October 9, 2008

Spun Stories, Mixed Tales

Print More

[img_assist|nid=32525|title=Adam Vana ’09|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Adam Vana ’09 doesn’t mind if you don’t call him a musician. “I think DJs who insist on that are just insecure,” he says. One of Cornell’s most prolific practitioners of electronic music, Vana prefers to use the word “prosumer,” a concept that fuses the roles of producer and consumer.
Vana, along with fellow Cornell DJ Dan Bailey ’08, has a residency at Le Poisson Rouge on Saturday nights at Collegetown’s City Style Salon and Sake Bar. An equally talented DJ with a complementary style, Bailey plays alternate weekends. Since its introduction this summer, Poisson Rouge has become one of Collegetown’s few dependable non-top 40 club ventures.
“Our approach to DJ sets is to take the time to come up with a unique musical experience,” Vana says. “We’re trying to expose people to stuff they’ve never heard before, and stitch it together to have some kind of meaningful emotional effect. So when people leave, we’re hoping they say to each other, ‘Wow, that was really awesome,’ not just, ‘Did you get her number?’ Though, I mean, that’s important too …”
When Vana spins, the meaning of the term “prosumer” becomes apparent. On any given night, Vana is the selector and mixer of four or more hours of deep house, techno, dub and ambient music, drawing from a constantly expanding collection of over 2,200 tracks.
The polar opposite of a typical bar DJ who plays a string of unaltered hit songs you already hear in endless rotation on the radio, Vana locks into an intuitive flow. As a fifth-year architecture student, he thinks of music as having a spatial presence. Vana’s sets create what he calls a “field of beats,” a varied landscape within which sonic events occur.
“Maybe I’m hypersensitive or something, but I think that small things in music can have the biggest effect,” says Vana. “I look for tracks where just adding one element can transform the whole feel.”
[img_assist|nid=32526|title=Spinning|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]In a way, the music seems to control the DJ. Every tonal or textural shift registers in Vana’s expressions, from smile to grimace, and his lengthy frame seems possessed by rhythm. It often looks as though his body might involuntary tear itself away from his decks and join dancers on the floor.
When Vana was a teenager, an older friend who started going to raves in the mid-nineties introduced him to dance music. Vana had never even bought a CD before; his initial experience of music fandom was connected from the outset with dancing and subcultural solidarity.
Although deejaying was a natural progression, Vana has come a long way since his first live set, the European Club’s Ibiza-themed party at Castaways four years ago. Vana, with friend and collaborator Alex Krivicich ’08, signed up for the slot before he even owned a pair of turntables. “I don’t know how we did it,” he recalls, “but we did.” He still remembers it as one of his most exciting gigs.
Lately, Vana’s concerns have shifted from merely keeping bodies in motion to “taking people on a journey” — booty-shaking still included. German DJs Âme and Move D, as well as New York legend Francois K were pivotal influences, and Vana continues to stay on the cutting edge of dance music culture.
Vana likes to evoke the “storyteller” of oral cultures as a metaphor for his craft. He aims to “tap into elements of culture’s collective memory, but synthesize them in a unique and relevant way.” In Vana’s case, these fragments of memory consist of traditional cultural rhythms, vintage electronic instruments, elements of science fiction and myriad samples of music and noise, fused into units that have a definite history.
“For a lot of people, when they hear the word ‘techno’ they think glowsticks and hands in the air, a frat-rave kind of environment,” he observes. “The truth is that house music and techno music grew out of largely African-American communities in Chicago and Detroit. There’s a deep, soulful musical tradition behind it.”
As a saxophone player, Vana has his own personal experience with American musical tradition. In fact, Vana’s improvisational approach to deejaying is deeply indebted to an appreciation of jazz. “I used to doubt that I could pull off a set without planning it, but now that’s become really important to me. It’s about creating a vibe, and that depends on the night and the crowd and it’s different every time,” he says.
Vana creates those vibes with an architect’s awareness of both form and function. He keeps his CD binders carefully indexed according to mood, tempo, key and length. Moods are the primary factor, divided into categories like “Cosmic,” “Jacking,” “Dark” and even “Unicorn,” which refers to tracks in danger of sounding corny if not played at exactly the right point in a night.
For the past year, Vana has been working on an album called Rituals. Though he has recorded mixes for international web radio station Proton, this will be the first full-length collection of tracks that Vana has produced himself.
Listeners at No Radio Records were treated to a sneak preview of the album at a live performance this past Saturday. A track like “The Descent,” which features a chiming, yet propulsive beat, noises culled from public-domain sound archives and a voice speaking in Arawak, epitomizes Vana’s aesthetic. It would not sound out of place in a set by any of the deep house DJs whose tracks you might hear at City Style.
Vana intends to shop around his album to dance labels, and aspires to a career as a “traveling DJ.” At the same time, he is dismayed by the idea of DJs as rock stars, with jockeys like Tiesto or Armin Van Buren presenting themselves as pseudo-mystical “great healers of man.” His role is most meaningful, Vana suggests, when he assumes a purely sonic “nonpresence” and seemingly unrelated pieces of music can effectively communicate with each other and a crowd of dancers.
Though Vana emphasizes that he is not a “performer,” and listeners are not spectators, don’t let that fool you. He is as actively engaged throughout a Poisson Rouge set as a virtuoso pianist, calculating beats-per-minute, creating harmonic progressions, triggering effects and maintaining a “thematic content” that tells its stories with sound. Cultivating the dramatic, yet unforced tone on a dance floor that Vana achieves takes hard work.
“I’m trying to create a sensual, sincere atmosphere, of contemporary religiosity in the most basic prehistoric sense,” he explains. “Dancing should be an ecstatic experience. It’s a kind of ritual because everyone is a participant, everyone is keeping rhythm. If anyone wants to bring a drum to my party and play along, that’s definitely encouraged.”