Thursday, January 19, 2006

Pop Smear Test

We Make It, They Break It
Chop Suey, Seattle, WA

Pop Smear Test is another Seattle School production (or, rather "joint" - we're supposed to call productions "joints" now. See how hip I am?) that sounds complicated when you first hear about it, but is actually quite simple. It's essentially a DJ contest using found sound, and the body temperatures of the judges determine the winners. DJs have four minutes to collect sounds from the audience, four minutes to prepare a piece, and four minutes to play it for the crowd and judges. Easy, right?

The audience is Venn-diagrammed this way: hipsters who read about this in The Stranger, fans of Iron Composer who will go see anything Seattle School spits out, and musicians both current and aspiring. The host asks Team A what they need, then comes into the crowd with his mic to collect drum sounds, words, patterns, yelps, and moans, all of which are recorded by the team into their fancy sampling micro-computers.

During round one, only the boldest audience members step forward to the mic. The younger gals who are here tonight "seeing something weird!" stay quiet until their blood-alcohol levels creep above .08%. Team B's requests are more scandalous - all words and few sound effects- which gets the audience more involved. The tracks are played back, and while surprisingly good, only vaguely resemble House music. Producers can alter the pitch of the sounds they collected, so some stuff is indistinguishable from the original sounds. Nurses take the temperatures of the two pre-selected audience judges and jot down their readings.

During round two the audience starts to get with the program. You know your friend who says things like "dude, I do an AWESOME beatbox" or "I can TOTALLY make a trumpet sound"? Then you also know that friend is incorrect. We hear horrific sounds coming from the most confident people, and we cringe and look to the faces of the team members for their reactions. However, for every over-zealous drunkard there is an *actual* musician in the audience who comes out with these STUPENDOUS drum sounds, sung lines, and crazy voices. Hearing someone good gives us double satisfaction because now we have a chance to hear them *again* in the produced piece.

The theme for round 2 is Breakbeat, and hell if I can tell you the difference between House and Breakbeat and Jungle or any of the other zillion forms of electronic music. I think Breakbeat means "a ton of sounds played really fast." Unfortunately, it also means that many of the great audience-generated sounds are going to be clipped and altered beyond recognition. So while our expectations of hearing original sounds are lowered, the reward increases when some line or word slips out intact. Some of the best parts of the pieces are snippets of the host giving people instructions or doing a countdown - sounds captured when no one was looking.

Judging is fun but slightly unsatisfying, simply because we want to be measured MORE. We've helped to create this piece, we are engaged in the process, so we want to GIVE. Where is my blood pressure cuff? Where is the stopwatch for my pulse? This extra complication is unnecessary, of course, as one measurement does produce a winning team in the end. (Oh, and duo Posse Ad Esse do a fantastic mid-show rap about parking on Capitol Hill.) Despite a small audience, the uh, *joint* works and the producers pull off credible pieces of music using our very own voices.


Anonymous Roger said...

"Joint?" As in "A Spike Lee Joint?" That's so 1986!

11:33 PM  

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