Electronic Music Goes Literary: Veteran DJ John Digweed Collaborates With John Twelve Hawks
Electronic music is great to listen to for getting things done. As I recently admitted, it’s what I play while I write. It turns out I’m in good company. Best-selling science-fiction author John Twelve Hawks listened to Global Underground 006 , a recording of progressive house DJ John Digweed’s historic 1998 set from Sydney, Australia, while writing his novel, The Traveler . Digweed was a pioneer of the genre in the 1990s, a time when electronic dance music was an esoteric underground phenomenon. Together with then-partner Sasha, Digweed invented the commercial club mix compilation album. In 2001 he topped DJ Magazine ’s list of top DJs.
John Twelve Hawks sent Digweed his novel as a thank you for his contribution to its creation, which led, a few years later, to an artistic collaboration between the two. They created a unique album, The Traveler , in which John Twelve Hawks reads from his book while Digweed, together with musical partner Nick Muir, combine his voice with music.
According to Digweed, what drew him and Twelve Hawks together was their mutual commitment to take their audience on a journey. “Obviously I want to make people dance,” he told me. “But I’m not just playing one record after another. When I DJ, I’m taking people on a journey. I start at one place and end up somewhere else.” He explained, “I want the energy to increase and I want people’s emotions to increase over the period of time because the music is gaining more energy, gaining more emotion, gaining more tension.”
John Twelve Hawks recognized that Digweed’s DJ sets were constructed to tell an emotional story. “He had listened to a lot of my mixed CDs and my radio show he loved the way that when I played music it told a story. He said, ‘The way you program your music together and you build the tension and then you bring it down and then you take it up, you’re telling a story with music and that’s how I can relate to what you do. You’re like a storyteller but with music.’”
The result of their collaboration is a unique take on the text-meets-music genre. In previous iterations, like the Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” or Metallica’s Lulu collaboration with Lou Reed, a reading of the text was accompanying by music playing in the background. The Traveler takes this idea into the electronic era, using John Twelve Hawk’s voice as an instrument. Digweed and Muir distort and manipulate it like they would when remixing a song or incorporating it into a DJ set.
“We wanted to introduce soundscapes in there where you have the noise of the motorbike or the fax machines or the internet, just to give it that realism. We wanted people to listen on their headphones in the dark and feel and visualize what’s going on.”
The attempt was to create the kind of intense experience that DJs have become so skilled at creating in their club mixes. “My thing is playing good music that touches people in a certain way, whether there is a dark moment in the track that makes everyone wonder what is going on to bringing up the top lines that have that nice tingly feeling down the back of your neck,” said Digweed. “It’s a mixture of trying to mix all those moves and contrasts and emotions all in a two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight hour set. So it’s all about trying to get everyone on board and then you take them wherever you want because you’ve got them hooked.”
The DJ’s never-ending quest for intensity of experience is undermined by the ubiquity of smartphones during shows. Although sharing the experience on social media is good for business (free publicity), what makes the dance experience special, Digweed said, is the very fact that you cannot capture it. To Digweed, that is the ultimate reason people will still come to shows in person. “You can’t bootleg it. You can’t download and experience it and that’s the bottom line. You can download a movie, you can download music, but the experience of being at a show is that it doesn’t get any better than actually being there.” He said. “And that’s why the live concerts, gigs, are blooming at the moment because that’s a part of society which people feel that they’re there and they’re experiencing something with thousands of other people at the same time.”
The marriage of literature and electronic music is yet another artistic frontier opened up by technology . Like many innovations, it’s an intersection of two related but distinct disciplines. It’s exciting to imagine what my favorite DJs could do with other works of fiction if they set it to music. As music-related technology becomes more sophisticated, I hope that authors and musicians will take advantage of the opportunity to create new and more intense literary and musical experiences.
Below is a clip from the collaboration , “3B3.”