ONLY NOISE: DJing is My Meditation

COLUMNS|Only Noise
The author blisses out on the decks: Dolce Vita at The Lash in Los Angeles, 2018. Photo courtesy Liz Ohanesian

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Liz Ohanesian struggles to focus and live in the moment – until she realizes that’s exactly what she does when she’s spinning records. 

In the midst of a perfect night inside a downtown Los Angeles club, time faded. It didn’t stop or disappear. Seconds counted down toward the end of tracks spinning on the CDJs. Night hours flashed on the cell phone that I sporadically checked. Eventually, the bar lights flickered as last call approached. I was conscious of all that, but none of it mattered. I wasn’t thinking about what happened five songs ago or where I wanted to be in three songs’ time. In fact, I wasn’t really thinking about anything beyond the moment.

This happens a lot when I DJ, although I’m not sure how or why. Maybe it’s a song that pulls me deeper into the mix. Maybe it’s the sight of people vibing with the music. Regardless, I lock into a groove and go with it. The songs will change, the tempos will rise and fall. On this particular night, the genres changed. It was the rare gig with no stylistic restrictions, meaning that I could (and did) play everything from Missy Elliott to Hercules and Love Affair to Dolly Parton. By the end of the night, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened, just that it did happen. Over a year later, this still stands out as one of my favorite gigs. The details are fuzzy, but I remember a blissfulness that was overwhelming. And, mostly, I remember this as the night where I understood what it meant to be present.

By day, I’m a freelance journalist and my work hours – really, most hours that I’m awake – are a constant exercise in juggling multiple stories, in trying to finish assignments while finding new work, in managing an incessant onslaught of emails, multiple social media accounts and monthly/weekly/daily schedules. It’s a lot of work for what is, essentially, a one-person operation, and it often feels overwhelming when you’re the sort of person who is as easily distracted as I am.

I wasn’t always like that. I used to slide so deeply into books that I could finish reading thick ones in just a matter of days. I loved long, subtitled movies. I listened to albums until I had the lyrics memorized. Over the course of the past decade or so, my attention span has gradually shrunk to the point where I can barely get through a book chapter, half-hour television episode or a song without checking my phone. I catch myself thinking, “tl;dr” while reading newspapers. Unless I snapped pics or posted a status update, my memories of the previous day will be far more vague than those of events that went down 20 years ago. I wake up too many times in the middle of the night thinking about too many things that I have to do the next day.

I’ve slipped into this 21st century mind suck, giving away my brain power to platforms that will hold my memories, my time to tech that always wants more of it. On top of that, I’ve become this person who performs productivity, trying to show that I’m always alert, always aware and always working because #Ilovemyjob and want you to #hireme. All of this has come at the expense of my physical and mental well-being and, likely, my personal relationships. That has to stop. I’ve taken steps to do that in various ways from time management apps to yoga. To an extent, this has helped me regain some concentration skills on the daily. Still, nothing seems to push me towards mindfulness like DJing does.

I started DJing back in college and I still step into the DJ role at Los Angeles venues a few times a month. Music and clubs have been a constant throughout the bulk of my adulthood. Even though everything from technology to my own career and personal life have changed over the years, the way I work in the DJ booth hasn’t.

Whether you’re the DJ at a large dance club or an intimate bar, you have certain responsibilities for the night. Your main task is to keep the crowd engaged, which you do by reading the room and making snap decisions on what to play next. If the energy has been building for a few songs, it might be time to drop a big hit. If the crowd has been going hard for a while, you might want to ease up on them for a bit.

Next, and equally important, is that you have make sure everything sounds good. While your eyes are fixed on the floor, your ears are tuned into all the sonic nuances. You may have one ear directed at the monitor to hear the song that’s currently playing while your headphones are cupped to the other ear as you cue the next song. Meanwhile, your hands will be in action as you mix tracks together seamlessly and/or adjust the levels.

As you’re doing all this, you will probably be approached by friends. You may have to field a few requests, sometimes from people who are flat-out obnoxious. If your booth is set up near the dance floor, you’ll most likely have to deal with klutzes knocking into the gear. It takes a lot of focus to get through a DJ set. If someone annoys you, you have to let it go. If you mess up – and everyone does – you can’t dwell on it. If there’s a technical problem, you have to fix it fast and keep moving. You need to stay in the groove until your set ends.

In a way, everything I have been trying to learn from yoga videos and guided meditation recordings was stuff I already knew from my DJ life. I just didn’t have a word to describe the transformation that happens when I’m in the midst of a set. I couldn’t understand why I usually feel so elated when I’m finished or why my gig nights are the only ones followed by uninterrupted sleep. This practice of playing music for people had become a form of meditation. It just took a while to realize that.

It makes perfect sense. Dance music is designed not just to keep you moving, but to make you let go of the stresses and distractions that surround us during the day. Beat-matching is a standard DJ skill because you can keep the music going without people noticing that the songs have changed. Extended remixes of short pop songs exist to heighten the excitement of a tune you already love. There are so many songs about the joy of dancing that it could be its own genre. But, to be the person charged with bringing everyone into the moment is a little different.

Technically, I’m working and doing that in a space that’s surrounded by technology, with both digital and physical distractions – yet, they don’t have the same power over me that they do anywhere else. Maybe it’s not the tech that’s the problem, but the way I’ve trained myself to interact with it that’s become an issue I have to handle. I’m still not sure how to do that, but the answer might be in the club.

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