magic & techno

This past Thursday, a magician visited the Neurosciences Institute. I heard rumblings of his presence over lunch, but I had failed to cross paths with him until I went on a hunt for the owner of some unattended, unrecognized items in the conference room. I needed to do some sound testing in that room but didn’t want to inconvenience the person whose stuff was there, so find the owner I did. And I’m glad I did.

Enter Mark Mitton.

I found him in the office/lab of robotics engineer Donald Hutson, the mastermind behind the speaker apparatus for the music therapy study. After a few moments of creepily lurking in the doorway and eavesdropping on the conversation the two were having with John, I joined in the fun. Mitton’s friend and NSI contact David Edelman, a Swarthmore alum, walked in the room with a handful of brown paper lunch bags and hands one to each of us. Mitton taught us how to throw up an imaginary ball and have it land in the paper bag. He even taught us how to play catch with these imaginary balls. Amazing!

Even though this was the only trick I saw Mitton do and the secret was revealed, I know that Mitton is a good magician. Between his wit, intelligence, and energy, he could outsmart the curls out of my hair! He also tends to switch from topic to topic, as one word of a conversation reminds him of story, experience, or article. His voracious thirst for knowledge combined with his composed excitement manifest with full commitment to the amazing questions, phenomena, and truths that pervade his(/our) world.

As Donald, David, John, Mark and I were tossing around the imaginary ball, we eventually started to sync up. Mitton noted that once, at a conference, a woman approached him after the ball-throwing activity saying that her partner-in-catch was exuding all kinds of good chemistry her way: he caught every ball she threw. Here, the sensorimotor experience led this woman to feel an emotional connection. Indeed, this is not an isolated incident. John mentioned a line of research in group cooperation where people are more likely to cooperate successfully in problem-solving tasks if they first tap the same rhythm together. Mitton noted his experience singing in the chorus as an undergrad, where his school’s group would combine with the other two in his consortium and he would come out of the experience feeling truly connected to everyone, even the people he didn’t know. (P.S. What consortium was this? None other than the Tri-Co, where Mitton was a graduate with the Haverford Class of 1982 with a B.A. in Economics. Cool!)

Appropriately, the conversation skipped to DJs, who draw upon their ability to sense, understand, and interact with the audience in a large-scale, macrocosmic version of the bag trick-induced sensorimotor effect. While many concerts are a give-and-take between artist and audience, DJ performances seem to come with greater expectations. Just as early disc jockeys spun records based on the mood of the audience or the mood they were trying to instill in the audience, current DJs like Tiesto and deadmau5 have the ability to align and extend electronic blips in ways that make overjoyed puppets out of the audience members.

For an example of what the magician was talking about and what I’m trying to reiterate here, compare the first video to the second. The first shows Nosaj Thing, an LA-based electronic and remix artist, performing a DJ set by himself in a room at the Seattle radio station KEXP. The second is a live recording of Nosaj at the Low End Theory Club in LA. There are obviously other variables aside from audience that differentiate the videos (i.e., venue and presence of video projection), but it is pretty clear how Nosaj is reacting to and manipulating the audience.