Joris Voorn's Life After Turntables

A Dutch visionary blazes new digital trails with Balance 014

There are interludes on Joris Voorn's new two-disc set so momentous they might move you to tears. Balance 014 charges like a ghost train roaring out of the moors, its ethereal ambience giving way to cirrus-level strings, its blunted calm opening up to boiling cauldrons of bass. Given that his father is a classical composer, his mother a music teacher, and, as a child, Voorn himself practiced violin for an hour a day in the Dutch countryside, you could see how his musical storytelling might resonate with symphonic sensibilities, even if he's since moved on to traditionally non-symphonic instruments.

In an era when DJing as an art form is frequently kneed and elbowed against the ropes ("I don't really see the technical merit in playing two songs at the same speed together," noted electronic producer Deadmau5 late last year), new technology is pushing club music beyond the ease of a two-turntables-and-a-mixer platform. Both micro in its deconstruction of source material and maximal in its thematic arc, Balance 014 has given new life to both Voorn's chosen profession and the album's journey in the age of iTunes. "The selection and mixing are amazing, and the entire concept is both brilliant and educational," raves DJ Danny Tenaglia. "Welcome to the future."

Voorn uses 102 tracks on the compilation (a remarkable figure for up-tempo dance music), reducing some to sound bites, bleeps, and background noise, all the while elevating the DJ mix to orchestral levels, commanding these bits and pieces like a maestro. "Everybody is recording my sets when I play out, and they're online before you know," says Voorn. "Everybody is making DJ sets nowadays, too. How can you possibly make something special with 10 or 15 tracks on one CD? I wanted Balance to be more interesting for myself."

Making DJ sets for a world tired of DJ sets
Krijin van Noordwijk
Making DJ sets for a world tired of DJ sets

The 32-year-old was born in Rotterdam, came of age in the Dutch country town of Tilburg, and now resides in Amsterdam; as a teenager, he took apart radios and tried to make his own distortion units. In the mid-1990s, he was laughed at when he sought out a now-highly-collectible Roland TB-303 Bassline machine from the '80s—but when he was steered toward the purchase of a contemporary 303 redux, a Roland Groovebox, it had his parents wondering about the then-19-year-old's priorities.

About the time he discovered 303s, Voorn won a local DJ competition, paired up with friend Edwin Oosterwal under the DJ duo name Rejected, and found success as a refined and melodic techno practitioner. By the mid-oughts, he was shaping remixes for such noted labels as BPitch Control, getting booked for DJ duties at the likes of Berlin's Tresor club, and hearing his tracks played by none other than the late John Peel. "I think he has a great ear for harmony, and that's something that's not so common in dance music," says Dennis DeSantis, a New York representative for the Berlin-based music-software company Ableton.

With Balance 014, the spinner follows in the footsteps of British star DJ Sasha, who, along with techno luminary Richie Hawtin, pioneered the use of Ableton Live software for building mix-CDs; it allows tracks to be sliced, edited, and looped into the mix with the push of a button. Elements of eight or more songs can be playing at one time—it's the revenge of the long tail, where the world's fringe music comes back together in dramatic fashion. "One area where Live has really enabled producers and DJs is where you can treat finished compositions like musical building blocks, the way a traditional performer might use notes on an instrument," DeSantis says.

Whereas some DJs complete a mix-CD in an afternoon, Voorn's aural love letter took five months. And while most contemporaries see a mix as a linear, homogenous tale of dancefloor hedonism, Balance has a saga-like sensibility with divergent sounds, from Radiohead to drum-'n'-bass star Goldie to Aphex Twin to West Coast house veteran Julius Papp. Even a sampled Roy Ayers introduces himself and offers some advice: "Expand your mind." At one point on disc two, Voorn's chugging, up-tempo tech-house breaks down to half-time, a rock-steady-ragga bassline rumbles and rolls, and a vulnerable Caribbean voice, sampled from Rhythm & Sound's "King in My Empire," emerges: "I'm the king/I sit in my empire/So you can't/You can't push I over/I'm like a burning fire/Leave me you old vampire." It's chilling.

Despite Balance's majestic aspirations, Voorn argues that a DJ is still a journeyman, there to move you, top to bottom, in both the spinner's own empire and yours. "You can't make DJing too experimental," he says. "You're there for the people."

Voorn DJs with Illich Mujica March 28 at the Save the Cannibals party at Rebel

 
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