Turntablism Lecture

This page was created for a lecture given to music technology students at De Montfort University, Leicester in 2010. The text is taken from my MA dissertation on Turntablism from 2008.

Gaslamp Killer, Serato Digital Vinyl System

2tall – vinyl scratch routine

Moldover’s Controllerism

Daito Manabe Wii’Jing


Tim Exile

Roots of Turntablism

John Cage
Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939)

“With a phonograph it is now possible to control any one of these sounds and give it rhythms within or beyond the reach of imagination. Given four phonographs we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat and landslide.”
John Cage (1937)

Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939) scored for muted piano, cymbal and two variable speed turntables, is often cited as the first composition to use the turntable as an instrument.
Cage uses the turntable as a melodic instrument by speeding up and slowing down the rotation of the turntable platter as it plays a record containing test tones, the change in speed creates eerie pitch slides. The players are also instructed to lift up and drop the needle onto the vinyl to create pitched Staccato sounds. This is a technique now widely used by turntablists called ‘needle dropping’.

Pierre Schaeffer – Etude aux chemins de fer

Étude aux chemins de fer (1948) was created from recordings including train sounds at a Paris train station. Schaeffer experimented with multiple turntables and disc cutting lathes, using the recordings to create what he called silon fermé (closed groove) on vinyl records, which when played on a turntable, to create short repeating loops (Emmerson 2008: 67). Where Cage used the turntable to melodic effect, Schaeffer’s use of locked grooves made from field recordings of train whistles and engine noise, creates a percussive effect. Smith describes this process as ‘juxtaposing manipulated elements to create new perspectives regarding association and contrast’. (Smith 2006: 17) Schaeffer used turntables for studio composition, rather than live performance and discarded them for the use of tape on later compositions, but the use of locked grooves are widely used by experimental turntablists such as Janek Schaefer, Philip Jeck and Christian Marclay.

Before the invention of sound recording technology, composers mimicked the sound of the environment using instruments, but recording technology makes all sound available to the composer. Cutler suggests that through the opening up of music creation to include sound from the environment, this also includes any recorded work; and that when all sound is just raw material, then recorded sound is always raw – even when it is cooked. (Cutler in Cox 2004; 140) Emmerson suggests the work of composers such as Cage and Schaeffer took advantage of the technology and successfully incorporated all sound into the realm of potential music (Emmerson 2008; 67) and while appropriation of existing recordings was not the motivation for the work, it did occur, for example Schaeffer’s experiments with radio sound archive records in Étude aux tourniquets (1948) and Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes No.4 (1951) for twelve radios and Imaginary Landscapes No. 5 (1955) which uses forty two gramophone records. (Cutler in Cox 2004; 145) Smith notes they were not united by any one artistic movement or concept, but rather by their desire to experiment with the creative potential of the turntable for their own compositional end.” (Smith, 2006, P12)

Hip-hop appropriation

Despite these early advances in turntable music, it was developments in hip-hop turntablism that inspired further advances in technology and playing technique. As Shapiro suggests:

For the ubiquity of the record during the 20th century, it is quite remarkable that so few people managed to make anything out of it as a tone- and texture-generator rather than a playback devise until the hip hop virus struck everything around it. (Shapiro in Young 2002: 164)

Unaware of earlier compositions by Cage and Schaeffer but influenced by disco DJs in New York and the dub sound systems in Jamaica, DJs such as Cool Herc and Grandmaster Flash pioneered the creative use of turntables at block parties in the Bronx during the 1970’s (Poschardt 1998: 230). The appropriation of the turntable as a way to make music was not linked to a conceptual theory but simply the DJ’s desire to make the most of the tools available to them. As Christian Marclay states:
It was a simple, direct way to make music, and also a cheap way. Rather than expensive musical instruments, it was just some cheap records and a couple of turntables. There’s an economic reason for this happening. (Cox 2004: 343)

Christian Marclay

Songs became liquid. They became vehicles for improvisation, or source materials, field recordings almost, that could be reconfigured or remixed to suit the future.

David Toop (1995; 141)

Digital technologies make it very easy for people to adapt content to their own ends, which can be considered a shift in the publics consumption of media from being a passive recipient to a creator. Discussing this shift, Ayers states:

Consumption is part of a process that includes production and exchange, all three being distinct only as phases of the cyclical process of social reproduction, in which consumption is never terminal. (Ayers 2006: 75)

DJs and music producers consume and produce music as part of the same process, constructing new identities through their sound juxtaposition.

ie.merg_ – Midnight, NYC, July, 90 degree

This is exemplified in the work of American turntablist ie.merg_ and his studio composition Midnight, NYC, July, 90 degree Another (2006), composed entirely from short samples from other people’s recordings referencing, minimalism, experimental, hip-hop and pop music to create an original identity and a new piece of music from the sounds of his everyday life.
Ie.merg_ composed the piece on a home computer using turntables and radio samples, and then distributed it for free through an online Podcast called Turntable Radio. He is just one example of the many turntablists and music producers utilising the Internet to consume, remix and disseminate music as part of the same process.


Ayres, M (2006) Cybersounds : essays on virtual music culture, New York

Bowers, J (2002) Improvising Machines ethnographically informed design for improvised electro-acoustic music, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

Cox, C (2004) Audio Culture – Readings in Modern Music

Emmerson, S (2008) Living Electronic Music, Ashgate

Hugill, A (2008) The Digital Musician. Routledge

Katz, M (2004) Capturing sound, University of California Press.

Lessig, L (2004) Free Culture, The nature and future of creativity, Penguin Books

Lessig, L (2004) “Get a license or do not sample”

Lippit, T (2006) Turntable music in the digital era: Designing alternative tools for new turntable expression

Miller, P (2004) Rhythm Science, Media work, MIT Press

Miller, P (2008) Sound Unbound, MIT Press

Moorefield, V (2005) The Producer as Composer, MIT Press

Newman, M (2004) History of Turntablism

Oswald, J (1985) Plunderphonics, or audio piracy as a compositional prerogative.

Poschardt, U (1998) DJ Culture, Quartet Books

Smith, S, (2000) Compositional strategies of the hip-hop turntablist, Organised Sound Vol 5(2): P75–79

Smith, S, (2006) The compositional processes of UK hip-hop turntable teams, Thesis (Ph.D.), De Montfort University, Leicester

Schapiro, P (2000) Modulaions: electronic music – throbbing words on sound, Caipirinha

Schloss, J (2004) Making Beats : the art of sample-based hip-hop, Wesleyan University Press

Toop, D (1998) Ocean of Sound, Serpents Tail

Young, R (2002) Undercurrents – the hidden wiring of modern music, Continuum

More turntablism on this blog:

From the Archive: Experimental Turntablism

Pure Phase Turntablism meets laptop performance

James Kelly and Adam Weikert – Green Ep

Live Electronic Improvisation with Adam Weikert

Janek Schaefer Performance, Leicester

Dirty Electronics Ensemble with DJ Sniff


One Response to “Turntablism Lecture”

  1. Sampling, live performance and turntablism | James Kelly's blog Says:

    […] I gave a lecture to 2nd year MTI students yesterday, looking at where sampling in live performance and turntablism are at currently and tracing links back to early experimental composers such as John Cage and the birth of hip hop with Cool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. I have posted a page full of youtube videos and a bibliography from my turntablism research. […]

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