What Does Your Soul Look Like?

DJ Shadow - What Does Your Soul Look Like EP.JPG

It was by the most serendipitous circumstances that I happened upon this magical musical discovery. It would be more accurate to state that the piece found me when I was ready to receive it. I’d recently revisited DJ Shadow’s complex turntablist opus, Endtroducing and found one particular track title resurfacing in my mind again and again after I’d put the record away. The track appears in two parts on the album – the classic, “What Does Your Soul Look Like?”

Perhaps it was the existential considerations which had been present in my mind of late, but at one fateful moment I felt curious enough to research the title and quickly discovered that the two segments from the LP are edits from a four-part extended work released as an EP fully-exploring the nocturnal and reflective territory hinted at by the selections on Endtroducing. I quickly secured a copy of the EP and cued it up.

It was instantly apparent that this was going to be an exceptional recording. Much in the spirit of Moondog’s microcosmic symphonies, What Does Your Soul Look Like Pts I-IV is effectively DJ Shadow’s own symphonique. There are even sonic similarities to what Moondog dubbed, “snaketime” in the way the focus and rhythm shifts constantly and fluidly throughout the four movements.

Before the session completed, I really felt it was a piece I’d like to have in an original pressing to enjoy spinning again and again. There was only one copy listed for sale in the States, belonging to DJ Tom Thump. Tom has played at shows or opened for Gilles Peterson, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Thievery Corporation, Bonobo (5 times), Morrissey, Jamiroquai, Femi Kuti, Tricky, Morcheeba, The Original Meters, Gang of Four, George Clinton, Bonobo, and many others. I trusted that this would be a disc handled with care.

I dialed it up, loud, and extinguished all lamps until the sound engulfed the room. What follows is the play-by-play of my experience.

Pt II:

A brief horn instrumental innocently opens the disc, followed by a haunting voice singing lonely with interspersed bass-drenched speech:

“We are standing here at the edge of time…”

(Cold…)

“Our road was paved to the edge of time…”

(Steel… Sparks…)

“Come with me now to the edge of time…”

(Does anyone remember who I am?)

And then silence. And a narrator, (sampled from the 1983 film, Brainstorm), tells the listener that this is their last chance to turn back with a cautionary warning:

“In a few moments, you will have an experience which will seem completely real…

It will be the result of your subconscious fears, transformed to your conscious awareness…

You have 5 seconds to terminate this tape…

5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

And on the “one” a steady, persistent guitar loop ushers the listener in and a swirl of sustained strings, snippets of soulful vocals, DJ scratching, jazz licks, and funky percussion gradually transport you into the dark, contemplative world Shadow has built on this EP.

The guitar and drums carry on for more than ten minutes while a vast array of samples weave their way in and out of the piece. There are glimpses of Richard Harris, a reflective soliloquy from the 1973 film, Johnny Got His Gun, Willie Bobo and company’s “Shelley’s Blues”, and several others before the instrumentation finally relents, leaving the listener with the eerily emotionless android voice from George Lucas’ THX-1138 speaking:

“Can you feel this? … What is that buzzing? … Are you now, or have you ever been? … Move slowly.”

Shadow brilliantly evokes a disquieting sense of unease while simultaneously creating a cerebral space that is endlessly intriguing and the listener eagerly presses on.

Pt III:

A rise of bubbling and echo-laden spoken word fragments, chimes, flute, and minimal piano create a mesmerizing atmosphere for the opening of the second movement.  The speech is from the 1980 sci-fi film, Altered States.

“…I’m asking you to make a small quantum jump with me, to accept one deviant concept – that our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking state and that reality can be externalized!…

…We’re beyond mass and matter here, beyond even energy. What we’re back to is the first thought!”

And suddenly, a bass drum and hi-hat kick in full force front and center of the soundstage. Flute and piano are sprinkled in jazzlike hits accompanied by scratching and high-frequency tones from an indiscernible instrument. There is a momentary release from the percussion and the jazzy traces hang in the air before its energetic return to close the track. And not a drop of this sounds artificial or electronically-contrived. There is a brilliant fluidity and ever-present organic quality about this entire record, which keeps the sound fresh and timeless despite the nearly twenty-five years that have passed since its composition.

Pt IV:

A smattering of dystopian dialog (lifted from the movie Dead Calm), humming machinery, and ominous indistinguishable noises return the listener to the dark, melancholic environ that so much of this record occupies. And swiftly, a fleeting rest signals the introduction of the classic, “WDYSLL? (Pt IV)” we all know and love from Endtroducing. The track is an intimate, cerebral, and undeniably classy foray into minimal, soulful jazz turntablism. The vocal elements are restrained, subtle, and perplexingly elusive. This selection expertly captures the lonely, somber, and introspective space that DJ Shadow explored over the course of his universally-lauded epic debut LP.

Pt I:

A booming low-register voice utters the word, “…ONE…” followed by a single bell chime and an array of jazzy components for the briefest introductory moment before the percussion manifests and seizes your full attention. Fantastically sparse horns and traces of a choir appear… (or is it my imagination?) And a mournful voice (evidently sampled from Shawn Phillips’ “All Our Love”) sings words which drift into and out of comprehensibility:

“And why should we want to go back where we were, how many years… (could that have been?)”

“And why should we want to live a life that’s past and nevermore… (will ever be?)”

Which is followed by crooning in Italian – the voice of Gianni Nazzaro singing, “C’era Già” which, I believe, translates thusly:

“…and there was already this love that we live long ago, there was already a rose I gave you… the songs I sang, the sadness in joy…”

There is a beautiful sorrow and sophistication from start to finish on this record, and it really works to create a world the listener can disappear into. The final “Pt 1” movement has seven distinct known samples, including “Nucleus” by The Alan Parsons Project, “Voice of the Saxophone” by The Heath Brothers, the aforementioned lyrical excerpt from “All Our Love” by Shawn Phillips, percussion from David Young’s “Joe Splivingates”, the legendary “This is not a dream” pirate broadcast from John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, and finally, “…It is happening again…” from the episode “Lonely Souls” of the TV series Twin Peaks. These elements coalesce seamlessly into one cohesive lucid dream of an album.

After a single breath, the female voice from the opening of the disc warmly repeats the now-familiar phrase, “here we are at the edge of time…”

And then, with tranquil grace and incalculable ease, the instrumentation trails off leaving silence, depositing the listener back to this mortal world. Enter the final, seventh sample for the closing movement – a dialog between two characters from Westworld saying,

“Don’t you want to listen?”

“Nah, I heard it the last time.”

And the needle raises and returns, leaving the listener awed and transformed.

Philosophical Wax – Artistic Influence Comes Full-Circle

With the whole of my Saturday evening at my command I decided to delve deeper into the culture surrounding a yet-unread title on my bookshelf – The notorious Illuminatus! Trilogy.  Little did I know that the exploration would bring a number of my artistic and musical favorites full-circle in a sphere of related influence!

Discordia and Illuminati sm

Having read Malaclypse the Younger’s Principia Discordia, (a wonderful bit of counter-cultural madness), I already had a fundamental (mis)understanding of the lunacy that is Discordianism.  But in my readings, there were multiple references to its earlier incarnation – the social revolutionaries known as The Situationist International.

For those unfamiliar with the group, their philosophy is, for the most part, summarized thusly:

[Situationism] is derived primarily from anti-authoritarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism.  Overall, situationist theory represented an attempt to synthesize this diverse field of theoretical disciplines into a modern and comprehensive critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism.

Essential to situationist theory was the concept of the spectacle, best-illustrated in Guy Debord’s 1967 book and found-footage film – each titled, La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle).

The Spectacle is a criticism of advanced Capitalism, where real-life experiences are replaced with the commodified consumerist culture of living through one’s possessions.  The Situationists viewed this passive consumption as damaging to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.  Instead of living vicariously through one’s purchases and property, the Situationists sought to create situations – moments of life deliberately constructed for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life and adventure, and the liberation of everyday life.

The film, The Society of the Spectacle (1973) is available in its entirety, dubbed Fr subbed Eng here:

And only a few years later, the film Network (1976) would similarly address the societal dangers of mass media.

network

This philosophy was clearly an influence on the hippie art scene of the 1960 with their staging of nearly-spontaneous Happenings.  I was honored to attend the first Happening of the season in Buffalo for an impromptu performance of Terry Riley’s In C with participation from children in the audience.

Tracking the influence back even further (and then again, to the present) I learned of the French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the mid-1940s by Romanian immigrant Isidore Isou known as Lettrisme (Lettrism) and his concept of Hypergraphics in 1954.

Here is an Orson Welles Interview featuring Isidore Isou and Lettrist poetry – rich with Dadaist influence.

In 1958, Columbia Records issued the very first recordings of Letterist poetry – Maurice Lemaître presente le lettrisme.

This poetry adds another level of historical context to the performance I attended by composer Ethan Hayden at the University at Buffalo this past January.  While there was likely a Situationist influence on his work, “…ce dangereux supplément…” (2015) for solo voice (with optional electronics & video), Hayden’s piece is phonetically and linguistically more refined (though equally absurd!) both in its content and his delivery.  While I absolutely recognize the importance of Isidore Isou’s philosophy and his primitivist poems, Hayden has a far-greater command of language (or perhaps of nonsense?) and I look forward to his future performances.

And in 2007 to celebrate the life of Isou, The End of the Age of Divinity was published in his honor.  The book is available for free below.

http://antisystemic.org/SW/TheEndOfTheAgeOfDivinity-Enkutatach409.pdf

Once again coming full-circle to more recent artistic movements, Lettrism brought me to aforementioned Lettrist hypergraphical art, pictured below.

GrammeS_-_Ultra_Lettrist_hypergraphics

While I am by no means a scholar of art history, the influence here is clear as day on the 1990s typographic art of David Carson (famed for his work in Raygun Magazine and for Nine Inch Nails) and on Karl Hyde and John Warwicker’s Tomato art collective, which created the deconstructivist typographical art for Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman.

The work of David Carson…

dfh_david_carsondfh_david_carson1

and of Tomato…

mmm...skyscraper-01

Art of this nature is rooted in the cut-up technique first employed by the Dadaists in the 1920 and again in the late 1950s and early 1960s by William S. Burroughs.  But it was the audio incarnation of cut-up that I first encountered in music culture, from the earliest (and quite literal) tape cut-ups of musique concrete, to the resurfacing of the method by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Eno, and others, to the explosion of sampledelica culture in 1980s and 90s hip-hop and turntablism.

And around the same time, the radical and subversive art of culture jamming was born.  The term, coined in 1984, refers to any form of guerilla communication, such as the vandalist works by The Billboard Liberation Front and the illegal-art sample-based music of Negativland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All of this brought me back, yet again full-circle to The KLF.  The documentary, On the Passage of a few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1956-1972 contains flashes of the phrase,

“The Time for Art is Over.”

This very notion was later reiterated by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the KLF in the K Foundation’s cryptic adverts appearing in UK national newspapers in 1993.  The first ad proclaimed,

K_Foundation_-_Abandon_All_Art_Now_Print

The Situationist documentary is available on Youtube in 3 parts.

It is only now that I realize that John Higgs’ endlessly fascinating book, THE KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds directly referenced the Situationists, the Discordians, Alan Moore and “Ideaspace”, and Robert Anton Wilson – all of the key figures I am now exploring.

klf_paperback_cover_phoenix

Incredible discoveries are waiting to be made every day, and quiet Saturday evenings, like yesterday’s, are gleaming with potential for magic just like this. I’ve now a week ahead of me and a century of exciting new art to explore.