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Conceptual Music Magic

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Better Listening Through Better Design:
Successful collaborative DesignGroup brings conceptual music magic to Humboldt Park

Group projects are the bane of many art students’ existence. Even if you plan on locking yourself in an ivory tower after graduation, painting masterpiece after masterpiece all alone, college educators always seem to think it’s a good idea to throw hot-headed young elitists together and let them struggle to produce something that won’t shame their portfolios. Often, the process is like trying to build the Tower of Babel, with a healthy dose of Jerry Springer and the Wildboyz thrown in.

But occasionally, a group forms in which the members come to cooperate like a well-armed troupe of anti-riot cops: effective, precise, and with a minimum of casualties. Throw in radically diverse backgrounds and a topic on which reputations are made or lost – music – and this dream group project becomes a miracle indeed.

“Usually groups meet, one person is lazy, one person is loud, a couple of people get assigned to do research and someone else does all the work,” says Isaac Smith, senior architecture student at SAIC and one of the founders of the new design co-op DesignGroup.

“Most projects are forced on you,” agrees partner Andrew Adzemovic, a self-proclaimed “Popular Culture Theory” student at Columbia College. “It’s function. Even ‘natural’ collaborations like bands only exist because one guy has a hard time playing everything himself.”

The two, along with buddy Bruce Herring, who studies neurobiology at the University of Chicago, decided one drunken night a year ago to defy this tedious stereotype to see if, according to Smith, “it was possible to create while functioning as a group.”

“We worked together really well,” says Herring. “Our secret may be that rather than starting out as a strictly goal-oriented group, we let goals evolve out of discussion.”

“No leaders, no workers, no quiet ones. Just people willing to put aside their differences and see what would come out,” Smith continues. “We sat down, we drank, we started talking. Lots of subjective words were getting thrown around and the Jim Beam was disappearing fast.”

The result of this intensive ongoing alliance is what they call DJ Night—a series of songs selected through a complicated process involving musical knowledge, mathematics, and a lot of time spent cooped up together.

“Essentially, it [started as] a giant DesignGroup survey,” says Adzemovic. “We each submitted three songs to the group, and each song was divided into twenty evenly spaced points.”

“Not the three best songs ever or anything, just three songs we were into at the moment. We figured that we could analyze the songs and look for patterns and similarities,” Smith says. “When we sat down and listened to them, we soon found out that they weren’t all that similar. Different genres, time periods, and of course they weren’t the same length of time. When we decided that we wanted to make visual representations of our songs so that we could see their similarities, we knew that we needed to some way to break up the songs on a proportional scale rather than a time-based scale.”

They hit on the idea of dividing each song into 20 sections, so that proportionally, a two-minute punk riff could be compared to a 12-minute rock epic. They developed a system of visually graphing the sections according to different “themes” or “filters” originally refined by David Byrne of the Talking Heads and Brian Eno of Roxy Music, such as Dense/Sparse, Abstract/Familiar, and Menacing/Comforting. For DesignGroup’s purposes, these themes apply to aural aspects of each of the 20 specific pieces of the nine songs they’d orginally chosen.

Smith, Adzemovic, and Herring each hunkered down to rate the nine songs, then compare their numbers and find an average for a collective graph of each song. For example, they used The Darkest Hour’s “For the Soul of the Savior” for the second DJ Night on the theme of Dense/Sparse. On a scale of one to 10, one being aurally sparse and 10 being dense, they rated the beginning of the song about 6, peaking just before the halfway point at 9, then dropping off to about 3 at the end.

Adzemovic describes how the group then used this graph to plan the entire night’s playlist: the first song played is one of the nine that correlates with a Talking Heads’ filter, and the rest would each represent, in order, one of the twenty points on the master scale. “Rather than looking at [it] as something six minutes long, we took the exact pattern and said it was four hours long. That works out to be around 12 minutes-per-bin, or about three songs in a DJ set per point on the chart. You can see on the list of what we played how the sound of the song correlates to the point on the graph. From there we tried to follow the chart with how dense or sparse all subsequent songs were. It’s about information translated over time.”

“When we’re finished, we have 60 songs, which equals 4 hours of music, which is perfect for our 10 to 2 p.m. timeslot at Streetside,” says Smith.

DesignGroup’s connections got them a monthly gig at the Streetside Bar, a dimly lit gem of a venue in Humbolt Park with a fireplace and lots of room, mostly undiscovered by the West side hipster hordes.

“We needed money for a DesignGroup website and we like free drinks and listening to the music we want to listen to, but really loud,” grins Herring.

The stipend they receive for the gigs goes into a fund for various supplies and website fees and to fund other projects, like the line of T-shirts the group was recently commissioned to produce for Wicker Park boutique Espace. Their decision to play before an audience was also fueled by the fact that “it forced us to do something by putting our egos on the line,” admits Adzemovic. “Once we told all our friends we were going to do a DJ thing, we kinda had to do it or we’d look like dumbasses.”

So once the work is done—and it’s a hell of a lot of work to graph all those songs—the boys get to sit back and chill out. Smith says they “show up, press play, and then pretty much just sit around having fun listening to all these songs blaring in hi-fi while we drink official DesignGroup cocktails – whiskey and coke.”

But, he adds quickly, “Keep in mind that these DJ performances aren’t really an interest of DesignGroup. We do them because we get paid and we want that money so we can pursue more intellectual projects. We also, though, like the distraction and the whiskey.”

Ultimately, according to Adzemovic, “We wanted to see how successful true collaboration could be. We’re not trying to be artists. We’re looking at collaboration and design. What we produce isn’t self-expression. It’s an experiment.”

DesignGroup plays the last Tuesday of every month at the Streetside Bar, 3201 W. Armitage, at 10 p.m. No cover. Espace is located at 1205 N. Milwaukee.

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