Off the Record: Turntablism and Controllerism in the 21st Century (Part 2)
California State University Northridge
In part two of this conversation concerning the role of technology in DJ performance and electroniculture, scholars and DJs tobias c. van Veen and Bernardo Alexander Attias explore the ways in which various technologies change the means as well as the context of DJ performance. By focusing on questions of tactility and technique, van Veen and Attias question how the automation of technological interfaces constructs not only cultural values but phenomenological limits concerning "authentic" performance. Is risk inherent to the performance of an instrument? What constitutes risk—and an instrument—in an era of automated beatmatching and increased visualization of an aural art? To what degree is controllerism—and the advent of digital DJing—more akin to videogaming than the technics of turntablism?
tobias c. van Veen: The question around which we've been rotating is that of beatmatching—insofar as I suggest that it constitutes the core of the turntablist skillset. Yet perhaps this term, and its practice, deserves a deeper interrogation.
Bernardo Alexander Attias: What I've been trying to get at in much of the previous discussion is to identify where you are locating the essential skill of the DJ. The main difference we keep coming to is beatmatching, but it seems to me that this explanation opens itself up all too easily to reductio ad absurdum. Is a DJ who uses any sort of assistance in beatmatching a fraud or failure, or only those who use computers? What if they used a handheld calculator, or simply wrote notes on their records to speed up the process? It seems to me that ultimately beatmatching is simply math, something that computers excel at. Is a DJ simply a mathematician? One who does math, by hand, in public?
tV: Ultimately, beatmatching is the art of imperfection that faces the temporal unfolding of what exceeds mathematical precision or certainty: the wavering of what is-to-come through the clash of two rhythmic assemblages. This wavering of the cyclic uncertainty is physically encoded in the circular repetition of the turntable's platter, and mathematically encoded in its expression of circumference, which is infinite: pi. Beatmatching is the art of negotiating pi to the Nth degree using fingers and ears that touch the moving surfaces of technics. With two limitless tracks, one would be beatmatching the technics of pi to eternity.
So mathematically speaking, the entire physical dimension of turntablism insofar as it performs the rotating circular object is entirely significant here, and why the turntable, over button-pressing, is an entirely different interface with the mathematics of encoded sound. One interfaces with infinity with the turntable.
BA: I think, then, that we are moving towards a notion of improvisation as the key to what is essentially "human" in the DJ's performance. Not beatmatching per se—beatmatching is one technique that allows the DJ to demonstrate improvisation, but I would argue that one can improvise with computer-synced beats. Again, I also think that one can mimic the illusion even of un-synced beats by manipulating the tempo in tiny ways. But if authentication plays a role as I believe it does, the point is not that you can mimic the sound of the imperfections of one specific task ("the art of negotiating pi to the nth degree," as you described it beautifully above), but rather that any human task that interacts with machines to produce sound can in the right circumstances be perceived by a specific audience as an authentic expression of musical virtuosity—whether it be beatmatching, cue point juggling with buttons, or playing with Wii controllers to manipulate a set of African drums (as Jazari has done).
Improvisation is certainly possible without beatmatching, but the improvisation might focus on other aspects of sound manipulation. In this respect, beatmatching is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for improvisation—one can be a fantastic technician in terms of seamless beatmatching, and yet still fall flat as a DJ because the audience can hear that nothing is improvised. The difference is indeed audible, and it is clearly about something other than the practiced ability to line up tempos.
All that said, I'm not trying to deploy an all-encompassing notion of "the cultural"—when I say anything could be authenticated in the right context, that doesn't mean that everything will be authenticated, and when I said the human controls the computer it doesn't mean that the human is therefore in control of the computer. As we've both emphasized, the tension between being in control of the machine and the machine escaping that control is palpable and tangible, and that it is what excites audiences about live performance. My point is more simply that audiences can adapt to performers having new things to lose control of—and demonstrate virtuosity with—besides the tempo.
Indeed, we can take the reductio ad absurdum even further here—electricity also makes beatmatching too easy for the DJ. Why shouldn't DJs in competition be forced to use wind-up Victrolas and beatmatch 78s? Or to be less absurd, what's the point of all this when the music you're beatmatching is already quantized by computers (usually to nice whole numbers) to begin with? Sure, you're showing your virtuosity with the spinning platters themselves, but arguably, machines have already done most of the hard work for you. I used to pride myself on beatmatching old funk tracks and other material played by live drummers for this very reason; you're forced to ride the pitch controls a lot more than with electronic music.
The laptop DJ lets the computer take care of the math problems so he or she can focus on practicing different techniques. The point is not to abdicate technique entirely but to focus on other techniques such as the weaving and layering of sound.
In fact, the button-pushers often value other performance constraints on letting the computers do everything—the DJ TechTools website had a contest for cue-point jugglers, for example, and one of the requirements was that competitors had to have "snap" and "quantize" turned OFF in their software, in order to demonstrate their skills in timing their button pushes (something like the difference between a live drummer and a drum machine). While outsiders may not appreciate the difference, the skill of mashing buttons on time with fingers is being valued by controllerist subcultures in much the same way that beatmatching skills are valued by turntablists.
But I think there is more to your position that the DJ who uses a turntable "interfaces with infinity"—in that sense of interacting with a moving circle it's a very different kind of physical skill than button mashing and slider/knob twiddling, and this is probably why so many midi controllers preserve the turntable symbolically in the jog wheel. It's not the same, of course—it's actually a notoriously unsatisfactory substitute—but it seems fundamental to a particular representation of the DJ that is rooted in precisely the technics you describe.
I also think another dimension of your argument is that the button-pushers are not directly playing music with their buttons—the buttons interface with the software which then plays the music. The button increases the distance between the performer and the sound, while the turntablist (whether playing vinyl or DVS) interfaces more directly with the sound with his/her hands. I believe this is another manifestation of the difference between digital and analog—not so much in terms of the recorded music itself (which in the case of DVS is digital too) but rather in terms of the tactile interaction with the sound. The spinning record allows infinite possibilities circumscribed by its circumference whereas the button allows two possibilities, "on" and "off". The turntablist interfaces with pi and infinity whereas the controllerist interfaces with 1 and 0.
Sure, the music itself is analog for everyone who hears it, but there is more separation between performer and sound than there is with vinyl. That's a bad thing in some senses for sure, and we experience it as a loss (I was actually extremely resistant to digital DJing in the beginning, and I still get a thrill when I notice a DJ is using actual vinyl at a club rather than DVS or CDs). But it also opens up new performance possibilities that are simply not possible with vinyl. Yes there is an immense beauty in seeing a performer do the impossible with vinyl—using four decks as you describe in techno, or turntablist tricks like looping, dropping samples, beat-walking, juggling, and scratching—but there are also sonic and performative possibilities available to those who go digital that aren't really possible or practical with vinyl—looping, cue point juggling, overlaying multiple effects on multiple decks, sampling, etc. The point is not to diminish the virtuosity of the turntablist but rather to understand that virtuosity, if it is perceived as virtuosity at all, has to be recognized and authenticated in a cultural context no matter what its physical dimensions.
tV: We're both on similar wavelengths here, so best to clarify the intent of what are two strands, especially insofar as I am trying to articulate a division, or rather a rupture or schism, between what Rancière (2006) would call two "aesthetic regimes". It is the shift from turntablism to controllerism that is at stake here; the question is not only how this shift changes the conditions of virtuosity and improvisation within performance—and certainly not that it has, and that new forms of "authentication" arise—but whether these new forms of technological automation eliminate, or rather ensure forgetfulness of, the practices of risk which previously upheld turntablism as an aesthetic regime of instrumentation (with its attendant virtuosity and improvisation). Indeed, it is with the implementation of digital archives and controllerist devices in performance that this schism is manifested as between two regimes of technics, two regimes of aesthetic performance. In this respect:
(1) Beatmatching is a key skill to turntablism, which defines the art of DJing and is the (historical, but also aesthetically minimal) bedrock for all that follows. All that follows should compare itself to the minimalist technics of turntablism and what it is capable of producing. If it can already be done on decks without digital automation or computers, then what follows is not aesthetically challenging: it is poor musicianship. Turntablism should restrain its use of automated tools so as to pursue a strict aesthetics that retains learned skills articulated in the turntable-mixer setup as instrument. To this end, Digital Vinyl Systems intensify the performativity of the archive, including looping and cue points that require the screen's visualization of auditory phenomena. Insofar as DVS can be incorporated within turntablist practice, it is only up to the point where software automation "flips" turntablism into controllerism (to use McLuhan's term (1991)), which I pinpoint as the automation of beatmatching (indeed, what controllerism renders "obsolescent" is beatmatching) and of course the abdication of the turntables as the tactile interface with infinity.
(2) Improvisation is the key to developing further DJ-arts, including controllerism and all that follows. With beatmatching receding in the art of DJing in general, improvisation is the key to the tactile and impossible moment of manipulating conceptechnics (Eshun 1999). The further removed from tactile interface with material surfaces, the less improvisation can play key roles in auditory performance, and the more the system emulates or becomes the content of another medium—"audio videogaming". Indeed, I think videogaming is a better framework to think controllerism than turntablism. With various forms of digital DJing and controllerism one is playing a performative videogame with similar inherent risks, and the audience goes along with more of a videogaming mindset than one drawn from turntablism. Has not the flip from turntablism to controllerism, in its obsolescence of beatmatching, enhanced the videogaming aesthetic, not only of DJing but of all computerized devices?
(3) Indeed, DJs, insofar as they strive to be skilled performers of the audio instruments of technics, don't need easy "solutions". DJs needs challenges. Otherwise DJing will shift away from its possibilities as a performative instrument.
Carleton S. Gholz talks about the changes in audience dynamics in his last Dancecult piece in regards to Mills/Hawtin: fewer people dance (2011). Everyone holding up cameras, absorbed in texting/tweeting, and recording it to watch through shared social networks. There is something disturbing going on here: a neurosis, engendered by technologies of reproduction, that what is happening is not real unless captured and remediated. The real is being reshaped through technics; so is the flow of time....
BA: The videogame comparison is fascinating. There is no question that many controllerists learned their button pushing in arcades, and in fact some of the more interesting ones (I mentioned Golden and Moldover) are obsessed with arcade button-based controllers. But I don't think it's that far removed from a "tactile interface with material surfaces"—it's a different tactile experience to be sure but that's not the point. I agree DJing needs challenges, but surely they don't have to be the same challenges over and over again, do they?
tV: Indeed they do not—though in the performance of repetitive music, certain challenges return, and form the skillset of turntablism. Like any instrument, one ought to repeat and reinterpret the limits of what came before. With new challenges wrought from new technologies, I think we need to ask what kind of temporal experience —what kind of dance floor matrix—is coming to the fore with controllerism. All the great dance-oriented turntablists weaved sonic narratives over marathon sets... this is why Laurent Garnier but also Ricardo Villalobos are excellent DJs... so to this end it appears that controllerism, as an aesthetic regime, pursues a novel, 21st century ADD-technics of temporality in which one shortcuts directly to mash-up speeds without any sense of where one is going, how one got there, or more importantly, why. It's a blitzkrieg of sound all at once, like a sped-up videogame at the Nth level.
In short, we need to ask whether controllerism has much to do with ritual dance culture. Controllerism tends toward a different material-aesthetic matrix at this level and at the limit, the audiences respond accordingly by not dancing but watching. That controllerist devices can be used to "DJ" with the style of a turntablist is, of course, already a given here (and in this sense, somewhat of a depleted automation of turntablism). What is more precisely the point is how controllerism forms its aesthetic regime, insofar as it constitutes its difference from turntablist rhythmic assemblages.
To this end the aesthetic regime of controllerism perhaps owes more to the proliferation of popular videogaming software oriented toward music performance, such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and MAGIX Music Maker.
Preceding these was a quite infamous Sony Playstation game called REZ, with a soundtrack that built up in discrete elements correlative to one's success in the game. The building-block sound was designed by Japanese techno producer Ken Ishii, no less:
Listen to the gameplay on the above—it sounds like controllerism.
The gameplay of Rez sets the precedent for the new Child of Eden game developed for Xbox Kinect:
With these videogames, music production is not tangential but integrated into the visual flow of the game. Does this not articulate something of the new aesthetic regime of controllerism? Gaming appears to imply a new relationship of the auditory to the visual. The visual cues matter as much as if not more than the rhythm assemblage. At the limit, screens have overtaken speakers. One is aiming to hit various buttons at the right cue points as graphically represented. Many controllers react with colour and visual cues, which is perhaps why controllerists seem more interested in their boxes (as a videogaming experience for them) than the audience (which is watching them play, to a degree). Certainly this is the case with any screen, which absorbs all eyeballs. Everyone is absorbed in screens. Restaurants and bars seemingly can't let people eat without having screens to watch. How many of us check their mobiles in the middle of discussions? This is a transcultural phenomenon. Indeed, this aesthetic regime implies a new realm of visual seduction, to sample the Baudrillard you deployed earlier; controllers seduce you with visual cues, demand that you watch them, such as the Tenori-On:
So I think the videogaming correlative is, perhaps, useful as a way to differentiate the aesthetic regime of controllerism. Could it not be hyperthesized that controllerism is not borne from turntablism, but from videogaming as an aesthetic experience of interfacing with visual-sonic interfaces? Have not cultural and music critics, insofar as they belong to the turntablist generation, mistaken controllerists for extending the performative apparatus and rules of engagement of turntablism, when controllerists have not; they come from elsewhere? Their paradigm is entirely different.
The videogaming paradigm explains, in my mind, the attitudinal difference between approaching turntables and controllers in regards to the goal of the performance. In turntablism one is forced to encounter the audience with sound and to, as the classic sample goes, take the dance floor "on a journey through sound". With controllerism, one is gaming with the controller itself, and playing by its encoded rules, as part of a visual experience for the performer where the sound is but the secondary effect of satisfying what is primarily a tactile-visual relationship.
Thus much confusion arises when trying to think that turntablism and controllerism claim the same cultural values of authenticity. Controllerism is an entirely different aesthetic regime. It ought to be recognised as such, and analysed as an entirely different lineage of technics (which is not to say that it does not share much with the technics of turntablism, but that a rupture has taken place). If one were to begin such an analysis, the first marker is, perhaps, the miniaturization of screens. When the visual screen overtook the sonic, a different aesthetic regime arose. This aesthetic regime has to do with videogaming as an operational aesthetic not only for DJing, but for encountering being-with-others in general... from mobile phones to the explosion of screens in nearly every public/private place.
BA: Tobias—in between making revisions I've been spinning drum 'n' bass on vinyl today, thinking about infinity and pi.... a few more thoughts come to mind.
It's interesting what you say about screens and watching. I think a big issue here has nothing to do with beatmatching but more to do with the introduction of the visual element into the performative interface. The screen in particular seems not just an information display or a visual cue; it "fabricates non-communication"; it stands in between individuals in a reciprocally alienating gesture. The proliferation of screens in everyday life is in some ways a confirmation that Guy Debord (1995) was right all along. (For me there is still very much a question of authenticity here insofar as the spectacle makes the true "a moment of the false"). I'm not saying your whole thesis is about the spectacle, but I think there's important resonance with that idea. The video game comparison makes sense in that light.
I still think the comparison is exaggerated—yes you make music in Guitar Hero but as I said it's a byproduct of killing dots. And while controllerist performances often sound quite awful if evaluated as musical pieces, the same is true of early turntablist performances, particularly those designed for competition. Listen—without watching—to Q-Bert's 1991 DMC routine, for example, and tell me it's something you would dance to. That may be simply about the historical development of the medium and technique—compare C2C's 2006 DMC performance, which I could listen to again and again without even caring that it was performed exclusively on turntables. Nevertheless your point is quite compelling—making music becomes something we do through our interaction with the screens rather than through our interaction with an audience. Certainly there's more to "look" forward to in boxes like the Tenori-on (I'm sure you know the Monome as well, and the Arc is beautiful) than in more computer screens. I think some of the most interesting controller work is trying to integrate feedback into the controllers themselves rather than relying on screen watching. But no question that video game culture and controllerism culture are intertwined...
Though the screen issue may simply be a magnification of the underlying issue of having any visual feedback at all—the idea of being able to play "blind" as a sign of virtuosity that you mentioned earlier. Then again, before DVS, people still complained that DJs were looking down at their records and mixers. Could I DJ with vinyl completely blindfolded? Better than with controllers I imagine but maybe not; I shudder to think of how I would pick out a record, drop the needle in the right spot and hit all the right buttons and faders. And I think of all the other visual cues that I use when spinning vinyl—the grooves of the record tell me how much time I have before the breakdown; glancing at the position of the faders and knobs while my hands are on the record; etc. There are too many variables involved—no matter what, this isn't like picking up a violin or balalaika and being able to hit the right notes without opening your eyes.
tV: Indeed, the prevalence of the screen in social interactions and in mobile communications demonstrates how the screen has become the "subjectile," the surface of communications that permeates everyday life. The persistence of the screen—its pervasive or ubiquitous nature, in the sense of computing—signals a shift in the technical distribution of the senses. This technical shift affects the boundaries of the public/private, and what is proper to each sphere. This broader technological movement—ubicomp, ambient intelligence, pervasive computing, etc.—calls for a recognition of what might be called the "visual turn" in DJ culture. Controllerism is, like videogaming, a form of haptic computing. The reorganisation of auditory communications and practices into ubiquitous computing has, for the most part, subsumed the auditory to the visual, which is why we are facing a technical redistribution of the sense. Pervasive computing ties together the thorny questions of authenticity, virtuosity, and visualization in the niche study of DJ culture to questions concerning the technics of the senses in philosophy and communication/technology studies. In short, it's a valuable insight, and DJ culture provides a unique point of departure.
From the perspective of electronic music performance, it is the paradigm of the "live laptop performance" of the early 2000s which has converged with DJing as a form of both performance and production (see Cascone 2000 and van Veen 2002). This convergence arises with the digitization of the archive, thus rendering it malleable (a possibility Hawtin pointed out in 2001), along with the mashup and remix possibilities built into DVS and other DJ software. DJing has shifted from performing the analog archive through the techniques of the turntablist instrument to remixing digitally archived music "live" using computerized interfaces. This convergence finds its aesthetics with videogaming but also with an earlier conception of the DJ, with software visually representing the mixing-desk consoles of dub music performance in the early 1980s (in particular with Ableton Live). So as controllerism renders beatmatching obsolescent, drawing its visual-tactile interface from videogaming, it can depict itself in the aesthetic form of an even older form: the dub performer's mixing desk.
Of course, it is the screen which is at stake here and not visuality per se. A screen signifies waveforms, track information, and so on. Its role is to aesthetically represent the encoded activities of computing processes that translate tactile input into binary processes. Touch screens combine the two fields of visual iterability and haptic interactivity, as the flat surface of the screen is also the haptic interface itself.
An observation: while DJs who beatmatch often close their eyes, hands on the controls like a pilot, and ride the mix, DJs attached to the screen appear completely locked to its graphs and constant information, eyeballs and all, to the point where they do not object to the laptop being placed at head height, blocking their body from the audience. As the laptop screen occupies the eyeballs of the performer, it displaces the performer's interface with the audience. Something of the sound system's feedback loop between performer/dance floor is thrown into disarray through an aesthetics of disinterest.
In this respect, I am quite partial to Debord, though I am not sure "spectacle" captures the complexity of technological integration that has come to pass. "Spectacle" will have to be rethought to address the ubiquity of what has become banalized; it still remains identifiable qua spectacle whereas today what we are entering is its ambient aspect, its background effect.
BA: To conclude this discussion all too briefly, I would suggest that much more work needs to be done in terms of teasing out the various aspects of DJ technology and technique and their relationship to discourses of authenticity and virtuosity. Your comments about screens and culture point in some fascinating directions, though I'd hesitate to argue for a strictly "visual turn" as there are so many other factors at play (aurally as well as visually). The ubiquity of the screen, in turn, is a problem of contemporary culture that goes far beyond DJing. And of course I think we have to keep in mind the many different ways in which people experience DJ cultures (and even musical cultures more generally). It is still too early to speculate where controllerist cultures will take us in terms of performance skills, but it seems that the way forward for the buttonistas (and the direction the most interesting ones are heading) is in terms of their interaction with sounds and not just with screens. Controllerism allows for live remixing possibilities that are simply not available to turntablists. The lines between DJing, producing, and live performance of electronic music seem to be blurring as a result.
Bernardo Alexander Attias (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is Professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Northridge. His research is primarily in cultural studies, performance studies, and critical theory; his current projects focus on the legal, aesthetic, and cultural implications of the phonograph. He has been a DJ for over twenty years, spinning eclectic sets incorporating house, hip hop, and drum 'n' bass as well as funk, jazz, and swing. He occasionally blogs at <http://turntablepoetry.com>.
tobias c. van Veen, b. 1978, is doctoral candidate in Philosophy & Communication Studies at McGill University, Managing Editor at Dancecult and a turntablist practitioner of the technology arts. Since 1993 he has disseminated and exhibited work in sound, radio and net-art, performing and intervening with laptop and turntables, renegade sound systems and sonic rituals. His writing on philosophy of technology, AfroFuturism and technoculture has been disseminated worldwide. His next publication, an edited volume tentatively titled Other Planes of There: Afrofuturism Collected, is forthcoming from Wayne State UP. He also mixes a mean absinthe martini. His research blog can be found at <fugitive.quadrantcrossing.org>.
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Eshun, Kodwo. 1999. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet.
Gholz, Carleton S. "Maintaining 'Synk' in Detroit: Two Case Studies in the Remix Aesthetic". Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 2 (1): 45–62.
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Rancière, Jacques. 2006. Politics of Aesthetics. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum Impact.
van Veen, tobias c. 2001. "Digital DJing: Richie Hawtin and the Final Scratch". Discorder (Jancember).
———. 2002. "Laptops & Loops: The Advent of New Forms of Experimentation and the Question of Technology in Experimental Music and Performance". Paper read at University Art Association of Canada, Calgary.
 Conceptechnics articulates well the way in which aesthetic regimes can be read through a materialist ontology of their implemented (as well as signified) discourses. [tV]
 ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder. (Say again?). [tV]
 This game was infamous insofar as an optional attachment resembled (and operated as) a small vibrator that pulsed with the assembled music. [tV]
 Of course controllerist performers do not think of their performance in this way; here the point is not what the subject believes to be the case, but what the technics of the medium undertakes regardless of the subject's "intentions". [tV]
 I'm taking a cue here from Baudrillard's (1981) analysis of television as a medium. [BA]