Sharps & Flats

Sasha and John Digweed refined a subtle style of dance music. With a few more albums like "Communicate" trance will be classical.

By Ted Oehmke
July 26, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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Among the subset of ravers and trance music aficionados who have seen them perform live, British DJs Sasha and John Digweed are famous for exhibiting a nearly masterful control over the communal mind-set of the dance floor. Live sets, performed all over the world and always the last Friday of the month at the New York dance club Twilo, are an eight-hour tapestry of sounds, melodies, haunting vocal drones, screeches, bleeps and whistles woven together by layers and layers of beats.

Trance music sounds the way you would think the circuits of a computer would sound if they were made into music. The trick of it is that it still manages to convey the spectrum of human emotion. At this moment, in a time when a generation has grown up looking at computer screens and playing with electronic gadgets, it's the most popular style of electronic music in the world.


Fittingly, Sasha and Digweed's double CD, "Communicate," debuted at No. 149 on the Billboard charts, higher than any previous mix CD. The album represents an effort to reconcile the poundingly subtle journey of the dance floor experience, and the DJ/dancer interaction of a live show, with the demands of an album that can be listened to at home over and over again. More than any of their previous four recordings, it works: It's about as close as someone can come to hearing what they sound like at Twilo without visiting the club.

As with all mix CDs, "Communicate" is a collaborative effort between writers of original music, the producers who remix those songs and the DJs. Over more than two hours of continuous music, Sasha and Digweed act like editors, managing the transitions between tracks in an effort to create a seamless continuity between them, and arranging the tracks to foster an overall sense of cohesiveness within and between both CDs.

In this way, Sasha and Digweed (the latter made a cameo in the movie "Groove") try to entice listeners into a journey that often feels like classical music turned on its head. Where classical seeks to tell a story and elicit emotions through melody and a background rhythm, trance ideally emphasizes the hypnotic powers of beat and rhythm, removing the emphasis on melody without taking away its storytelling power.


Since first joining forces behind the decks in 1994, Sasha and Digweed's live style has recently evolved from a harder sound with seemingly guaranteed periods of ecstatic peaks, to something softer, subtler and more feminine. Their live shows have become more like an eight-hour tease, with a series of sonic mini-peaks that almost imperceptibly raise the level of intensity on the dance floor. On a good night, it can be kind of like having good sex for a really long time without ever having an orgasm. For some, it feels like torture, but others find it a type of pain that can also bring a sublime pleasure.

Disc 1 of "Communicate" best represents the slow build of their recent live sets. Opening with what sounds like a symphony of synthesizers tuning up its digital instruments, "Like a Bitch" builds anticipation; it's the experience of waiting in line outside the club. By the next track, you're in and getting your bearings with a remix of Eric Clapton's "Get Lost," which ever-so-slightly picks up the beat. The second, third and fourth tracks provide a good example of the cut-and-paste process of making a mix CD. Toward the end of "Get Lost," Sasha and Digweed drop a hint of the next track into the mix, gradually ushering in the Deep Dish remix of Sven Vdth's "Barbarella."

As the third track, this version of "Barbarella" is a 10-minute descent into a quiet valley of rhythm and symphonic overtures. It begins with a bouncing midrange bass line, invoking an aural image of skipping through a fresh meadow with a cluster of smiley-face balloons. At five minutes and 38 seconds into the song, the sonic arrangement from the first part of the piece begins to deconstruct until about 6:20 on the counter, when nearly all sound fades away, except for a distant and friendly choo-choo. From then on, the first part of the song seeps back in, making for a sort of narrative within a song that plays a narrative role within the entire CD set.


Before the end of "Barbarella," a more menacing beat from the next song, "Roaches," crawls in until the track is handed over completely to a threat: "We just like roaches, never die, always livin'," says a voice. But toward the end of the track, a different voice comes in, whispering, "You hear voices ... premonitions." It's a rather unsubtle foreshadow of the next track, "Voices." For a while "Roaches" competes with "Voices" until the former is aurally vaporized, making hollow the roach threat to "never die."

Going from the beatific in "Barbarella" to the belligerence of "Roaches" to the comparative benevolence of "Voices" may be Sasha and Digweed's attempt to stimulate the tension and energy of experiencing contrasting emotional states in rapid succession.


The rolling conclusion to Disc 1 provides a long, slow build to Disc 2, which promises to deliver the peaks left off the first. With trippy bleeps and tones, the second has a shorter distance between peaks and valleys; it seems to move faster. A deeper and more rapid bass line may inspire dancers to pump their arms and sway their heads. The sounds of computerized voices and nearly inaudible words are more prominent. Yet there is a link to Disc 1: The spoken-word sample from "Voices" comes back. This kind of distant spacing between spoken and sonic samples serves to enhance the mind and time-altering effect that is one of the hallmarks of trance music.

The major peak for the set hits its stride at about three minutes into the eighth track of Disc 2. (The first printing of the track listing for Disc 2 is out of order: The last song listed, "Lifestyles -- Part 2," is actually the third song. All of the other songs follow in the same order.) It begins as a densely layered synthesized rhythm that disappears for a full five minutes, reappearing with the addition of tablas in track nine. This is the kind of mathematically precise manipulation of sound (and emotions) that makes for vintage Sasha and Digweed. This is also the kind of peak activity that happens deeper into their live sets.

It's a more understated moment than the explosive peaks created by other popular trance DJs, like Paul Oakenfold or Paul van Dyk. The Sasha and Digweed sound is deeper and less reliant on crowd-pleasing gimmicks, and is consequently more demanding of its listeners. Much like European classical music, the trance of Sasha and John Digweed is an acquired taste, and it requires a little bit of work in order to be truly appreciated. But the music is well worth it. The way the two DJs are composing sets, in 200 years this could be classical music.

Ted Oehmke

Ted Oehmke is a freelance writer in New York. He's written for the New York Times, The New Republic and Black Book Magazine.

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