Wednesday, March 28, 2007

DJ Philosophy II: "The Flow"

I first realized the importance of flow in a DJ set back when I was making party mix tapes with my record player and cassette deck. At first my concept of how songs should follow one another was intellectual and rather forced, in a I’ve-read-the-Rolling-Stone-History-of-Rock-and-Roll sort of way. By the time I got into industrial music, though, I had the concept that songs went together based on mood and musical elements more than who had previously been a member of what band.

Hearing psy-trance DJs was my first real introduction to mixing and the idea of a set as a journey through moods and ideas. I came to understand that flow was the name of the game, the way that a listener or dancer can be led from one vista of the mind to another without being conscious of the transitions. In this way trance sets reminded me of classical symphonies, with movements and motifs that would emerge over time.

When I listen to DJs now, or mix CDs, the flow is where I focus my attention. Anybody can play one record after another, and even beat-match an intro with an outro, but it takes real skill to create a flow. The challenge is not only in getting the sounds of two different tracks to work together, but to understand also their dynamics and mood. My greatest frustrations come when I’m working on a set and I realize that I’ve backed myself into a corner with a track, something that is impossible to follow with the music I have without creating a significant, noticeable shift in the flow of the set. If you tend to stay within a well-defined genre keeping the mood and dynamics compatible from track to track is not so difficult, but if you begin to mix and match, or actually intend to create a change in moods over the course of set, it’s a different story.

The best CDs I’ve heard recently in terms of flow have come from minimal techno DJs like Ritchie Hawtin and Alex Smoke. In terms of sounds minimal makes it easier to combine a variety of different types of tracks with one another because the layers of the tracks have enough space between them to accommodate new elements. And unlike other genres, like breakbeat, psy-trance, or even drum and bass, that have very defined structures and almost homogenized sound palettes, minimal tracks loop in a way that seems almost infinite, so that when one track comes in with another it’s difficult to tell that it is another track, instead of the introduction of another set of looped sounds. For me flow is what makes music truly psychedelic, rather than just more background sound in an already noisy, chaotic world.

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