improvisation & techno

I’ve been wanting to write this post for *ages*, and today I’m sick and can’t think to study calculus, so I’m going to talk about djing and it’s relationship with improvisation, practice, and programming.

I know that lots and lots of DJs, especially ones who play more active music (techno, drum & bass, etc), have a passionate hatred of pre-planned sets and mixes. In an interview with the late Brent Carmichael, he said that his mentor in Toronto would threaten to fire him if he did the same mix twice. On the house / dance side of DJing, there’s the theory that if you pre-plan your sets, you’ll lose your interaction and feedback from the dancefloor – which has totally happened to me more than once.

This leads to the question of when you select your next track to play. In Victoria, the habit of doing half-hour tag sets has gotten me into the habit of tracking out 4-6 tracks in advance, in my head, A–>B–>C–>D, and then planning out variations on that, depending on the response to track A. It’s really rare that I’ll put on a single track without at least having an idea of what the next tune will be.

The benefits of this sort of improv-focused approach to programming are pretty much twofold: you can react to crowd feedback faster, and you have to stay laser-focused on what you’re playing, which makes you a way more exciting and interesting DJ to watch and listen to. For me, there’s nothing better than pulling a fantastic mix out of nowhere, live, or experiencing another DJ do it.

So. If improvisation is so important, why do DJs ever practice? And what’s the benefit of practicing? The simple answer is that you can’t run until you can walk. Nor can you expect to throw a perfect set together on the fly unless you know your records and how they go together intimately and exactly. This comes from obsessive, compulsive practice. This is how you hone your talent, much like the man pictured above, and much like a musician of any sort.

I tend to hit upon great mixes, blends, and tricks by accident when I’m practicing at home – the challenge then becomes how to transplant those to a live setting without making them feel forced or stilted. I’ve had huge successes with playing out largely pre-programmed sets, and I’ve also had some fairly spectacular failures. None of those would have come up without too many hours spent starting the same mix 8 bars later or earlier, trying to find the proverbial perfect beat.

The benefits of practicing, therefore, is that you build up an arsenal of mixes, phrasing, cue points, and tricks, and a classification for all of them that hopefully influences when you use them and how you vary them when you use them. DJing isn’t pure noodling on a trumpet or just playing notes off a sheet; it’s somewhere in between, and it behooves us to borrow as many inspirations and ideas as we can.