Saturday, June 20, 2015

Dropping the needle on the record with Kid Koala

We’re breaking away from theory and practice today on the blog for an artistic injection. This one is via virtuoso turntablist Kid Koala, perhaps best known for his Drunk Trumpet, in which he uses breaks, beats, and sounds from various recordings to simulate a horn section that’s had one or two too many. I can only imagine how this would have gone over in Fletcher’s band in Whiplash

Last night there were no tipsy trumpets, however. Instead, 60 tiny turntables, situated at tables of 4, in a temporary building known as the Festival Shed located near the intersection of Wellington & John streets in downtown Toronto as part of the annual Luminato Festival. (Extra trivia points for those who may not already know that the festival’s artistic director is Rufus Wainwright’s partner, Jorn Weisbrodt.)

The Kid Koala show was billed as a Satellite Concert, which made me think it may have been going out live via webcast, when in fact I believe it was being recorded. It was hard to tell as the evening was one of large scale media experimentation. So much so that there were those of us in the audience who were never entirely certain we were doing our parts ‘correctly’. 

Yes, we all had parts. The idea was that each mini turntable would constitute part of the audience orchestra. We had a miniature DJ crate stationed in front us, containing a handful of colour-coded records – the labels were red, blue, green, purple, and orange, along with a miniature mixing unit, and a light that would flash a particular hue which was our cue to drop the needle on the accompanying disc.

Koala's custom pressed, colour-coded vinyl
The Interstellar Orbiter mixer
The light flashed and we were to drop the needle
on the record of corresponding hue. If I continue
with this behaviour, consult a physician.

The discs were custom-pressed vinyl, and, we were told, were designed to harmonize with the larger composition, whether played at 33 or 45, whether spun backwards or forwards, and wherever the stylus met the vinyl.  It wasn’t entirely clear if things were functioning as planned, but dammit we all wanted this thing to work, so though there were numerous table-to-table exchanges about whether or not things were actually ‘working’, we dutifully did our jobs as audience disc jockeys, following the commands of the coloured lights that flashed before us. 

Or perhaps the whole thing was a psychology experiment, designed to see if people would believe their little discs were having an impact on the show in progress if they were told this was the case. While we participants were – or weren’t, who knows? – spinning and switching records and twiddling knobs on our table mixer -- Kid Koala was filling the room with a kind of dreamy, spacey wash of sound with some live instrumentation and occasional vocals that sounded like half-speed Bjork, which of course added to the galactic feel. Oh, and there were ‘chemical puppeteers’ as well. They stood by a tray full of plastic squeeze bottles, resembling a futuristic condiment stand. From this perch, globules of what appeared to be water, oil, soap, and various coloured liquids were artfully dribbled onto a surface that was projected onto the giant screens behind Mr. Koala.

Chemical puppeteering in action at Kid Koala's Satellite Concert
June 19th, 2015, Luminato Festival, Toronto

In these days of the heroizing of the DJ in the world of EDM/electronic dance music I say kudos to Koala and crew for trying something so ambitious, visually arresting, and highly interactive (in theory? in practice?). I still don't know. And to me, at least, it doesn't really matter.

A few more atmospheric shots from last night's show.
Good to see some trees in outer space.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The hyperlocal: On white squirrels and related playlists

In the personal stock market of my life, I announce today that blogging output has been significantly down in Q2 2015. This is owing largely to the fact I’m currently teaching and, and, as adult life dictates from time to time, work must come first.

But today that all changes...for a brief moment at least. And it’s all because of a white squirrel, featured prominently in an ad for Spotify that I saw recently outside of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. Shortly after relocating to the city I learned of this strange species of white squirrel when the local papers reported that one of these rare rodents was found “alarmingly stiff” and “dangling over a footpath” in the area.

That was last summer and since then I’ve come to learn that there are only a handful of these pale little creatures in the city and that they are so beloved, if not mythologized, that a coffee shop in the area bears their name. After all, not many have actually seen a white squirrel in the park, so the next best thing is the tribute coffee shop I guess.

Bonus Points: For those who want to regale co-workers with the depth of their white squirrel knowledge I recommend this video:

But back to the Spotify squirrel ad.

Upon seeing it, and then snapping a picture with my phone, it struck me that this thing referred to as 'mixed reality', the blending of the digital and the physical, is now, in its most basic form, just a taken for granted, everyday occurrence. Armed with phones that have more computing power than all of NASA had in 1969 we’re all participating in media consumption, pretty much all the time, and as a default setting. It is both opt-in and built in. There if you want it, and capable of being ignored if you don’t. 

And this is the genius of the Spotify poster. It combines the hyperlocal message of the legend of the Trinity Bellwoods white squirrel with a soundtrack especially crafted for squirrel spotting. Is the soundtrack squirrel-themed? Or walk in the park themed? Not at all.

But what Spotify is saying is that wherever you go, they’re there too. And they’re also letting you know that they’re hip to the local lore. This isn’t the local radio station running an ad reminding you to tune in for that wacky morning crew on weekday mornings from 6 a.m. or for ‘no repeat workdays’. This is a global brand demonstrating not only its knowledge of the community but also giving you the whimsical gift of a playlist, especially created for your day in the park.