PRINT November 1998


Christian Marclay

WHEN CHRISTIAN MARCLAY began spinning other people’s records into his own music around 1980, his only like-minded contemporaries were DJs who used the turntable as both rhythm track and soundbyter, dropping in a little James Brown shout, say, to signify “funky”; their innovations made hiphop the cause célèbre of cultural-studies postmodernists. Marclay, though, hewed to a lo-fi, highbrow avant-gardism, exploring the sonic properties of records to effect his own version of musique concrète; he backed up not MCs but improvisors on the noisy fringe. He seemed to be a high-late-modernist holdout against hiphop’s ascendant post-.

By the time More Encores, a ten-inch record now out on CD by ReR, came out, in 1988, the live, vinyl-spinning DJ himself was obsolescent. Digital sampling had created a superglut of raw materials, and their recombination was becoming end as well as means. In light of this, Marclay’s m.o. here—he builds each track using recordings of a single composer (or performer)—would seem to be a deliberate volte-face, an effort to use his own method against the grain to pay homage to the authentic genius of the artist.

To be sure, authenticity gets a dose of tough love at his hands. On “Frederic Chopin,” Marclay piles étude on top of étude until they resemble the impossibly dense player-piano scores of Conlon Nancarrow. Jane Birkin’s breathy emoting on Serge Gainsbourg numbers (“je t’aime,” she croons ad infinitum) finally crosses from high camp to sheer absurdism. But what’s amazing about these encores is how Marclay, even while transmuting his source material entirely, isolates and highlights its most essential qualities. “Louis Armstrong” generates a rhythm of skips and scratches, syncopates his scats and harmonizes them with the trumpet lines—something Armstrong, of course, could never do—while retaining the vestiges of a Tin Pan Alley structure; it’s as though Marclay had uncovered a lost master on which Satchmo invents bebop. “John Cage” demonstrates that a record literally glued together from slices of different John Cage records sounds exactly like. . . a John Cage record. Maria Callas gets to be not only prima but sola diva; her voice joins itself repeatedly in a ghostly chorus, then she soars on an ear-defying note for a good minute.

Marclay’s earlier music is as good an example as any of the death of the author. So More Encores, in resurrecting a Frankenstein’s-monster version of “the composer,” might be seen as an exercise in deep nostalgia. But that nostalgia is more complex and provocative than the fatigued celebration of authenticity’s irrelevance offered us in a lot of sampled music. Considering how much today’s progressives owe to Marclay, his little pause to reconsider is both surprising and strangely moving.

David Krasnow writes frequently on music for Artforum.