Published on Art & Music
The dense reverb is always there. Artist Stephen Cornford has to speak up to be heard. In the room are eight customized turntables on plinths with speakers. None are switched on, but all are plugged in. And that is enough to make the air throb in Brighton’s tiny Permanent Gallery.
“This show sounds so different from how it did a month ago,” he tells me. “Some are quieter. Some are louder. These are things which I deliberately don’t want to control, for instance that noise which you hear now, and it does different things.”
It’s worth pointing out that the units do not play records. They play ball bearings, marbles, springs, gravel and empty bells. They have slipmats made from metal or stone. Each one produces three or so minutes of chaotic noise when activated.
The turntables are a new departure for the Devon-based sculptor, who more often puts instruments to such strange uses. He uses motors to swing an electric guitar and powered-up amp around in an “aeolian loop”. Or spins guitars and a bass round the gallery to create an “aleatory song”. Or vibrates the necks of a row of wired up guitars.
Cornford says his interest lies in the iconography of the object: “The electric guitar is if you like a symbol of rock culture, of youth culture, of this kind of rite of passage of young people to make music, not only young people I guess. And throughout its history it’s been reinvented as music has moved forward, as rock and roll music has moved forward.”
On a more classical note, he has also done unusual things with a piano. This has included putting contact mics inside the casing to play with the tone of different strings. Electromagnetic pick-ups have turned the tinkling ivories into a drone instrument. He’s even clamped firebell motors to the bass notes.
“The piano I kind of see as the icon of classical composition,” Cornford explains. “It’s what a composer uses. Most classical composers would sit down at a piano. They wouldn’t have all the other instruments available to them when they’re writing their concerto or whatever, so it kind of sits as, yes, as the icon of that field.”
The sculptor defies each instrument’s traditional function by exploring their shape, size, weight and resonance. He claims to be more concerned with physical characteristics than musical properties: “I don’t really have an interest in music as notes, as bars, as melody. I’ve just got an interest in the sound phenomena that these things are capable of creating.”
Inevitably though, things get musical. Cornford has begun to perform improvised gigs and comes to the interview fresh from a set of feedback in which a snare drum became a string instrument. He has produced a 7” single to accompany the Works for Turntables show. And his slightly wild curly hair certainly puts one in mind of a musician.
But the term “anti-music” still brings forth a pleased chuckle: “I guess I try not to draw any lines around what is music and what isn’t music, which is a very old Cagean idea, but I really try to look at all sound as potential music. All noise is potential music, just depending on the ear of the beholder.” Indeed John Cage was one of the first composers to work with a phonograph turntable.
Cornford admits he has friends who don’t like his automated and improvised pieces: “They’ll say ‘Oh, it’s just horrible sounds!’ and I sometimes think that’s almost like a moral objection to unpleasant sounds.” Instead, he argues that music, like art, need not be beautiful.
After pondering the differences between those two worlds, he suggests: “Maybe music just kind of plugs so straight into you. You can’t close your ears to ignore it and it resonates with you in ways we don’t entirely understand.
“And because of that,” he adds with a grin, “People don’t really like it when it makes them feel kind of nervous or awkward.” At this point his record players, which have us surrounded, seem to hum in agreement. Cornford’s non-musical music has been misunderstood for too long.