Nowadays, it's easy to take for granted how unusual DJing is.
Recorded music played for a captive audience; the rhythms juggled, connections made between various types of sounds, elongated and shortened as seen fit. It's an artistic rendition of recorded material. In a DJ's hand, the music flourishes in an entirely new context.
Camilla Sørensen and Greta Christensen – identified together as Vinyl Terror and Horror - continue in this lineage with their abrasive sound art. On stage, Sørensen and Christensen begin playing one record before slowly adding multiple records to join in; be they hovering over the first turntable or dropped in from above, jukebox style. The records they use are worn down, scratched beyond belief or reassembled from various records or newly fitted, with a number of monstrous-looking embellishments like shards of glass. The sound they create is a pure cacophony. The harshness of the soundscapes teasingly interrupted every now and then by a comforting sound: the warm crackle of a record player, string sections, the lamentations of a female singer. Then, back to the racket.
Since their first performance in 2003, the Berlin-based duo have released records (the most recent being 2010's Moviethemes), performed at various European art spaces and festivals like Nordberg and Colour Out Of Space, been responsible for multiple sound installations, and terrified many a person with their performances. Yet as far as they are concerned, they're uninterested in any expectations of fulfilling a creative lineage. Christensen tells me over Skype, "I guess we probably follow in a tradition of the avant-garde but we don't think too much about this." On whether they consider themselves DJs: "We've played all sorts of parties, but we don't play much different than what we usually do."
Sørensen and Christensen met at Copenhagen's Royal Danish Art Academy in 2001 while studying sculpture, and decided to collaborate on a series of soundscapes. After exploring a shared interest in Hammond organs, they decided that there was little interest in learning how to play a traditional instrument. Using vinyl was convenient as it was readily available from Copenhagen's charity shops, and interesting as a sculptural item. "In a very sculptural sense, the sound is directly connected to the material alongside the recorded material, which has its own time and its own history," Christensen says. "The record as an object that you can work with very directly and manipulate. We turn it into something new."
After relocating to Berlin in 2003, the duo began performing and came upon their moniker by accident. "At a flyer for one of the shows," Sørensen relates, "we saw a description written underneath our names of what we do: vinyl terror. We added the horror just because we were two – so one could be the terror and one could be the horror." I press them: which member is the terror and which is the horror? They pause and think carefully over their response, before deciding that there is a bit of both in each of them.
This appears to be the modus operandi of the Vinyl Terror and Horror project – to bring out the unsettling side of record playing by turning the audio format into a living wreck. Christensen admits that this is all done with the aim of a narrative purpose: "It's a project based on disasters. The sound is about creating disasters." Alongside Sørensen, she finds discount recordings of operas, classical music and sets about distorting their forms for storytelling purposes.
"We pick this material for very atmospheric storytelling. It'd almost the way a soundtrack would work with a movie, except we want everything to be represented through the music. And of course, there's a visual element of us using the music. You can hear the difference when a needle comes on a specific record and you can see why it sounds like that. Some of the sounds are very horrific, but it makes sense because of how the record looks."
The pressings that Sørensen and Christensen create are twisted and fascinating to watch in motion, as their Vimeo channel attests, but they believe that there is still potential in twisting the image further. "We've been using images of crop circles," Christensen says of their recent work. "They're often these circular geometric shapes. We're using this pattern and transferring it to a musical thing. Of course, there's no physical connection [to crop circles], but there's a visual one."
Sørensen chimes in on possibly their most notorious mutation, a modified copy of the BBC field record Off Beat Sound Effects with shards of glass. "The cover had a picture already of glass breaking. Then we took a hammer to a plate of glass that had exactly the same format and exchanged bits between the record and the glass plates." Some artists and labels press together re-edits or colour variants – Vinyl Terror and Horror go one step further and blend records with relatively alien material.
This take-no-prisoners approach that Sørensen and Christensen have been following since 2003 is one that they take very seriously. When posed with a question, they usually let the question sink in before answering it succinctly, supported by sculptural references and formal transgressions. When posed with whether they want to be seen as pranksters, they respond with a quick, emphatic "No". They may not show much traditionally-minded love to the records that they re-configure, but they are respectful of the artists' works that they are utilising in their act. "It's a fine line, how to use other people's music," Christensen tells me.
"Not just because of the copyright law, but you want to be respectful towards the work that other people made." The atmospheric impact of the audio snippets is what matters to the Danes, not their reconcilability. "We don't take famous samples that would make people say "Oh, that's a Michael Jackson sample!'" To protect themselves, they work hard to "camouflage" the remnants of music they make, looping multiple pieces of music over each other.
The horror and terror of Sørensen and Christensen's work is obvious up-front, but the respect and admiration for the form of vinyl is evident just under the surface. The cacophony of the noise they make appears to say that even the most discarded records could have another life, messy though it may be. It's a celebration of the vinyl format. They may not consider themselves DJs or heirs to the avant-garde history of DJ culture, but they certainly are doing their part to keep vinyl alive. At the same time, the duo tell me they are not reacting against the ongoing digitalisation of music.
"We are not against it but we put a great value in the analog," Christensen says. Interestingly, the two collaborators have different views in regards to their own personal listening habits, with Christensen adamantly sticking to analog ("it somebody wants to listen to it in bad resolution, in an mp3, well… it's up to them") while Sørensen favours her laptop ("I know it's a compressed format but I don't have a problem listening"). They both agree that if you can, buy Vinyl Terror and Horror's upcoming album (date TBC) on vinyl – and don't hesitate to cut it up. "It would be cool, but not many people do this," Christensen confesses, even after putting out a picture-disc that allowed people to cut up the record so to properly assemble an image. "If there's too much focus on how it's a pity for the record, it's not working!" It has to be horrific, after all.
Vinyl Terror and Horror are playing Swedish Energies London: EMS 50! at Café Oto, London on 8th March.
Their current sound installation 'In the Spotlight' can be found in GI Holtegaard, Copenhagen, until 23rd March.