July 2229, 1999
Ghosts in the Machine
Moby haunts his house with sounds of the old South.
by a.d. amorosi
Hip-hop artists made recontextualizing sounds and cultural signifiers a professional sport, but they didnt invent the game. Steve Reich and Cans Holger Czukay both did it with ambient and space music. Brian Eno and David Byrne took indigenous voice and realigned it with their music to create the seminal My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. And long before any of these folks borrowed from distant cultures, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded sounds in the fields of the Deep South and aboriginal outback, in the green hills of Italy and Appalachia.
From the mid-30s on, Lomax captured the human soul in joy, sorrow and song. His mission, as defined in a recent series of compilations from Rounder, The Alan Lomax Collection, was to create a database to survey relationships between song and social structure.
In 1999, house head Moby took Lomaxs findings and turned them into his finest work yet, Play (V2). Splicing these chattering voices with pulsing pianos and thick beats might not seem revelatory. But to Moby, a musician who quietly calls himself a Christian, gospel-esque songs like "Honey" and "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" offer the kind of soul hes longed to create. They also inspired him to center his singing voice and forged a context for his lonesome instrumentals.
"I heard Lomax about three years ago on a collection called Sounds Of The South," recalls Moby, on the phone from New York City where hes preparing to tape a segment of VH1s new karoake program. "I loved the emotional and sonic quality of his work and was excited that the vocals were well recorded and a cappella. And I love Bush of Ghosts thats certainly an antecedent to Play."
Moby began downloading Lomaxs material into his own, appropriating 200 snippets with nary a question from the Lomax family. "Im glad there werent any problems sampling his stuff," says Moby.
Hes uncertain if by stripping these voices of context hes stolen their soul or cultural significance: "That process is complicated and begs questions of individual identity as opposed to cultural and group identity."
But what he can say is how these voices moved him and enabled arrangements subtler in scope than his last several outings.
"I liked the quality of the voices that I used and although Id like to be able to sing like an African-American woman, I cant. I found the voices first, then wrote around them. The sampled vocals were the inspiration for the songs in which theyre used. The fact that the lyrics were great was sort of a happy accident. The voice I used for Honey conveys female sex, Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad conveys longing."
More importantly, Play returns electronic dance to its black roots.
"Im sort of colorblind and genderblind when it comes to making my music." says Moby. "I dont care whos singing as long as the singing affects me profoundly. But I do think that dance and electronic music are in danger of losing their black-Latin-gay-urban roots."
To these haunting voices, Moby added a watery pool of contemplative pianos, forlorn strings and gently pulsing beats that are a far cry from the savage guitar attack of Animal Rights, his last true album before 1998s film music compilation I Like To Score.
"Animal Rights exorcised my need to make belligerent and aggressive records for the time being," he laughs. "It was so extreme that I wanted to make a next record that wasnt so off-putting." Still, Moby is far from apologetic when it comes to his Animal.
"I was disappointed that people were so quick in their negative reaction to it. At the risk of being pompous, I think its a multifaceted body of work that was superficially dismissed by a lot of people."
Whether its the aggression of Animal Rights or the somber and secular Play, Moby makes music based on instinct. "Im driven by desire, a desire to make music I love and to communicate things that cant be communicated through any other artistic medium."
Moby and MOA, Wed., July 28, 8 p.m., $15.50 in advance, $17.50 day of show, TLA, 334 South St., 215-922-1011.
Listen to Moby