In The Cut: A Composer’s Guide To The Turntables

As a composer and turntablist, I must admit that I have personally never yet notated the majority of what I do in performance. Playing the turntables part in one of my own compositions has been primarily an outlet for improvisation on top of a planned structure where other elements are fairly fixed. Since I have always anticipated playing the turntables role myself, I haven’t felt the necessity for notation of my own part. While multiple performances of a piece have revealed different choices at the local level, certain large strategies such as an order of samples and their overall treatment in the mix, modes of interaction with other instruments, and the matching of samples with particular scratch techniques, tend to evolve into a quasi-predictable shape. From performance to performance, variation does occur in my pacing, choices of sample emphasis within the sequence, interjection of new samples, and rhythmic energy.

Before considering notation, I would strongly encourage any composer to try improvising with turntables firsthand to experience the unique musical zone encountered when interacting with the slippery, yet fixed, source sounds found on the record. Different types of samples will suggest different strategies for scratching. It is possible to notate some aspects of repeatable sounds on the turntables, and these endeavors (grounded in hands-on experience) are extremely valuable for the development of a conscious consideration of the instrument within a compositional framework.

I have encountered two main approaches to turntable notation, with most examples focusing on scratching rather than mixing. The most widely used, Turntablist Transcription Methodology (TTM), is a system similar to both tablature and the Time Unit Box System (TUBS) developed in the field of ethnomusicology, introducing angled or curving lines to show movement of the record and the sounding time of samples. Rhythm is measured through a grid of boxes representing a fixed division of the beat, usually sixteenth notes, as a consistent reference. Different samples are identified to the left of the staff. TTM was developed by John Carluccio in consultation with prominent DJs including Rob Swift. Carluccio has used this method to transcribe classic scratches from the history of turntablism, demonstrating the notation system while teaching basic scratching and beat-juggling techniques through a self-published booklet. While accepted by some well-known turntablists as a useful means of transcription, very few compositions have been written using the system. The advantages of TTM are in its representation of specific turntable techniques and an “intuitive graphical representation” [Wikipedia] of performance actions, presumably easier for most DJs to learn than conventional notation. For these reasons, it is well worth the consideration of composers. More information on TTM can be found here.

The other common approach to turntable notation uses conventional notes and rests as a basic framework. Many variations on conventional notation will be found in attempts to represent the particular movements of the record versus the faders. Representing the direction of the record, its speed (or pitch), and the intricate rhythmic interaction between the record and fader hands or fingers, are additional challenges for the composer who wishes to faithfully represent what is heard.

One example of an adapted conventional notation for turntables can be found in the exercises of Turntable Technique: The Art of the DJ, by Stephen Webber, available from Berkelee Press. The skill-building etudes in this book, used to teach students in DJ courses at Berkelee School of Music, often use a 2-line system. One line represents the movement of the record while the other line represents sounding time with the fader, communicated through notes and rests for each line. Crescendos and other dynamic markings are also used. As a supplemental measure, forward and backward movement of the record can be easily shown through the use of arrows. There is no attempt to represent the real texture and pitch of the sounds heard through these movements of the record and the fader.

A second example of conventional notation for turntables can be found in the turntable concerto Holy Rollers by Chris Gendall, which I performed with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra in December 2007. The role of the turntable soloist focuses on intricate scratching, developing rhythmic motives through frequent changes in the subdivision of the beat and shifting accents. Changes between three samples are designated, while there is a large amount of freedom that the DJ has in choosing the particular samples.

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Samples 1 and 3 are to be unpitched noise elements, in some way contrasting with each other in volume or sound density. The majority of the turntables part, using these two samples, appears as if it could be for snare drum with only the middle line of the staff used. A tenuto marking above a note indicates that the record should be released to play at the normal speed.

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Sample 2, used in the middle movement of the concerto, is to be a sine tone or other sustained pitch. In this section the part switches from a percussion clef to a treble clef, moving the noteheads to specific lines and spaces, representing “approximate melody”. These pitches, roughly playable with a combination of the “ultra” and “fine” pitch sliders on my Vestax turntable, are to be played by changing the speed of the record. With one hand on the sliders rather than the record itself, large dynamic changes are performed with the other hand on the gain knob or upfader of the mixer.

In my preparation to perform Gendall’s composition, I came up with a few symbols that I wrote into my part to assist me in recording my solutions to various interpretation questions. The first is simply an abbreviation for “Turntable A” (TT-A) or “Turntable B” (TT-B) in order to plan changes between the samples across two decks. To indicate forward or backward movement of the record hand in scratching, I used the conventional symbols for “upbow” or downbow” found in notation for string instruments. To show when a series of notes would be performed with the faders alone, I used a cross symbol. When the rhythms were to be executed through movement of the record, I used a circle with a dot in the center. In places I wrote words to remind me about particular techniques to be used, such as changing “start” and “brake” speeds on the turntable (for glissandi beyond what is possible with the pitch sliders), use of the upfader or gain knob, dragging the record, and the placement of a “crab” scratch.

Composers should keep all options on the table when writing for turntables. In addition to the notation approaches described above, I can imagine many musical situations when a more abstract type of graphic notation, in combination with text, would be the best solution. Within the framework of conventional notation, the use of contour lines above the staff could be of great benefit in communicating the pitch and record-direction aspects of scratching. As the turntables continue to make their way into compositional practice, the various notation methods are sure to cross-pollinate and lead to new approaches to the turntable score. I wish the best of luck to all composers embarking on this path.

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