Monday, August 10, 2009
In his autobiography, Steve Martin talked about a comedian named Jack E. Leonard at the tail end of the Vaudevillian comedians and the beginnings of stand up comedy as we know today, who used to accentuate his punchlines by slapping his stomach and shouting "Hep!" or something like that. On a Tonight Show appearance, the audio got muddled but people laughed anyway because he slapped his stomach and they, like Pavlov's dog, laughed at what they hadn't heard, because they had been conditioned to do so. Steve Martin asked himself as a boy, What if there were no punchlines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all of that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out somewhere, But if I kept denying them the formality of a punchline, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh. They would laugh when they chose to rather than when I chose for them to.
Music also creates tension or dissonance and it must be released or resolved to sound right and to make symmetrical sense in our brains as we process the mathematical elements of music. Consonance, or the beginning note or phrase, is the note against which every thing is compared. Our brain holds that note in a queue and compares the rest of the song to that. Sing the song "Johnny B. Goode" in your head for a minute-no, really do it with me- "Way down in 'ouisiana close to New Orleans. Way back up in the woods among the evergreens." Then there is a chord change that creates dissonance, bass note goes up a 4th - keep singing- "Stood a log cabin made of earth and wood." Then back to the original note- "Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode" Then up a 5th for some real tension- "Never ever learned to read or write so well." Then resolve the tension by going back to the original note- "But he could play the guitar just like ringing a bell. Go! Go Johnny, Go!"
In comedy, the consonance is the intellectual foundation or the set up of the joke or gag. Your brain holds that in a queue for a moment and then the comedian delivers something absurd- the dissonance- that is only humorous by comparison to the consonance.
Musical phrasing does it several times in a song and then other elements, still within the constructs of the song, may create varying degrees of overall tension with the progressions of chords, the bridge sequence and the use of other textures, speeds, sounds, dynamics and perhaps a dramatic ritardo strike at the end of a song. I like songs that resolve the tension but some artists may not ever musically "resolve" a song. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were not musically trained but knew how to create tension and then resolve it musically and they arguably wrote much of the best music of the Rock and Roll era. Most genres trace their roots to those early pioneers of rock music.
As a DJ, I mostly play at more structured social occasions than a free form comedy show where I might try the innovative things that Steve Martin did. I'm obliged to give a crowd a comfortable time and place to release! A good DJ creates natural energy and makes it easy to dance and shout and celebrate and not feel uncomfortable or obligated to participate. People need a safe and cozy dancefloor surrounded by tables and chairs- a place that provides a psychological safe zone for dancing whether there is an actual dancefloor or not.
I choose songs to give an overall flavor to a wedding that represent the tastes of the bride and groom or the vision that a corporate client has for the feel of their social occasion. I choose mostly songs that are in a major key, songs that resolve themselves musically, and I put the songs in an order that creates more and more tension, with the first song in a set being the consonant song by which the following songs will be compared. I try to create more and more anticipation and tension and then when I get to a point where the crowd thinks they cain't do no mo... Well, I got moves you ain't never seen and I got songs you ain't nevah heard! ~BAM!~ I always hit them one more time with something even higher in energy or tension than they anticipated before I release them collectively as a dancing crowd. I usually choose a song for the release that ends with a strike AND on note that resolves the dissonance.
People individually are pretty smart, but interestingly, crowds have a separate mentality and they often need to be told what to do. There are really only two people in the room, the crowd, collectively, and the DJ. When the DJ is really on his or her game, even they "twain shall become one." That is where the magic really happens. People are dancing and getting into it, hugging each other, singing along with every word and I feel that energy. When it comes up to me, I feel it, I dig down deeper, crank it up and send out a renewed energy to the crowd. They feel it and nurture it and then they send it back to me and I send it back to them. This tension and release seems to flow in natural cycles of about 20 to 25 minutes. I let the music speak it, I don't say it with words. I make sure the music let's them know how to celebrate the occasion and then release the anticipation and the feelings of celebration and ultimately, resolve the dissonance.
Earlier in my career, lots of time was spent on very mechanical and technical concerns. Hunting down a CD and cuing a selected song inside of the given 3 1/2 minutes of the song that is playing and then do it again and again. With my years of experience behind me, my tools are an extension of my hands and my brain and those things are second nature- CDs are a thing of the past and I can focus on really heady stuff like this.
When you kiss your lover passionately, a little peck just isn't going to cut it. It takes 6 or 7 seconds just to start to feel the energy of their body and their warmth. THEN it becomes a passionate kiss. Songs are the same way. They live and breathe. They have energy and something to say both musically and lyrically. A mistake that many DJs make is cutting songs rapid-fire from one to the next. The song is not allowed to speak its message and create its mood. A DJ may move on to the next song before the song is resolved musically. From a practicality standpoint, guests may hear a song they would have wanted to dance to and by the time they wrap up a conversation, put down their drink, get a dance partner, the DJ has gone on to something else a couple of times over.
There is a difference between sales and marketing. I sell DJ service, and I lug a bunch of sound and lighting equipment around. I market however, fashion, attitude, expertise, music, fun- I hardly tell people that I am a DJ anymore- what always follows is "oh What station?" I respond to the inquiry with- I help people have fun. That's what I do. I try to make it easy for them to celebrate the occasions of their lives.
A DJ could do a great job from a mechanical standpoint and it could be argued that the performance was only adequate- there were no major mistakes and nobody could verbalize anything that could have made it better. The things I described are the things that make a good social occasion into a great social occasion. The tension is released, the anticipated climax was delivered, the dissonance was resolved and the customers were satisfied!
Sunday, August 2, 2009
I stayed at a lovely ranch/mansion in a place called Pojoaque (Po hoah KAY) Pueblo about 15 miles north of Santa Fe on the way to Taos. The photo above is the view from the front porch where I would read in the mornings before breakfast.
The area is full of opposites. There is ancient history and an increasingly fast-paced modern world growing up all around it. Los Alamos is a few miles west, up in the mountains which was (and still is) home to the most brilliant minds ever assembled. They gathered there in the middle of World War II from several nations and became one- to try to figure out how to split the atom. The bombs created there were used in the greatest single act of violence ever committed by humanity which, in another opposite, mercifully ended the war. All of this technology is situated right next to others who still live simply off of the land. It's encouraging to see lots of people there who embrace technology such as solar and wind power to live a modern life but leave the smallest footprint on the earth as is possible.
There are elements of spirituality and religious traditions juxtaposed with very humanist or secular philosophies. Santa Fe is home to a violent history of conquering "Christian" priests and missionaries who brutally enslaved the native people. Recently, a bronze statue was erected at a house of worship depicting one of those conquering priests on the back of a horse in a heroic pose. During the night, the leg of the priest was torched off by a local who wanted to make a statement that they hadn't forgotten the ancestor slaves whose legs were chopped off when attempting to escape. The artist recast the leg and there has been no further vandalism but the locals all cast a knowing glance that their point and the remembrance was made.
Variations of Catholicism are alive and well, but the mainstream Catholic church probably does not recognize or endorse several of the rituals that go on there. Each year, the "Penitente" attracts hundreds (maybe thousands) of people who walk on their knees for several miles, some carry crosses and some more extreme types flog themselves bloody and as late as the 1990s, certain penitents allowed themselves to be nailed to crosses until the local officials put a stop to such things. Stories also abound of the healing powers of the dirt or the water or the leaves of the trees of this or that location.
On to lighter things- I visited Bandalier National Monument. It's the ruins of a city in a canyon that was occupied 1200 years ago. They would migrate south in the coldest of the winter months and there is evidence that they actually traded with people in Mexico as far as 1000 miles south. It appears that they outgrew the available space in the canyon and began to abuse the land and resources that supported them and they disappeared. I thought it interesting that there are now hundreds of times more people occupying the land but we still seem to be able to exploit the resources by shear force of will and brute force of our technology that allows us to dig deeper and to ship things to and from distant locales.
I would sit on this porch pictured below in the mornings or evenings to read and the neighborhood dogs from some of the other properties around would always come and say hello or bring a stick or a ball for me to throw. The two ranch dogs on the property are getting old and sick. They would sleep most of the day but when feeling up to it would at least come out and watch the festivities.
I heard a story about one of the neighbor dogs- Molly. A large mixed breed, very friendly and very rambunctious. There was a colt born on one of the ranches nearby which Molly witnessed. She went home and got a pull toy and came back and taught that colt how to play catch/fetch/tugowar with a length of ragged rope. The horse is grown now and can be seen regularly tossing sticks and catching them.
I didn't get a photo of it, but the Santa Fe Opera House is a beautiful and imposing structure about 2 miles south of Pojoaque Pueblo. I was a week too early for a major music festival held there. The venue sits on top of a hill and is the master of all it surveys. I'd like to hear a concert there on another visit. Listening to a classical station in Phoenix when I got home, they mentioned that if you left right now, you'd get to Santa Fe Opera House in time the opening concert that evening to kick off the festival.
I needed to come home earlier than I would have liked for the birthday party of a major event industry figure around Phoenix and then a DJ job the next evening. My last stop before heading out of Santa Fe was at an art gallery. I was speaking with the artist while looking at her work. About mid sentence, she stopped and said- are you a Disc Jockey? Yes. Do you live in Phoenix? Well- yes, Mesa. She continued that she had been the featured artist at an art show at Inspirador in Chandler about 18 months ago and that I was the DJ. I remembered her and we chatted about that event. I told her that I hadn't been back to Inspirador since that night even though I thought I had won them as a customer but oddly, I had been invited to an industry party that night- at Inpirador- and that after I left her gallery, I would be driving home to get back in time for the party that night.
I'm thinking of returning in October.