We stand at the last edge of the centuries. Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the impossible? Time and space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresend speed... No work without an aggressive character can ever be a masterpiece...DJ Spooky vs. The Freight Elevator Quartet
- F.T. Marinetti, 1909
Keeping the streak started with the Riddim Warfare album and Subliminal Minded EP, DJ Spooky once again shows restraint (c.f. the "future is sampling... future is now" manifesto, incl. generous Deleuze and Guattari references, from the Songs of a Dead Dreamer album): just barely less, though, with the above quote from Italian futurist F.T. Marinetti. It's enough, though, to make me question Spooky's (aka Paul D. Miller's) intentions.
So what are we to make of this? On the surface, the reaction is straightforward: this music, while definitely in keeping with DJ Spooky's record, unfortunately breaks little new to no new ground. Personally, I was hopeful when I read the descriptions: turn-of-the-century futurism melded with Spooky's future-is-now aesthetic. With a string quartet. As a lover of electronic and classical music, as well as goofy twentieth century theoretical cul de sacs, I thought File Under Futurism would be just my thing. And don't get me wrong - it is nice, at the very least adequate, new DJ Spooky music. BUT...
Too bad that "DJ Spooky VS F.E.Q." is so apt. It's hard to hear where the collaboration took place. Some tracks have writing credits primarily to the quartet, and some to Spooky, and some to both. Spooky's solo credits are really just transitional pieces, so i'm ignoring those, here. That means most of of the music, compositionally, is due to the F.E.Q. or to them, with Mr. Miller along for the ride.
Except it doesn't sound that way. It sounds like spooky recorded about 10 minutes worth of source material from the quartet, then went to work with his computers and turntables and samplers. This is the most disappointing part of the project: the "sound" of classical music nothing more than a largely unambulatory sample, preserved in time since 1909 or thereabouts. I'm reminded of, say, squarepusher's more 'ambient' tracks from something like Hard Normal Daddy, which sound basically like goofy drum tracks laid over chilly digitally-created string sections. DJ Spooky does one better than the norm here by getting real string sounds, which certainly does sound at least a bit different, but given his aesthetic goals (stated vociferously elsewhere, and hinted at again in the Marinetti quote), that's not enough.
To wit: why didn't he fuck shit up? I know what it sounds like to mix mostly-canned "serious" music ('cause that's primarily the role the quartet plays here - a link to the critically lauded portion of the music world, even if they are one of those goofy contemporary gangs that plays on stuff like DJ Spooky records) with all sorts of things, and the results are not that different here: typically non miscible styles passing by one another in the night. Where's the futurism - or is that just another techno trope?
The most successful tracks here, in my opinion, are the two tracks labeled as live ones: "This is What Happens" and "Variation on a Freight Theme". In both Spooky's djing sounds much more responsive to the quartet's playing, and vice versa, suggesting that perhaps Spooky should take more cues from more traditional hip-hop djs, or even further back, to jazz groups, in which the rhythm tracks and the "lead" (whatever that might be in Spooky's music at any given time) play off one another, instead of playing side by side. Another option: tape-looping techniques of the sort employed by Brian Eno (though he didn't invent them) circa his 70s collaborations with Robert Fripp, or Fripp's own soundscapes work from the 90s, handled solo with him, a bank of computers, and a guitar. There are very few of the quartet's sounds here, either because not many were used, or they were processed beyond recognition. More delay effects and tape looping would preserve the source material more and make this project more worthwhile - less of "DJ Spooky plays you some tapes of strings he made".
That the live tracks are the most successful suggests that the collaboration worked best when Spooky had less opportunity to revere his source material. His input on the performance of Iannis Xenakkis's Kraanberg from a few years back seems minimal: production and button-pushing, for the recordings of the original performance in the 60s. That work and File Under Futurism suggest perhaps that Spooky is too reverential: here's this important great stuff you see, and he doesn't want to change it that much, just incorporate it. Compare to Riddim Warfare, where Spooky is on more level ground, working with music contemporary to (and thus on the same respect-level, though that's an historical artifact, not Miller's problem) his own. It's my opinion that Spooky's music will really reach the next level once he starts confronting his source material head-on, rather than treating it like another element in his typical mix.
In the meantime, at least he hasn't run out of sources to manipulate.
- Josh Kortbein, January 2000