Philip Jeck – The snap and crackle of pop

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, May 17, 2008.

Philip Jeck

From discarded “memory packages” of another musical age, Philip Jeck sculpts a fresh and haunting new sound. Dan Rule gets into the grooves.

There us a ghost in the speakers. Voices rise, gently at first; operatic wails slowed and softened and abstracted; buried in a fog of ambience and time and record-crackled white noise.

They ascend layer upon layer of soft, rolling static. They breach the surface, surging into clarity, only to be swiftly drawn back, enveloped deep into the droning opacity.

There are instruments too – fragments of songs and compositions and memories – but they are also detached, clouded and severed from context. Lost in time and distance, frequency and sonic matter.

The work of British sound artist Philip Jeck is woven into the fabric of time and history. Using little more than a collection of antiquated ’50s and ’60s turntables, a mixer, and an endless hoard of ragged, scratched and warped vinyl, Jeck has come to create some of the most beautifully mystifying, thoroughly acclaimed and oddly historical ambient music of the past two decades.

“Some people say that time shifts a little bit for them when they’re listening to what I’m doing and I can understand that,” he says on the phone from his home in Liverpool.

“I can understand how the way that one sound leads to another and one sound is stretched in a way that originally it wasn’t, can have that kind of effect. I know that if I don’t have a clock on the table while I’m playing, I really have no idea of how long I’ve been on stage.”

While it would be fair to argue that most of us think of vinyl as an attractive but antiquated musical means, the 56-year-old’s interest isn’t necessarily in the recorded music itself. He describes records as “memory packages”, replete with the tactile remnants – the scratches, the warps, the cracks and crackles – of their lives past. Spend any amount of time with Jeck’s recorded output and you’ll find that his source material’s supposed imperfections play as prominent a role as their original music.

“Each record has so many different things stored in their grooves,” he says. “It’s not just music. In quite a crude way they have history all over them because of the scratches and the damage and the warping that’s happened over time.

“They have all of that in them and even if you don’t recognise the music on the actual original record, there will be some sounds in there that will conjure up some memory or feeling from some time in the past. I do feel like I’m playing with memory and history when I’m playing these records.”

But while Jeck’s source material may be old, the results of his work transcend mere nostalgia. “It’s like reusing and recycling these things to make something new,” he says. “But also I’m exposing those other things that might not have been heard in that way before. Because of the context I put them in, they’ll be heard in a totally different way.”

Working as a composer for theatre and dance companies, and as a solo and installation artist, Jeck has reimagined what it is to be a DJ. His best-known work, 1993’s Vinyl Requiem, saw him wrangle 180 decrepit record players, 12 slide projectors and two film projectors simultaneously and went on to win Time Out London’s performance of the year award. It also saw him mentioned in the same breath as better-known American avant-garde turntablists such as Christian Marclay and David Shea.

Music was originally just an aside for Jeck. He trained as a visual artist at Dartington College in Devon, and while he had collected records since childhood, it was never something he had considered as a creative practice.

The turning point was the first generation of trick dance and hip-hop DJs who emerged in the mid-’70s, such as Grandmaster Flash, Walter Gibbons and Larry Levan. “When I sort of came across that stuff, I just loved it,” he says. “These guys weren’t just playing records but actually mixing them. I just was like, ‘Oh, I can do that’, and I started by, in a way, copying those people.”

JECK STARTED DJ-ING AT London warehouse and art scene parties with a hotchpotch of old equipment and dance records, mixing, warping and looping sounds from two alternate turntables. But it wasn’t until he met acclaimed dance choreographer Laurie Booth in 1984 that he began to consider his odd, recycled sonic creations in an aesthetic or artistic context.

“Laurie invited me to do the music for this show he was doing in Brighton and that seemed to work OK,” he says. “Then, all of a sudden, he got an agent in Holland and suddenly we just got loads and loads of work all over Europe.

“I actually developed what I did and created my own identity, while on the road with him. I spent about six years working with him and touring and I basically got paid to develop my own work. My art training and background came more and more to the fore, and my hobby sort of became my work.”

The immersive, spectral and deeply emotive qualities that typify Jeck’s work today couldn’t be further from the dance music by which it was inspired. “It’s all about the emotional and aesthetic reaction that I have to those tiny parts in the records that would otherwise go unnoticed,” he says.

“In a sort of sculptural way, I try to really bring out these tiny sounds and make them prominent, and try to find some clarity in them. That’s what keeps me going.”

But in another sense, Jeck’s passion for his art is disarmingly simplistic. “What I love with records and record players is that what you see is what you get,” he says.

“You put the needle to the record and that’s the sound, you put your hand on the record and it slows the sound down. You see how the thing works and you can understand what the function is and you can manipulate the sound directly.”

Nevertheless, it’s not always Jeck who is in control. Sometimes the ghosts have their way. “The records and record players improvise more than I do,” he says. “They’re all so old that things just start happening that I wouldn’t have been able to predict.

“They might run slow or fast or skip or something might just appear. It just sparks my imagination to life again.”

Philip Jeck plays The Toff in Town tomorrow night.

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