Monday, August 10, 2009


It was an absolute pleasure to play at a wedding at the Irish Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix on Saturday night. The party seemed to teeter on the edge of breaking into a slug fest at any moment- not because of anger or animosity or anything else like it- but because the anticipation of the night and then the exuberance of the occasion could not be released simply by laughing, drinking, shouting, feasting, singing and dancing alone! The celebration itself was greater than all of that. Some raucous slugging among the men might have been just the ticket. It was great to be with Reverend Giovanni who stepped up to the mound and pitched the ceremony "ball" and then I stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park with mad DJ skillz!

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!


Cynthia said...

deep stuff. Most people in the crowd don't even recognize what is going on . . . they just know whether or not they are having a good time.

Curtis Whipple said...

I know it's heady stuff. It's been formulating in my mind for a couple of years- just needed to verbailize it. The Irish wedding helped me figure it out. They needed to release!

Mark Sanchez said...

It is deep. This is something very few professional mobile disc jockey's grasp. If a DJ knows this and uses it to perfection, it's the difference between a good time and a great time or maybe the time of their lives.

It's also the difference between a good DJ & a great DJ.

What more could you ask for on one of the biggest and best days of your life?
People do recognize it without really knowing it. People
will always remember a great time.

Verity Meme said...

waw, Curtis, you definitely know how to enjoy the energy of The moment. To be in Now and in The moment is the key to everything -- i don't see anything else but a very powerful and successful future from your work...Congratulations! I look forward to share some great events with you ( when I am ready to have one :)) Thank you.