The Story Of Three Circles
DJ Shadow and Sub Pop's 'anthology of noise'

The first circle contains music by DJ Shadow, it's collective title is The Private Press. The printed press's eagerness to talk to him, being reciprocated in the name of publicity, means that by now you are probably familiar with it's existence, it's contents, and the thoughts of Josh Davis. Lately he's been only slightly easier to avoid than the World Cup. Personally, I don't want to avoid either. This puts me in the rare position of being in tune with what large sections of different communities are ready and very willing to embrace. I don't join in the mass drool-in over any Big Album's these days, but The Private Press is an exception.

Two of these circles are related to football from an entirely personal perspective. They're called an anthology of noise & electronic music and, like the beautiful game, I must try to avoid burdening my girlfriend with them. She does not like football, and would like this double CD even less.

Jane likes The Private Press though, which is understandable because whatever else happens it's driven by rhythm. It's also melodious. These two factors go some way to describing the popularity of DJ Shadow amongst people who would not necessarily embrace the tradition from which he comes; hip-hop. Evidence of that tradition resides in track no.4, 'Walkie Talkie', which contains, amongst the swift cut'n'scratch behaviour, the boast that 'He's a bad muthafuckin' DJ'. Shadow's badness, however, lies in his ability to translate avant-garde studio methodology regarding sampled fragments, rather than cross-fade or stylus skills. For albums like this, Davis becomes the ultimate home boy, happy to immerse himself in the task of creating new music from his treasured vinyl collection.

There's enough diversity on The Private Press to suggest a gradual expansion of Shadow's repertoire. The single, 'You Can't Go Home Again', veers close to the sound of 80s synth pop at times, although the assembled breaks, and the attitude, ensure the avoidance of anything like retro kitsch. 'Six Days' lifts, virtually wholesale, a song by Colonel Bagshot, and transforms it into a modern folk protest number courtesy of a contemporary yet timeless rhythm. Lesser exponents who might dabble in such behaviour would have simply added a 'big beat'.

There are big beats here, especially on 'Right Thing', the pure acid-tinged energy of which would not sound out of place on any dance-floor. But the following track, 'Monosylabik', reminds us that Shadow has not stagnated over the last six years. During the six minutes-plus the deconstruction of drum'n'bass constantly mutates but never loses it's rhythmic momentum. This track begins a trio which, in my opinion, constitute the heart of the album despite, or because of, the fact that each part differs greatly from the other. After the technical exercise comes a burst of energy in the form of 'Mashin' Up The Motorway'. Guest rapper Lateef The Truth Speaker delivers the monologue by a road rage-inducing maniac on the highway to hell. The beat

'Blood On The Motorway' is an epic in Shadow's own tradition. Having forced beat-heads to wonder what their souls looked like in '96, Davis once again achieves the almighty impression that we're listening to something like a soundclash between Van Morrison, Mahler, and Photek (?). The perfectly calculated structure evokes an emotional response as skilfully as the best Hollywood directors. After a lengthy silence midway through (ah, the anticipation) he brings in the strings and the up-tempo percussion for the climatic finale before the lone vocal contemplates, once more, the theme of eternity.

In the sleeve-notes Davis talks about realising 'a greater appreciation for the vastness of music' before suggesting that 'The possibilities are truly endless'. The big question now is whether Shadow will explore those possibilities further. Perhaps the greatest break he could make would be towards even freer forms of expression.

It's unlikely that DJ Shadow will ever reach the outer limits of sound contained on Sub Pop's an anthology of noise & electronic music, although a DJ is present, the Spooky one. This probably explains the fact that I found this dble CD in the 'Dance' section of the shop. Well, they don't have one marked 'Noise'.

When I explained the idea behind Walter Ruttman's 'Wochende' (1930) to a friend the other night, he said he didn't like all that 'arty farty' stuff. This is an understandable response to Ruttman's concept of an image-less film consisting only of a cut-up 'soundtrack'. I can relate to most people's rejection of the avant-garde as someone who generally feels the same. My attempts to explain the necessary adjustment of the ears when listening sounded pretty lame, I must confess.

Days later it occurred to me that, whilst the rejection of 'noise' is natural, the blanket refusal to give anything experimental a chance is not a healthy attitude. I believe in freedom of expression, even though I dislike a great deal of the extreme examples. As people keen to demonstrate their liberal nature used to say about 2 Live Crew, I may not like it, but I defend their right to do it. I would actually rather listen to Pauline Oliveros's 30min-long 'A Little Noise in the System (Moog System)', as featured on CD2, than a 2 Live Crew album. At least it stands no chance of influencing anyone negatively.

The irony is that this CD contains pioneering approaches to cut-up sound which would resurface many years later on the beat streets of the South Bronx. It's unlikely, however, that those early hip-hop DJs had John Cage's 'Rozart Mix' in mind as they remixed their own choice of music. Even Cage, in 1965, was remixing an old idea by Charles Ives's ('Putnam's Camp' from Three Places In New England, composed between 1903 and 1914). Splicing tape modernised what, for Ives, had been an orchestral collage. In 1921, Futurists Luigi and Antonio Russolo's 'Corale' completely crucified orchestral sound by undermining it with 'noise' from one of their machines. Hearing it today, it strikes me as both a great prank and a startling prediction of soundclash subversion to come.

All the stars are here - Varese, who's 'Poeme Electronique' (1958) still sounds amazing today, Pierre Schaeffer, Xenakis, and even Sonic Youth. Their 'Audience' sounds like the aural equivalent of a nightmare factory farm governed by storm troopers and, as such, could be read as a critique of either supermarket fodder, the herding instinct of moronic fans, or the consumerist society in which some are more equal than others. The fact that it isn't any of those does not matter. Listening to noise allows such fantasies.

The recording of Survival Research Lab's Austrian performance from '92 represents exactly the action taking place, the apocalyptic battle of the robots, the threat of something going terribly wrong. SRL's shows are like the Terminator's technological dictatorship scenario made real, making up for the lack of slick Hollywood illusion by the actual menace of potentially dangerous machines. To an extent, all these noises might be thought of as 'dangerous'. This is, after all, an anthology of subversion. At their most effective these pieces trigger the imagination whilst testing our preconceptions about sound. A more practical use, of course, is to play it when you really do want those remaining party guests to leave.

© Robin Tomens 2002