buy to plug in to turn your lights on and off at home when you are away. If I have loads of those, not one for each player, but one for three or four players, and maybe three or four players that are in different places within the installation, where they’re all stacked up vertically or laid on the floor or whatever circumstances they’re in, and so they’re basically on for like ten minutes and then off for ten minutes. But if you have lots and the starting times are all a few seconds or a minute in between, you just have this gradually shifting pattern of sound across the whole mass of record players. And then the records, the way that they play, again they’re either, not with a sticker because if you use that for an installation for a few weeks in the end it will bust its way through the sticker, so what I do then is use some very fine wire to just hold the arm in one place and it actually might just skip slightly but then it’s not going to break the wire. But the other thing that I do is actually, those record players what you used to be able to do was stack up a bunch of 45s and when it got to the end the arm will reject and then the next record would drop down. But what you can do is you can doctor that mechanism by just getting in underneath the arm so you can actually make the arm drop at any distance on the record. But usually the old ones have a set drop at either 12 inches, 10 inches or 7 inches, but you can make it drop anywhere in the record player by just turning one screw actually. Also the other thing I do is just to jam the mechanism so in a way the rejection process is constantly on, so what happens is that it will go and drop like on the part of the record that I’ve turned the screw to make it drop on the arm and also whatever speed I’ve set it at, so it would drop on there and stay there maybe for, depending on the speed. If it’s slow it will stay there for three of four seconds, if it’s at 45 or 78 it will stop there for maybe a second or whatever so it just drops on one part of the record. So you just get a doo-da-do-do…um-ck-ck / doo-da-do-do…um-ck-ck like that. And if you have like maybe five or six record players all doing that and all doing it with the same record, you know you get just these phased bunches of sound that are related because of the same record, and that’s obviously on or off with the timers. And also as I said quite often in installations I might use ten of fifteen copies of the same record, but just playing different parts of the record, so again you get like this gradual shift across. It’s not just in the sound, but also the way the record players are placed obviously and then the sound is just coming out of its speakers. There’s a spatial shift of sound as well and then there’s the one installation I did around the room three different banks of speakers so it really did go surround sound around the room and here in Liverpool I actually built three walls that you basically walked into a room and the walls were all record players, a small room.

[1] Chuck Berry, Johnny B. Goode, Chess, 1691 (1958).

Comments

  1. Philip Jeck has done versions of his turntable items throughout the globe, including a 2007 efficiency of his previous release Plastic Coda I-III in Bangkok, Thailand, as component of the Bangkok International Art Celebration. Workshops he has performed include an occasion at the College of Audio Engineering in Bangkok arranged by the British Council.

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