DJing and the Death of the Grand Tour

The idea of the DJ taking the listener on a journey has been around since the early days of disco. Before this, DJing was all about the dancefloor – sustaining waves of energy throughout the night to keep the dancers moving. But at the dawn of the seventies a few things fell into place for the idea of the journey to take hold: Beat-mixing was invented, the Loft parties got underway, and, of course, acid had found its way into the clubs, framing the musical experience in the context of the trip. Today the idea is a standard point of view. The classic “Journeys by DJ” series of mixes which were released in the 1990s re-inforced the notion and made it mainstream, while Laurent Garnier’s “Laboratoire Mix” was, for me, the pinnacle of the DJ mix as a journey. Yet despite 40 years of dancing, DJing and drugs there seem to be no new alternatives to this classical notion of what a DJ set can be.

For the creative DJ I think it’s about time for a new approach to music and mixing. Find great music, sequence it, mix it – Whether this is done on a pair of 1210s, or 4 decks on an S4, the result can be art. Thinking of a DJ set as a work of art may sound rather lofty to some – There has always been a superstitious fear of over-thinking something that should be instinctive. Of course, the best DJs will always have the finest instinct for knowing what to play and when. It’s a matter of re-tuning those instincts towards new goals.

Most of the time the default, probably unconscious goal is playing some cool tunes and mixing them together smoothly – keeping a nice vibe going and maybe demonstrating great taste, but not stretching the imagination. It’s true that whatever the DJ does should be appropriate to the occasion, and being able to create good vibes on the dancefloor is a priceless skill that can’t be overestimated. But electronic music is already saturated with DJs and producers that barely stray from the orthodox. There is a lot of room for DJs to explore new settings, try new formulas, rip up the mainstream and be expressive in new ways. Internet radio, podcasting, video channels, and the growing scene in virtual worlds such as Second Life and ResLive, all offer new settings for music, and different kinds of audience interaction.

The greatest example I know of a mix which also stands as a work of art is Gloomcast #007 recorded by Harry Glazebrook. The Gloomcast was a brilliantly curated series of podcasts which delved into a haunting and gloomy musical subconscious. The mixes are all evocative, moody and dark, but also, in a strange way, enlightening. Rather than being the kind of musical journey mentioned above, each Gloomcast is like a single state of mind sustained over 40-50 minutes, revealing itself slowly as one track segues into another. #007 was an enigmatic masterpiece of musical psychology, peeling back layers of gloom and confusion to reveal undercurrents of anger and jealousy.

The Gloomcasts were genre agnostic, with dubstep, ambient, electronica, minimal techno, and electro all nestling side by side. “Eclectic” is the word which springs to mind although it’s a word which also strikes fear in me, conjuring up memories of dancing to one or two songs at a time and sitting out the next. An eclectic mix works best when there is an over-arching idea linking everything together, in which case any changes in genre or tempo make sense and go by almost unnoticed. Gloomcast #007 is a perfect example of this. As is Surgeon’s “Food for thought” mix, which sits at the triple point of IDM, industrial and techno. “Food for thought” unifies three distinct genres into a single musical phase, like a physics experiment condensing matter into new forms under intense pressure and heat. Simply calling either of these mixes a “journey” doesn’t acknowledge their innovation or broader motives.

At the other end of the spectrum is a mix which is focussed very precisely on a genre, concentrating on a particular sound or style. This kind of mix has the effect of magnifying whatever mood or vision the DJ wants to evoke, and immersing the listener in it. A superb example of this is a live mix by Casual Violence recorded at Detatched in Leeds. In genre terms it’s techno, but it sounds like pure, chthonic trance. An unwavering 4/4 kick underpins the entire set, carrying an immense atmosphere on its shoulders: Stygian wails and drones, rolling, clattering machinery, ethereal voices, the despair of trapped souls but also moments of salvation. It conjures up a vision of Victorian factories and powerful machinery; the toil and the fantasies of captive workers. The DJ creates a vivid picture by playing tracks with the same style and atmosphere throughout the entire mix – Reinforcing the same vision with every selection.

All the above examples turn the idea of the DJ mix as a journey on its head, pointing towards a new approach to music and mixing. Rather than a sense of movement, they offer an immersive experience in which “a single, still image is presented and explored in detail, instead of the whole film playing”. Images and moods conveyed by the music are brought together by the DJ to evoke a particular state of mind, a scene, or a place, which becomes more elaborate and detailed with every selection. Whatever this inspires in the listener is going to be highly subjective, but the accumulation of images and moods throughout the mix should allow a clear picture to emerge. “Death Star Borg Attack” was put together according to these principles – Heavy, breakin’ electro that would go down well with that “Death Star gunner with the cool helmet who operates the laser that nukes Alderaan in Star Wars”. The DJ builds a world for the listener to explore, rather than conducting a tour of the main attractions.

Obviously the key to this approach is selecting vivid, imaginative music to play. Depending on genre, finding the right music in the first place means abandoning the mainstream and exploring elsewhere. Sometimes there is a long way to go1. Sequencing the music is about being enticing and holding the listener’s attention – not necessarily about making them want to dance. On the face of it, any sequence might work – as if the tracks were picture layers that can be stacked in any order to reveal the same image. But in practice the DJ is restricted to working only in one dimension – time – and any idea has to unfold over the course of the mix, like weaving a spell. Mixing could be anything from brief cuts to long overlays, on any number of decks. I think the smoother the better, in order to create a seamless illusion. Technology has a role of its own here.

The move towards immersion in music, rather than being on a musical journey, follows from the trend towards digital DJing. Programs like Ableton and Traktor make it possible for DJs to create sets which are like one long edit, or a single evolving track, with many layers, loops and samples mixed into a seamless flow of music. This is different to the sequential approach of playing one track after another, which unconsciously gives the impression of progress or movement. There are no “stepping stones” to lead the way through a set which is one long edit, so it does not naturally feel like a journey – A possible pitfall for digital DJs, as was the case when Sandwell District took this approach at Dommune. For me, DJs like Surgeon, Dead Baby In A Plastic Bag, and DVNT are modern masters of the edit, creating vivid electronic worlds for listeners to rock around in.

The time is ripe for DJs to regain some artistic ground from the producer. There is no shortage of great electronic music out there, and no shortage of opportunities. What’s needed are imaginative DJs who can be builders, not bus drivers.

Further Listening

The following were all conceived as immersive mixes. The starting point was usually one or two tracks that evoked a specific image or idea, like “Negative Flash” in Asteroid Mining Colony Blues. Once that image was in mind, it was a matter of finding other tracks that had the same essential feeling about them.

Ursula Frequency – Industrial Psalms 1-4
“The Industrial Psalms are a series of devotional mixes which distill aspects of machine spirituality into sonic form”
http://ursulafrequency.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/industrial-psalms-1-4/

INSILICO, the virtual city
“INSILICO is a dark futuristic metropolis, slowly floating several thousand meters high above the clouds. It is one of many cities, serving as the last airborne asylums for the small extant human population that has been forced there.”
https://freshstatic.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/insilico-the-virtual-city-electro-mix/

Asteroid Mining Colony Blues
“Electro music evocative of life in a mining colony in the asteroid belt – Machinery, claustrophobia and isolation, work, paranoia and drunken parties.”
https://freshstatic.wordpress.com/2009/07/01/asteroid-mining-colony-blues-electro-mix/

Street sounds of techno industrial Hades
“Sounds of the underground from about as far down as you can go. This is all heavy, Stygian techno evocative of the gloom and raw noise of the streets of an industrial Hades.”
https://freshstatic.wordpress.com/2009/03/29/street-sounds-of-techno-industrial-hades-techno-mix/

Utilitarian gothic electro mix
“.. a future architectural vision of stark angles and precise dimensions gathering grime and slowly falling apart”
https://freshstatic.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/utilitarian-gothic-electro-mix/

Notes

1. There is a terrible fear of letting any emotion or imagination show through in what constitutes today’s popular techno – Huge hits like “Sor” by Tommy Four Seven are a particular cause for despair. Everything in the Beatport top 10 can be ignored, in favour of hunting down labels like Rodz Konez, Rush Hour, Labrynth and Mathematics. “Briefly Sexual” by Casual Violence and “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly” by Coefficient prove that there is brilliant, evocative techno to discover. In contrast, electro has always been innately fascinated with creating other worlds and atmospheres, often inspired by science fiction. Perhaps it’s because electro has mostly existed in the shadow of its big brother, techno, that it has never spawned a popularity-induced mainstream of its own. Viva electro – Delve into anything by Blastromen, AS1, Silicon Scally or Mandroid to be transported a few centuries into the future. House music is different again – It ventures off into many different moods and emotions but in a less concrete or extreme way than techno or electro. In a way house music is always about the same thing, from which it cannot stray far. “House is a feeling” – it conveys the original spiritual connection of human beings with the beat of the machine, the excitement of dancing in the computer age. Larry Heard, Ron Trent, Reggie Dokes, Mike Huckaby and once again the superb Mathematics record label are the ones to look to.

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