Signing In Tongues
DJ Spooky at the Emerald Lounge
Asheville, North Carolina
Sunday Night - Monday Morning
8/18/02 - 8/19/02
"Rousseau walks on trumpet paths
Safaris to the heart of all that jazz
Through I-bars and girders, through wires and pipes
The mathematic circuits of the modern nights
Through huts, through Harlem, through jails and gospel pews
Through the class on Park and the trash on Vine
Through Europe and the deep deep heart of Dixie blue
Through savage progress cuts the jungle line"
- Joni Mitchell
With only 30 people at the Emerald Lounge, and less than 15 people on
the dance floor, DJ Spooky created the most spiritual live music i've
heard since 1990, when the Kronos Quartet played Arvo Part's
"Fratres" in Sewanee, Tennessee, and I was unable to speak afterwards
for three hours. I was literally dumbstruck. Arvo Part had brought
conviction; tonight DJ Spooky brought worship.
Critics compare Coltrane's late-era playing to speaking in tongues.
For three hours, DJ Spooky was signing in tongues, like an ecstatic
deaf person in the throes of some heavy supernatural experience,
passionately trying to convey the unspeakable with his hands. The
set was less cohesive than any of Coltrane's live 50+ minute jams.
Instead, Spooky sounded more like a frenetic, [re]contextualizing
Cecil Taylor – cultural commentary via syncopation.
I was unaccountably struck by the fact that DJ Spooky is a musician.
Most DJ's rely on the musicianship of the artists they spin, letting
the discs ride while they themselves focus on how not to mess up the
next cut. Not Spooky. He was constantly busy, scratching discrete
musical phrases as if he were playing an instrument (which, of
course, he was). He wasn't just mixing and he wasn't just
scratching, he was constructing new music.
DJ Spooky evinced an obvious intimacy with and appreciation of his
source material, but it was not the appreciation that a collector has
for his antique cars. It was more like the appreciation a carpenter
has for his galvanized nails. This was "his" music. He didn't own
it in the way contemporary Americans own land (in deed); he owned it
in the way native Americans owned land (in relationship). Spooky's
source material was a part of him, and he made himself a part of it
as we listened.
The dance halls and cafes
Feel so wild you could break somebody's heart
Just doing the latest dance craze"
- Joni Mitchell
I dance like a freak. I stand in front of the speaker with the
loudest bass, close my eyes, and assign different frequencies to
specific parts of my body. I'm sure I look like an epileptic
metalhead, but it doesn't really matter, because "we need body
rockin, not perfection (let me get some action from the back
section)." This "frequency-to-body-part" dance technique failed me
several times tonight. At points, the mix got so dense with
disparate intention, I was literally parylized. All I could do was
stand there laughing and wait for the music to release me.
Not content to let any genre ride for more than five minutes, DJ
Spooky took us on a tour of tabla funk, drum and bass, dub, reggae,
house, and '80s electronica. I.M. Pei says of architecture, "I don't
like 'isms.' Modernism, Classicism. To me it's just architecture."
Tonight, it was just music.
If Cecil Taylor-esque in terms of literal hands-on busyness and
exploration, Spooky proved a rudimentary Charles Mingus in terms of
melodic/thematic composition. Most DJ's don't pay much mind to
melody, but Spooky was tone-conscious, weaving melodic riffs and
tropes while simultaneously tweaking their attendant backbeats.
The whole performance was permeated by DJ Spooky's overarching
awareness that he is onto something new, relevant, and substantive.
He was not DJ-ing, providing dance music, making art, scratching,
mixing, or any single thing. He was celebrating the who/when/where
of his existence. In that aspect, even though none of the music was
overtly jazz-based, it felt like avant garde jazz. It was "in the
moment" like an unforecastable Ornette Coleman jam. The discs
themselves may have been time-shifted, but the music was live.
"Shining hair and shining skin
Shining as she reeled him in"
- Joni Mitchell
I left and drove the 20 minutes home crying most of the way. Through
the mountains of western North Carolina, past the cow pastures and
old barns and farm houses to my house in Dutch Cove, where my wife
and kids are sleeping now. And I'm writing this in an attempt to do
the show some kind of public justice before its inspiration dissolves
into my own personal reservoir.
Because tonight, surrounded by redneck/hippie ravers drinking
moonshine and dancing contrived, I experienced the real deal.
Someone was birthing something living and risky and celebratory in
the midst of our timid, detatched, stillborn, contemporary coprus. I
could feel it; I saw it shining; and it made me move.
- Curt Cloninger
Signing In Tongues