Somnambule - Writing About Music

DJ Spooky ~ Optometry

First hearing of this album stirred memories of George Russell’s ‘Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature’ (1969): I’ve always found the prominent role of Russell’s acoustic piano difficult to assimilate alongside the tape composition: both albums feature an acoustic jazz group, piano-driven, set within an electronic context. Here the pianist is Matthew Shipp and instead of Russell’s tape composition DJ Spooky supplies laptop, turntables, treatments, bass, etc.

‘Optometry’ comes with liner notes and the track titles are challenging. Track one ‘Ibid, desmarches, ibid’ delivers traffic sounds out of which a snare-heavy, rolling, tripping rhythm appears, a double bass starts to play a catchy figure, piano chords drive things along. There’s an intense, muscular quality to Shipp’s playing, a McCoy Tyner-like emphasis.

‘Reactive Switching Strategies for the Control of Uninhabited Air’ has the bass up in the mix, there’s a circular piano figure and clickety percussion; things are accessible, near-catchy, laptop loops may be in play. Again those heavy, dramatic chords with the bass figures pushing patterns through.

In ‘Variation Cybernetique: Rhythmic Pataphysic (part I)’ repeated piano clusters played fast almost recall Philip Glass, reverberating off each ear drum, long violin notes, glass-like percussion, gong. Captivating beautiful stuff.

‘ Periphique’ is a beautiful piece of work: the percussion is all brushes and ride cymbal, there’s bowed double bass and Joe McPhee plays trumpet. This penultimate track starts with a feeling of aimlessness, of wandering in a wide-open, darkened landscape where the sky is all too big and we’re all too small.

With ‘It’s a mad, mad, mad world’, the final track, a confused certainty returns; there are a couple of jokey/ironic vocal samples and some more straightahead playing. This initially surprised me by appearing to belie the music that had gone before it, to represent an unexpected loss of confidence. On further thought it’s perhaps understandable in light of ‘Periphique’s’ sense of loss/lostness.

All in all, ‘Optometry’ is a big, serious-sounding piece of work. The overall impression of this reviewer is of an earnest, driven endeavour which finds itself in a place it didn’t expect to be. Although ‘Optometry’ sounds like an essay in possibilities, a sonic prototype which is unlikely to go into production, it bears repeated listening and throws many sonic jewels before our ears.
Colin Buttimer
July 2002
Published by the BBC