An interview with Alexandre Fernandes, sound engineer (School of Audio Engineering - London) and instructor at Digipro Academy / Dance Planet (Portugal)
*Ph.D. in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism, Professor at the University of Porto (Portugal) Communication Sciences Department.
**Student in the Communication Sciences Program at the University of Porto (2012-2013).
During this interview, Alexandre Fernandes, also known as Alex Fx, provides us with his perspective with regard to the work of the disc jockey (DJ) and the video jockey (VJ), particularly taking into account the possible combination of both professionals.The sequence of songs the DJ plays leads Alexandre Fernandes to reflect on how to put together a musical (macro)narrative. In this regard, the role of the playlist is called into question. Alexandre Fernandes highlights the importance of reading the dance floor.
Keywords: communication; disc jockey; music; Semiotics; video jockey.
Relations between DJ and VJ
Jorge Marinho (JM) - To contextualize, I would like to start by asking a broad question: how do you currently characterize the role of the disc jockey (DJ) and of the video jockey (VJ) in the world of music, performing arts, entertainment and showbiz?
Alexandre Fernandes (AF) – It’s currently a bit strange to talk from the standpoint of both roles, no matter how much they work together, at the venues where they can operate; however, at the moment, this is a world that lives not only nearly in parallel, but also with their backs turned to one another. Music is addressed one way, while video is looked at in a completely different way. I think it’s video that tries to complement itself more to what music is doing. There is no planned work, and it also wouldn’t make much sense for work to be greatly planned, since he whom we could call a good disc jockey isn’t the one with great technique. It is, above all, the one who can properly read the dance floor, a technical term consisting of checking how people react to what he plays. Thus, in this regard, a good work symbiosis would involve having a constant complement of what each one does. In the case of video, that’s a little harder to do. Music provides much quicker access to work, launch and mix. Video has other components that are a little more difficult to work.
JM – In the current context of showbiz, can we consider the DJ to play an increasingly standout role?
AF – That’s unquestionable. Still, it can’t be said that he has worked all that much toward that end. I believe it was a set of other circumstances that have led to that, a little bit. For example, DJing started being included in bands somewhat by extension of the hip-hop phenomenon and which rock bands wanted to take advantage of, to use scratching techniques from the late 1970s and early 1980s. This then led to a phenomenon that started to occur: the DJ becomes a major mover of the masses and, more than the music, his presence is already enough to move I don’t know how many people, regardless whether he’s playing the big hit of the moment or the most unknown song. Therefore, there is a series of parallel phenomena that cause the DJ to be currently regarded as a rock star, which also leads part of the young people to look at that as a quasi-model of desire: I want to be a DJ because I want to have the same fame and gain as a footballer, but I don’t want the same physical strain.
Júlia Gouveia (JG) – Earlier, you explained to us that, on the part of the DJ and the VJ, preparation of a performance, choice and organization of songs and images are autonomous. However, are the aforementioned preparations of the DJ and the VJ ever conducted together, or should they ever be? What are the benefits and drawbacks of both operating modes?
AF – Normally, such preparations are conducted separately because no teams are created to work and practice together to such an end. In Portugal, there are very isolated cases of teams working and practicing together. One of the latest I’m aware of is Tomás, one of the world champions, also known as DJ Ride. He can already run a show on his own, where he plays the music and shows the video. However, he’s using a completely autonomous method, since he himself realized that there wouldn’t be a fast enough VJ, in terms of execution, relative to all the work he would be doing. And so, having chosen to use everything technology offered him, he managed to play music and video on his own, on stage. I’m aware of other teams. In terms of VJing, there is a team, in Portugal, which perhaps displays the highest degree of professionalism, just about at the international level – the Dub Video Connection. However, the Dub Video Connection already operates in superstar DJ mode. They already have a presentation model people can identify. Professionals who put together festivals identify with that and, when they request the work of the Dub Video Connection, they know what they’re getting. The Dub Video Connection does its work, but not in an autistic manner; rather, it is that line that gets adapted as the event progresses. To give you an idea, I’ve already seen them take French movies, such as “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” and make use of a few scenes. Therefore, there is a background in terms of that which they get in images and, at times, that’s what makes the difference, more than just standing there and looking at those animations that look like they’re already programmed on the video. For all due purposes, the VJ is nothing more than a light jockey in multimedia mode. I’m referring to work done at a disco or a festival. It’s a way for us to have a light system with a completely different interaction. In Portugal, I don’t know many teams of DJs and VJs working jointly because, even while enjoying working together at a given moment, they lack the time or patience to practice together.
JG – But does that happen only in Portugal? Or also at the international level?
AF – In international terms, it also works a little bit the same way. But there are other conditions outside Portugal. VJ companies are more apt to create basic synergies. If a given event is to be held, there are people genuinely concerned with meeting first, and practicing later. This is serious business in the United States. However, we know the United States has a label underneath, imbued at birth: showbiz. There is a concern with keeping the show running from beginning to end, no matter how good or bad it may be.
Cristiana Pais (CP) – Do you think that, because it is visual, the VJ’s work causes greater impact in people?
AF – I don’t know if you have noticed the DJ and VJ working in the booth. The VJ is not the happiest person in the world. I think he feels that his art, his way of molding images, is completely underrated in the context where he finds himself, and this is altogether noticeable. Anyone working images always sees that as a higher art form, because of cinema, photography… However, the VJ is aware that his work is completely decorative relative to what the DJ is doing. The DJ is the driving force because it’s sound. The combination works because it appeals to more senses.
CP – Do you think the VJ’s work can expand or reduce the significance that the music being played will have for people?
AF – If the work is well prepared, even without a prior rehearsal, if the VJ has a sufficient playlist of images along with a very good action time, if the VJ has good communication chemistry with the DJ, and if, in musical terms, he even knows what the DJ is playing and what he will be playing next, we could have synergies and a much better effect. However, technically, that which the DJ and VJ are doing can be a perfect symbiosis, and yet the public might not assimilate this.
Uses of the playlist
CP – When putting together a playlist, is there a line of thought joining all the songs? And are you thinking of a certain reaction from the public?
AF – I can say that the idea of going to a venue with a ready-made playlist is the biggest mistake anyone can make. It is taking for granted that the public is there to listen to what we want them to, in the order of our choosing, without the slightest hint of consideration for the people who are paying their share, in order to enjoy some fun. That’s my honest opinion. This in spite of the fact that there are paying individuals who get slapped with the playlist with no problem at all. I reaffirm that there should be a playlist when doing a podcast, a radio show, a specific program, and have a specific alignment of how to do things. In such cases, we are not livening up a party; rather, we are simply putting out a sequence of songs we think will be most suited for a given effect or a certain event, for example. If I head over to a venue, I can create a playlist only of what I say as follows: I will need these things, but I won’t just throw them around according to a preset order.
JM – Let’s go back to the issue of the playlist, eventually more acceptable in certain contexts such as on the radio, among others. Certainly even as part of a radio context, the DJ wants the listening audience to be satisfied with his work and, for such a purpose, it is very relevant to arouse emotions / sensations through the chosen songs. I suggest that we delve deeper into the DJ’s work. In any event, the work of the DJ and the VJ includes organizing songs and images in a time-space context. This organization / distribution of songs and images in a time-space context might not occur at random. We are focusing on a sort of sight- and sound-related syntax. Along with the significance that each song can have on its own, we will focus on another issue – the alignment of songs, that is, the way the significance of the current song can be influenced by the previous song and by the one that follows. Do you consider that, with the sequence / chain of songs, the DJ can convey a certain message and put together a certain narrative?
AF – A DJ should essentially comprise three things and in the following order: selection, attitude and, finally, technique. Why does selection come first? Because, regardless whether this is a more thorough work, a more refined taste, be it for a fashion show or for a highly commercial event, the DJ has to be able to make the proper selection of things. Making the proper selection is not about knowing the order in which to place the songs. At times, it starts with the DJ knowing what he will take with him to play the music. Currently, with computers, he can take with him his entire CD collection from home. At this moment, making the playlist is likely about the DJ knowing that he is heading to a certain club and separating musical tracks that will be played at the club, in order to simplify the work. Next, we have attitude: how I do the work. Without wanting to sound disparaging, I admit I’m not exactly the type of DJ that moves my hands a whole lot, whistles and jumps up and down in the music booth. I chose to follow a much more peculiar path within music and DJing, while being a little more introspective than explosive. The DJ might even be excellent, in terms of selection, but in a highly commercial event, if he doesn’t let it all out, with regard to attitude… We have to return to the issue of showbiz. In a highly commercial event, the DJ is part of the show, as he is increasingly regarded as a rock star on stage. After that comes technique. There are DJs who achieve an excellent musical selection and have a fabulous attitude that they convey to the music, but don’t need to have that technique for synchronizing the bpms (beats per minute) of one song with another. How does a DJ work at a rock party, for example? Will he have to synchronize beats? No. He will have to know how to choose songs and, as such, these are works that are not prepared for mixing tempos. Dance music pieces are prepared specifically to include tempos for everything. These pieces start with practically just one rhythm section, the theme is developed and, afterwards, there are breaks and a final part comprising rhythm to lead into another piece. Dance music pieces are almost like railroad cars that hook up with one another. However, there are different musical genres that work with the song playing all the way to the end, and the technique-related aspect encompasses precisely that. A rock DJ will have to know how to choose the musical themes, to be able to put together a musical arrangement.
JM – A narrative.
AF – A wholly musical narrative, to keep enlivening the dance floor and respect the songs. In order to respect the songs, when training DJs, even as part of dance music, we teach them not to make mixes while someone is singing.
Alexandre Fernandes talks about playlists and musical (macro)narratives
JM – In the piece entitled Sobre a Cultura da Música Eletrônica e Cibercultura, Cláudio Manoel Duarte tells us that electronic music is an unfinished work that doesn’t follow the formal structure of traditional song – start, refrain, middle, refrain and end. Cláudio Manoel Duarte considers that binary music is “eternally unfinished, with no start and no end,” while allowing itself to be “manipulated, recut and remixed.” Do you agree with this author?
AF – The stated structure is based on pop songs. To a certain extent, this is the formula put forth by Sir George Martin, when he was with the Beatles. There is a set of structures in pop songs that have been adapted to dance music. I understand the context where Cláudio Manoel Duarte makes the aforementioned statements. However, today’s music in itself, among the various genres in electronic music, is related to the current culture where we find ourselves. Everything that is multimedia is thrown at us at breakneck speed and there is no time to discern anything with regard to it. A relatively short while ago, we had a musical genre everyone was talking about: minimal. This involves precisely not having a musical structure. Minimal is entirely based on four bars, just like any dance music, and this is achieved using parts of loops, that is, small repetitive fragments of a song which, combined with a few more fragments, create something that is non-existent on any CD. All this circulates ad aeternum, within software, and is manipulated, in terms of equalization and effects, by the DJ himself. This is a moment where I can just about say that the DJ is playing because, deep down, he is using tools that I, for example, as a producer, would use in the studio. At that moment, the DJ is using the tools live, as he is using a technical morphology to transform the music. This is definitely not the structure of a song. We are using technological tools to mold sound fragments in time. Deep down, in musical terms, this is so strangely contextualized, these days, as was the case with “4’33’’” by John Cage. People would look at a musician seated at the piano and pausing for four minutes and 33 seconds, over the movements, and they would say, “Is this music?” We know that music is the human being’s ability to arrange sounds in time. The context is very broad.
CP – When you know where you will be playing and the type of audience that will await you, does that bear any influence on the songs you choose to play at that time?
AF – It can bear some influence. While a good professional must always have his work prepared beforehand, there are always several factors to take into account. (I cringe somewhat at the expression “he will play” because I’m a musician…) When a DJ prepares for a set, this implies that he already knows the venue, or we’re talking about a type of DJ whose name in itself implies that people know what they’re in for, and so the DJ doesn’t even need to worry about the venue. He is already paid to do work that he does almost automatically.
JG – Does the encouragement you get from the audience influence the choice of music you’re going to play next?
AF – It’s what’s known as reading the dance floor, as some professionals still do. More than being very well prepared, creating a playlist, playing all the hits of the moment, making everyone feel satisfied on the dance floor, reading the dance floor is an exercise in intelligence, while showcasing the response capability of any DJ: to see how the public is accepting the music. A DJ must always have several resources at his disposal: hits, musical themes that will save the day in any situation, new and featured songs. During any type of session, a smart enough DJ has to manage the aforementioned resources; that is, he has to know how to juggle the whole thing. Deep down, what the DJ does is a sort of game. The DJ has to know how to read the dance floor, regardless whether he’s using actual or digital discs. While putting on songs that he likes more or less, the DJ has to be able to construct a narrative, so that longer breaks in the music don’t occur.
Duarte, Cláudio Manoel, Sobre a Cultura da Música Eletrônica e Cibercultura Retrieved 7.11.2012 from http://pragatecno.wordpress.com/textos/sobre-a-cultura-da-musica-eletronica-e-cibercultura/
This interview was conducted on November 8, 2012, on the premises of the University of Porto Study Program in Communication Sciences, as part of the curricular unit of Communication Semiotics lectured by Jorge Marinho.
Picture by: University of Porto Study Program in Communication Sciences Media Laboratory
Published by Marinho Media Analysis / December 17, 2014