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November 29, 2006

a few preliminary mlx thoughts - djing

Posted by dogpossum on November 29, 2006 5:53 PM in the category djing and lindy hop and other dances

I've had a very busy week - from Wednesday last week til yesterday... well, let's count today as well.
Firstly, we had three lovely houseguests arrive on Wednesday evening, an arrival we celebrated with a fairly extensive barbeque dinner.
Thursday, the MLX began, with a volunteer meeting at 7.30pm, continuing with a free dance at our local venue CBD and rounding up with a gig at the Spiegeltent DJed by myself and Trev. From there the weekend continued at a frenetic pace (suddenly, I can't seem to spell that word). Our last guest departed this morning at 5am, and I've spent the last couple of days lying in bed trying to be well. I have caught that horrible cold again and am pretty well crook. It's a combination of overworking the last semester and then pushing myself to the point of destruction over the weekend.

I do have a bunch of photos to post, but they're on The Squeeze's computer in the other room and I can't really be bothered sorting the network to get access to them.

I had planned to devote this post (and the following few posts) to random accounts of specific events over the weekend, but I'm so tired I've forgotten what I was going to write about.

But let's start here, with a few comments on DJing (please note: these are just rough ideas and not well thought out. Nor are they representative of the mlx coordinating team - they are just some ideas that I have had).
headphones.jpg Right now I'm sitting here with my new headphones on, a birthday present courtesy of The Squeeze - they're Sennheiser eh250's for the DJ nerds amongst you. Apparently quite expensive, and certainly very excellent quality. Perfect for people who're losing their upper range of hearing - which, apparently, we swing DJs are doing. In spades. This is something which upsets me quite a lot, as I used to have phenomenal hearing. Now I don't. One of the perils of DJing I guess.

So I'm sitting here in bed, drowning in mucous, fighting off dizziness and tiredness (it seems silly to go back to sleep after only being awake for 5 hours) so as to record some of the weekend's events.
I'm also trying to get back up to date with my music, seeing as how I've committed myself (foolishly) to DJing a set at CBD on Thursday night, and have my last gig at the Speegs this weekend.

We'd booked a number (10, actually) of the country's best DJs for MLX, and it was fascinating to see how DJs interact at exchanges. I knew that dancers thoroughly enjoyed getting together at exchanges to 'exchange' dance styles through actually dancing. But watching DJs pair up at the DJ booth and exchange incredibly nerdy DJing conversations was a joy.

DJs from different cities took great delight in arriving at the DJ booth well before their set to hang out with their DJ buddy who was playing the previous set, and many of the DJs (especially those in our cafe, a venue which became home to the silliest of no-rules dancing and DJing... no-rules in that DJs could do whatever they liked, so long as they didn't dance during their set, and saved the floor if they emptied it) took the opportunity to 'battle' or take turns playing songs and working cooperatively on sets, rather than adhering to the more conventional one and a half hour set turn taking.

As a cultural studies person, my imagination was immediately caught by this cooperative approach to cultural production. As a lindy hopper and cultural studies person, I was doubly attracted to this idea of partnership in creative practice. Very much in keeping with the tradition of African American vernacular jazz dance, where dancers improvise within a shared structure. Much as jazz musicians improvise within a shared, orchestrated musical structure in blues and swinging jazz.

One of my regrets from the weekend is that we couldn't set up a webcam and do a bit of live streaming lindy action - it would have been interesting to capture the event and send it to other dancers to see their response. But there's always next year.

I think it's also worth noting how the weekend exemplified the variety of local DJing practices and cultures there are even within a national DJing and dancing culture. I am giving a paper on this very issue (ie the way the 'Australian' swing dance community is more a network of local communities and cultures than a homogenous national whole) in Canberra next week, and I couldn't help but note how exchanges make these sorts of ideas so very clear.

We can talk at one level of the various local musical tropes - the way each local scene has a particular dominant musical and DJing culture or style. Perth (to draw a long bow), is known for its attention to historical musical accuracy. There is a greater emphasis on music from the 30s and 40s, and on a particular tempo and style of swinging jazz. Of course, the fact that we selected DJs who play within this genre went some way to constructing what amounts to a cultural myth of Perth DJing - there are certainly dancers and DJs within that community whose interests are beyond the limits of this specific genre. It is also worth pointing out that the DJs who played the MLX might also have felt that they must restrict their musical choices to this style - so as to best adhere to our expectations as organisers, and to best 'represent' their community.

And this point of course emphasises the role exchanges play in presenting a particular notion of 'local' identity and culture. A notion which is of course representative of the dominant ideology or discourse of that community (and event-organising body) rather than of the more complex and diverse whole.
I wonder if the same comments can be made of Melbourne DJs?
We offered a range of DJs over the weekend, choosing DJs who specialised in a particular area so as to best suit the room or event they were playing. We did choose two local Melbourne DJs who favoured a very 'Perth' musical style. Though one of these demonstrates a more diverse musical taste when DJing locally. I regret not hearing her set on the Thursday nigh, to see how she chose to play the room. Two others were representative of a very different musical style - heavy on the groove, r'n'b and late testament big band. And also representative of the musical tastes of most Melbourne lindy hoppers.

In contrast, of course, the cafe gained a reputation as an 'alternative' room not only through our scheduling of DJs (on the Friday night we held the now-notorious 'BSides' event there - where DJs were encouraged to play outside the swinging jazz genre), but also through a general, cooperative consensus about how that space was to be used. This room was decorated so as to present a more 'friendly' and social space, as opposed to the main room, which was very much focussed on hard-core dancing: a more effective air conditioning system, a large, clear floor, no decorations beyond the room's basic 'ballroom' fixtures, and a clear musical emphasis on 'lindy hop'. I don't doubt that the very layout and decorations of the rooms encouraged particular musical choices from the DJs, which were, of course, a response to the mood and physical interaction of the dancers themselves.

It was interesting to see two Perth DJs generally known for their adherence to historical recreationism (both in terms of dancing and music) produce two very excellent - and quite unconvention (by their usual standards) sets in the cafe. One of whom at least took great delight in playing 'outside the square'.
This response (which of course demonstrated the flexibility of the DJs we hired) offered an example of how DJs do respond to the room they're playing, and realise the brief they're given by the event coordinators. And it was a pleasure to see the DJs taking our brief and do such creative work with it. To take delight in doing something a little 'naughty'.

Our whole 'Hot Sides' approach, where we offered a second room specialising in something a little outside the mainstream of lindy hopping music seemed generally very successful over the weekend. We asked Trev to play a Gangbusters set on our very first night - a room devoted to very fast tempos. A room which consequently proved to be as high-energy an event as I've ever seen at a lindy hop exchange. And very popular with the dancers. My only regret is that I had to leave the venue early to set up for the Spiegeltent and missed the rest of this set.
We had the BSides night on Friday, of course, which was massively successful, a point paid testament to by the locker-room stench of the room when we tidied up after it at 6.30am.
On Saturday we held the Sugar Bowl blues night - slow, saucy, sexy music for very close dancing. I'm not sure it was quite as successful as the previous night, but it was definitely a popular room and was always filled.
And on Sunday we offered a less intensely alternative bracket, but I noticed that the pattern set by the previous nights encouraged the DJs in that room to play more 'alternative' music, catering to the less rigorously historical recreationist crowd.

And of course, one of the nicest parts of this two-room approach was not only seeing two rooms of dancers with quite different tastes kept happy, but seeing those dancers whose tastes are less codified lurching between the two rooms to sample both styles.

As The Squeeze succinctly put it "if the song sucked in one room, I went to the other".

I will think more about this and post again. Hopefully when I'm not so seriously high on cold and flu tablets and my own body temperature.

I judge a DJ 'successful' or 'good' when they:
- keep the floor full all the time
- can recover after clearing the floor
- work the energy of the room, using highs and lows, rather than one single 'mood' (ie varying the musical 'mood' from high energy and crazy to more mellow and moderate energy)
- respond to the crowd's mood - if the dancers are looking to party like fools, they bring the partyfool music

I also expect a degree of professionalism from DJs at something like MLX (which had hundreds of dancers in attendance, and was really serving as a representation of Melbourne lindy culture), including:
- not dancing during their sets (something which proved controversial, and which I'll return to later when it's not so close an issue)
- arriving 15 minutes before their set was to begin, in order to touch base with the previous DJ
- beginning their set on-time
- having a basic understanding of the equipment they're using - ie being able to adjust the levels and volumes in a way that makes for a more pleasurable dancing experience

These are not only my expectations, but also those of the MJDA who was running the event - we agreed on these terms before hiring our DJs.
And of course, we pay our DJs well (with better rates than other Australian events), and offer decent working conditions.
We also ask our DJs to send us a complete set list after the event so that we can forward this to APRA and pay our dues to that organisation. An interesting allusion to our stance on intellectual and creative copyright legislation.

Posted by dogpossum on November 29, 2006 5:53 PM in the category djing and lindy hop and other dances