Finding the Pulse: Interview with Spiritual DJ Alex Theory

IN THIS ISSUE SEPTEMBER 2009

September 2009 Issue

Dance Music with a Higher Purpose
Author: Danielle Graham
Photographer: Alex Theory

DJ -ing is not just about choosing a few tunes. It is about generating shared moods; it’s about understanding the feelings of a group of people and directing them to a better place. In the hands of a master, records become the tools for rituals of a spiritual communion that for many people are the most powerful events in their lives. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey

From the moment that American engineer Reginald Fessenden sent the first music over radio waves on Christmas Eve, 1906 until today, the role of the DJ has been ever-changing. In the 1950’s, radio stars like Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips were instrumental in bringing black music to white teenagers, who for the first time were able to listen to it in their cars, far from parental ears. Legendary club DJs from Paris and London to New York made names for themselves during the disco era, and it was Jamaican born Kool Herc, the so-called “Father of Hip Hop”, who first introduced the fusion of hard funk, rock and Latin percussion to the world. With the onset of raves, DJ’s sat at the heart of the storm, generating music for thousands in abandoned warehouses and outdoor amphitheaters worldwide. As radio has become more insistently dominated by corporate controlled, preprogrammed music, DJs have found international recognition by creating their own shows and providing the soundtracks for major events.

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Finding The Pulse - Interview with Alex Theory

Alex Theory is such a DJ. The founder of the 2008 Global Sound Conference and the 2007 Global OM Project, he has performed with a wide variety of artists, including Damien Marley, The Roots, Eryka Badhu, Elton John, India Arie, Ani DiFranco, and Mickey Hart. But he has also earned a Ph.D. in Psychology with a focus on Psychoacoustics, the fusion of sound and psychology, which he describes as “the impact of sound on our physical psychological states of existence.” His two areas of interest are combined both in his work as a DJ and in his own music, produced by the record label Sounds True. He spoke with SuperConsciousness about the relationship between music, science and spirituality and how he sees his role as a DJ.


Finding The Pulse - Interview with Alex Theory

SC: You’ve been working as a DJ since 1992. How do you see your role?

AT: To me, music is all about creating a journey for the listeners. It’s a story that I’m weaving, and guiding people on this story, sometimes through the darkness, sometimes through the underworld, but ultimately always leading them back to a place that is within the light, that they’re able to come to a place of wholeness and reconnection with source.

SC: So you see yourself like a musical shaman?

AT: Absolutely. I take music performance and DJing very seriously, because I recognize the profound impact that, not only the music, but the acoustics – the actual sound frequencies – can have on the body. Literally, it’s been proven that certain frequencies nourish the brain, whereas other frequencies can actually deplete the body. Pretty much in all the live performances that I have, I spend days if not weeks meticulously planning the songs, composing songs, planning out the frequencies, planning out the entire ride that the audience is going to go on.

SC: How do you integrate your pre-created sounds with the crowd?

AT: It’s always an interactive process, but I like what Einstein said: true genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I prepare an entire library of sounds and music that I’m going to use. In certain cases also customized songs that are created for the event. For example, I just played an all-night solstice party, and by understanding that the solstice is all about the balancing between the light and the dark – and all of the mythology about that – I took the time to pull stuff out that I thought would be appropriate.

I recognize the profound impact that, not only the music, but the acoustics – the actual sound frequencies – can have on the body. Literally, it’s been proven that certain frequencies nourish the brain, whereas other frequencies can actually deplete the body.

SC: When you are mixing for a crowd, what do you look for and how do you gauge where the crowd is to then integrate with it?

AT: There are several fundamental principles within psychoacoustics, for example, that help therapists gauge where their clients are to help the therapist tailor sounds that are appropriate for the environment. I have a lot of experience in working with therapeutic environments on a one-on-one basis and based on that experience, it’s really helped me to use some of these principles in the larger audience environment.

One of those principles is called rhythmic entrainment. It’s when an external pulsation affects your internal pulses. So if I were to play a beat at a tempo of one hundred beats per minute for approximately two to five minutes, relatively loudly, that would actually cause your heartbeat, your breathing, your digestion, your brain waves – certain body pulses – to entrain to that rhythm. All of my sets are mapped according to frequency. They begin at a specific frequency range and they culminate at a specific frequency range, and then they drop back down. So it’s a traditional peak flow for a peak experience.

Finding The Pulse - Interview with Alex Theory

SC: When you use the word “frequency” in terms of the raising of frequency, are you speaking specifically of the musical frequency, like A440, or are you defining frequency in some parameter beyond that?

AT: It’s actually on multiple levels. On a tempo level, the tempo increases, so the frequency level of the beat increases, as well as the actual frequency levels of the music. So I’m using higher frequency in the more peak moments. In the lower frequencies I would use sine waves, and then once it gets to a higher frequency, more exciting portion of the DJ set – I would switch over to more triangular waves.

I use an entire gamut of sounds, everything from voice to crystal bowls to didgeridoo all the way up to synthesizers and computers. I really love the full spectrum. Everything has its place.

SC: Are you actually personally playing the bowls, playing the didgeridoo while you DJ?

AT: Yes! I studied Afro-Cuban jazz and classical music and I’ve been around music my entire life. I’m a composer and a musician. I play guitar, piano, bass, percussion, I sing, I do computer programming, I play crystal bowls, I play didgeridoo, I play harmonium, bells, all different types of exotic percussion. I love it all, including analog synth.

SC: Are your audiences populated with people who are familiar with your work and anticipate it, or do you go into situations where the audience may not be familiar with you at all? Does one or either of those situations impact what you do?

AT: It’s really a combination of both. Because I have been on the scene for a long time now, I definitely have a reputation of being a transformational DJ, but always there’s going to be some new people on the dance floor. Part of the challenge and part of the thrill and excitement is to reach out to new people and connect with them and make sure that the music you’re creating and emanating is universal. If people are leaving, then you have to reconsider and react to that. If you can get 90% of the dance floor moving or grooving to your tune, then you know you’re on to the pulse.

Part of the challenge and part of the thrill and excitement is to reach out to new people and connect with them and make sure that the music you’re creating and emanating is universal.

SC: You’ve also recently released some beautiful ambient music. How do you integrate those recordings with psychoacoustics?

AT: The industry has taken all music and film and placed it into this niche of entertainment. Yet, based on my research and based on my affiliations and all the learning that I’ve done, music, art and media in general are so much more than just entertainment; not only are they a social mechanism for communication but they are also an integral part of our existence and our health as a species on this planet. Looking at music from that perspective made me really recognize the important role that music plays in the process of transformation and the process of evolution both personally and at a global level. So that inspired me to take my music to the next level, being a researcher and a scientist and standing at the crossroads or the nexus between music and science.

There has been research done to understand the profound effect that the Schumann Resonance has on the human system. The Schumann Resonance is a frequency that the Earth emanates measured from space by NASA consistently for the last fifty years – since its discovery by Winfried Otto Schumann. The interesting thing about this is that every single living creature in our planet, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, is being affected by this frequency.

An experiment was conducted in which a group of people were isolated in a sound proof Anechoic Chamber and deprived of hearing this subsonic frequency. After a period of less than twenty-four hours, the experimental subjects started to experience profound feelings of discomfort and psychological distress. The second the researchers reintroduced the Schumann Resonance they went back to normal and they felt great.

That type of understanding of science and sound was one of the applications used for the record Earth which is the third album in the innovative flagship series by a record label called Sounds True. It’s a series that merges music with science and is inspired from my extensive immersion in the field of psychoacoustics.

Finding The Pulse - Interview with Alex Theory

We actually created a wide assortment of instruments that were precisely scientifically tuned to the Schumann Resonance and recorded this entire album at that frequency of the Earth. The entire series is based on the elements, and the first album in the series is based on water. I worked with several scientists to isolate the frequency of the hydrogen molecule and the oxygen molecule using infrared spectroscopic analysis. We converted those mathematical frequencies into sound frequencies using tuning forks and wind chimes and other types of instruments that are precisely tuned to the harmonics of the water frequency. Then I took those and created an ambient soundscape.

I really feel that both music and film can be completely aesthetically and artistically pleasing and also have incredibly profound and innate background and foundation. In fact, the way that I see evolution happen on the planet is that ultimately we’re going to begin to encode our media with much more information.

For example, examining ancient cultures like the Egyptian culture, there were many levels of symbolism they put into their art. They would combine geography, astronomy, acoustics, color, the ebb and flow of the Nile River, the moon – all of these different layers would come together to form this very complex coding of information. I believe that we more or less have lost that as a culture and a society and it’s just beginning to come back.

Music is one of those things that help you get out of your mind. It helps you transcend those interpersonal limitations that we have and feel that deep sense of connection with spirit.

SC: Would you consider the ultimate potential of your work to be healing, or do you see a goal that’s even greater than that?

AT: Helping the listener connect with source. I believe that a lot of the pain and suffering we feel has to do with this kind of illusion of separation. Music is one of those things that help you get out of your mind. It helps you transcend those interpersonal limitations that we have and feel that deep sense of connection with spirit. So that’s one of my highest aspirations as a musician and a DJ.

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