Sunday, November 12, 2006


Following My Nose

By the time I was born my father had quit playing music, except for an occasional performance of "Boogie Woogie" on the baby grand piano in the living room. My parents didn't often listen to music. We didn't get a stereo until sometime in the late 1950's a portable stereo record player showed up. This replaced a little portable player for 45rpm records. The 45s got moved to the bigger machine. We'd stack them up on summer afternoons and lounge in the air-conditioned living room, by the baby grand, and listen. My sister and I were usually the ones there.

"Walk Right In" got my attention for a guitar break in the middle. The sound was very dense for a time, and then floated up into a simpler arrangement. I had no idea how it was done but the effect moved me.

We had "Puff, the Magic Dragon" and "Old Smokey Locomotion" and "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" and "Alley Cat." I also liked "Marking Time," which was on the other side. The song that really took me away was Eydie Gorme's "Blame It On the Bossa Nova." That song really moved out, melodic and spirited. Silly, too, but good silly.

There is no judgment in music. It is what it is. The recording spins out. There may be emotional effects but they're manipulative. Emotion is inherent in good music, which is why I detest Muzak: all the life has been stripped away and the sound is just there to distract. It irritates me.

An example is Don McLean's "American Pie." This was a huge hit. I didn't like it. Then I found out I'd been hearing versions that had been trimmed to fit the radio. McLean's version, all eight minutes of it, is quite a song. Sacrificed to commercial interests. As Billy Joel sings, "It was a beautiful song but it ran too long, so they cut it down to 3:05."

I could listen to music, let it into my world, and not fear the results. There was no one looking over my shoulder waiting for me to produce the proper actions after their emotional browbeating. Music lit up my world and showed alternatives.

It still does, all these years later. A friend of mine noticed in 1981 and sent me a copy of Charlie Dore's "Pilot of the Airwaves," with a suggestion that I seek out a job as a DJ. I thought the suggestion was absurd. Who'd be interested, besides Roman, in the music I like?

It turns out that many people are interested. Roman knew his man. I'm a DJ now. Or, as we say in Uru, a D'niJ because we play in the Cavern of the D'ni in the online version of Cyan's game "Uru."

The online version of Uru is coming back after dying in February of 2004. I joined its shadow version, "Until Uru," in May of 2005 and soon learned how to play music for others in the Cavern. I set up my first musical event in mid-June that year. There were certain standards I swore to maintain.

One was that I would respect the music. I wouldn't overlap songs and I would present them exactly as the maker executed them. No scratching, no talking, no messing around. And no talking. I don't listen to the radio because of the non-stop chatter: the DJ talks on the tail of a song and goes right on over the beginning of the next. That's assuming there's a song between the commercials. I would present music, pure and simple.

At first I didn't know what I was doing. I played whole CDs. After a month or two I learned that I could select a new song just as the previous one ended and thereby respond to the mood of the moment. Get near the end of a song, window out of the game, select the next song and double-click at just the right time. Then I learned that I could queue up a song so I wouldn't have to window out so often, and the transition went more smoothly. In October I made my first playlist, and promptly remembered two events. One was that stack of 45s on the Philco stereo.

The other event was an aborted project for a friend in the Netherlands. I decided to collect some of my favorite songs and make a CD for her. This was right after I'd learned about copying songs from CDs to the computer and finally understood that I could make a list of favorites. When the time came to copy this list for my friend, though, I got cold feet. It was much to revealing. If you know what music moves a person you have a big window into their soul. I never sent the CD.

From late October on, the playlist became my standard method. I lost the spontaneity of selecting songs on the fly but gained more because I could actually pay attention to the ongoing conversation. I learned by doing that playlist design is interesting in itself. I've seen, many times, the interaction between certain kinds of music and conversation. Sometimes we're in a quiet mood, and sometimes in a more dance mood. I design playlists to suit.

Through all of that I observed rule #1: let the music speak. The D'niJ can just keep quiet.

Life, however, goes on. It never stays put. I got involved in a bigger musical party, and as a joke I recorded some announcements that I'd add to the playlist here and there. It was just a joke. It backfired. "Hey, you have a great voice!" So, I set things up so that whenever needed I could speak live and announce a song. If someone made a request I'd announce that. Birthdays, too. Or sometimes just for fun I'd add some silly songs and announce those.

Music Night, the quieter Saturday meeting, was still different. More people started listening, though, so I felt the need to announce at the beginning what we were up to that night. Again, the response was "We like hearing from you. Why don't you announce songs?" We switched to Shoutcast, which includes song information in the player display, but people still wanted the spoken announcement.

One thing leads to another. Some ideas need more than the music itself. Music Night has deep history and I played some of the older songs after speaking a little about how I got ahold of them. People told me that this added to their enjoyment of the songs, so I decided to go all out and do a kind of historical overview, starting with "Walk Right In" and going on to the most recent song in my collection, Rich Mullins' "The Maker of Noses." I set it up in blocks, each block for a major sojourn: Salina, Kansas, and onward to Los Angeles. I intended to announce the blocks and leave it at that.

Events overran me. I made my initial announcement and let the playlist run for the first block. "What about this song?" someone asked.
"We want to hear more!"
I resisted, saying "You're here for the music more than you're here for me."
"We want both!"
These are people I've known for over a year. They wouldn't lie about this. I scrapped the plan and went ad-lib, announcing most of the songs and telling everyone where it came from and what I was doing when I first heard it.

If I'd have known this would happen I wouldn't have gotten into it. Sprung on me by surprise as a fait accompli I just went with the flow. I knew I'd pay the piper later, but while on the wave you just ride and enjoy. I had to drop a 13-minute song from the list because of all the talking.

The last song, the aforementioned "Maker of Noses," spooled off into the aether and the channel fell silent. I made my last announcement, thanking people for their interest and then I closed it down. Shoutcast buffers the sound so about 40 seconds later everyone else heard it. Spontaneous applause filled the Kadish forest, and I said my good-nights and staggered off to bed. I knew what was coming.

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