Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Idea: Drum-Based Dance Music Performance Context

I've got a design I like, and I want to explain its motivations.

I'm from Chicago, and in the 90s I went to a lot of raves in San Francisco. I was more of a nerdy hermit in Chicago (and am more of a nerdy hermit today), but I remember being surprised in San Francisco by the way everybody danced facing the DJ. In clubs in Chicago, everybody danced facing each other, which is to say, pointed in a thousand different random directions.

The dance music history Last Night A DJ Saved My Life notes this distinction, and points out that in the early days of DJing, DJs were not even visible from the dance floor. Dance music venues began putting the spotlight on the DJ (literally) once DJs became names capable of selling tickets and bringing people in the door.

So what I saw in the 90s in San Francisco was part of a historical continuum, and I think it's becoming more and more the norm. I remember it being a major issue in some corners of the underground dance music scene, because people felt that "superstar DJs" were making themselves the focus of events whose real (and more noble) purpose was to create a feeling of unity and communion throughout a large crowd.

From that point of view, things have gotten worse:

It's hard to think of a more unexpected turn of musical events than EDM's commercial triumph. For decades, the US remained impervious to the charms of the house music and techno that had been invented under their noses in the 80s. Then suddenly, nearly a quarter of a century after the rest of the world cottoned on, dance music has become very big business indeed.

From the outside, it's inexplicable. Perhaps examining the work of Joel Zimmerman can shed some light. As Deadmau5, he is not only arguably EDM's biggest star – as evidenced by a recent Rolling Stone cover – but also the scene's self-appointed spokesman. He took Madonna to task for the scarcely imaginable crime of mentioning drugs at a rave, suggesting it was akin to "mentioning slavery at a blues concert". It was redolent, he said, of the days when "a dark veil" hung over dance music, before he and others had "taken EDM so goddamn far". By this "dark veil" period, he presumably meant the 35 years when dance music had to content itself with merely providing a glorious, euphoric voice for disenfranchised minorities, being a genuine countercultural phenomenon, repeatedly revolutionising music and changing the face of popular culture. This, of course, was before it found its true, noble calling: soundtracking Las Vegas pool parties and providing music for gurning frat boys to mosh to.

I love this, because I think Deadmau5 is basically insane to consider himself an improvement over Chicago house. However, I don't think it's just commercialization and egotism which focuses people's attention on the DJ, as opposed to each other. From a commercial standpoint, DJs fill venues, and from an artistic standpoint, the performer supplies the music, and with it, a lot of the overall vibe of an event.

There's an inherent conflict here, between an event which is all about some superstar DJ, and an event which is all about communion, about uniting the dance floor as one. So I set myself a design goal: imagine what it would look like to create a space where a dance music event could balance these competing dynamics with grace and harmony.

At the same time, dance music's grown tremendously in sophistication, both as an art form and in technological terms. Back in the days of vinyl turntables, the core technical skills of DJing were beatmatching and handling the mixer levels. Even then, these skills were trivial, and nothing compared to the much more important (and more ephemeral) skills of track selection and reading a crowd. But today, computers can easily handle both beatmatching and mixer levels automatically, leaving many DJs with nothing to do but stand around and pump their fists in the air. This is especially problematic in the case of DJs whose track selection is predictable, and who don't bother to read a crowd.

Software like Traktor and Ableton Live makes it possible to combine live instrumental music, in the classic sense, with sample playback, looping, and all the postmodern benefits of performing music by playing recordings, rather than individual notes and sounds. One very interesting way to do this is by playing electronic drums which send MIDI signals instead of, or as well as, making sounds.

Here's a demo by the drum technician for Netsky's recent tour:

Say for the sake of argument you have a performer like that delivering dance music. The risk of an event which places all of its emphasis on the superstar performer, and none at all on creating a sense of unity on the dance floor, is actually enormous.

I think I have a design which reconciles these competing interests.

The secret sauce: user-generated visuals and software-enabled audience participation.

By user-generated visuals, I mean that in addition to using the MIDI signals from an electronic drum pad or drum kit to create music, you can also use those same signals to drive visualization software as well or instead. Although this is just a thought experiment, I've built a very simple prototype of drum-triggered visuals. This is very much a work in progress, but you can see a rough demo video here:

(The code is on GitHub.)

What I envision is a raised drum platform with video screens and concert lighting attached. The video screens plug into software which accepts MIDI input from the electronic drums, so that the musician also acts as a VJ, or in collaboration with a VJ (who could choose to process the MIDI input through any visualization software which accepts MIDI).

Throughout the room, you also have a drum circle of MIDI-enabled drums, which do not create any sound, but which do drive visualizations on screens nearby. People in drum circles always look cooler than they sound; this system leverages that fact. These drums would go on smaller raised platforms, probably enclosed in pods for security and to simplify managing them during the event.

These are audience participation pods. They enable audience members to interact with the music and the VJ software, and thereby to also interact with each other.

Here are some 3D mockups. Please pardon their primitive nature, and see them as diagrams to help the imagination.

Drummer in the foreground, audience participation in the background. This diagram represents a drummer seated at an electronic drum kit (specifically a Roland Octapad), on a raised platform with video screens attached to the platform, and strobelights attached above the screens. (The video screens are displaying screenshots of generative art made in Clojure with Quil, which is essentially Processing.)

The drummer's platform is actually a turntable with a very slow rotation speed; something like one rotation per hour. This enables the drummer/DJ to see all of the crowd around them, rather than just the people in the "front row." (Since this design sits at the center of a room, rather than one end, there isn't a front row, more a set of concentric rings.)

Audience participation close up. An audience member stands before a single electronic drum. Above their head, there's a pair of video screens. One screen faces the audience member and shows them the visuals that their drumming creates; the other screen faces the opposite direction so everybody else in the crowd can see.

Audience participation in the foreground, star performer in the background. Additional audience participation pods in the far background.

Overhead view. The empty space in between the drummers would be filled with dancers.

This design achieves a nice hybrid between a rave and a gigantic Guitar Hero party, while showcasing a more sophisticated and interesting level of musicianship which can nonetheless include sampled beats, loops, and all the up-close-and-personal crowd-reading that can make for a truly amazing DJ set.

The audience participation pods could also be a new revenue source; just charge people $X to jump in for an hour. The benefit here is it'd make it easy to organize who goes in them, although the risk is that it further commercializes a fundamentally spiritual experience. Another option could be to put ancillary performers in the drum circle pods, i.e., backup percussionists, kind of like go-go dancers but less sexist and more friendly.