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Inside Planetarium, Mister Saturday Night’s immersive listening party

Written by
Bruce Tantum

Walk down a dark block in an industrial stretch of Ridgewood, Queens, enter an unmarked warehouse building, walk up a few stairs, and open a door to a room swirling with rhythm. Sounds like the start of your typical underground dance party, right? Not even close. For one thing, the song that’s playing is “Juicy Fruit,” an 11-minute Coleman Hawkins jazz classic from 1957 that features one of the creamiest trumpet solos (courtesy of Idrees Sulieman) you’ve ever heard. For another, that crowd, for the most part, is horizontal, laying down on an array of blankets and intently concentrating on the music. Cell phones are off, by request, and alcohol, which is BYO, is far from the focus. 

You’ve just walked into Planetarium, the latest venture from Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter of Mister Saturday Night/Mister Sunday fame. The event—more of a happening than a party—sprang to life last summer and is now held monthly in a private loft space. “We realized that there was this distinction between the music we play at Mister Saturday Night and the music that we play at home,” says Harkin. “We’re both pretty voracious collectors of records, and we have all this stuff we wouldn’t play at the party—and we were looking for an outlet for that.” 

"Back when a Beatles album would come out, you would all gather at a friend's place...I think people miss that"

That search led the pair to the idea of a “communal listening” experience. “It’s not really that groundbreaking of an idea,” admits Harkin. “Back when a Beatles album would come out, for instance, you would all gather at a friend’s place and attentively listen to that album. That was normal then, but not so much anymore. I think people miss that, and I think that’s one reason why Planetarium has resonated with people.”

As you might expect, the Planetarium experience involves a top-notch sound system—and the playlist is as eclectic as they come. Along with the aforementioned Hawkins tune, the last installment veered from the country-rock jamming of Poco to the cinematic grandeur of composer William Orbit, and from the chamber-pop psychedelia of the Left Banke to the strutting soul of the Crusaders. Live music from vibraphonist Will Shore seamlessly weaved its way in and out of the mix, adding to the night’s dreamy aura.

At the next Planetarium on Friday 24, Carter himself performs live; the night serves as a release party for his debut LP, The Leaves Fall, a spectral, emotive set of songs coming out on the Mister Saturday Night label (hear a song below). But for Carter it’s about more than music. “Some of our inspiration comes from people like James Turrell and Richard Serra,” he says. “They’re artists who are creating an experience that you walk into and that unfolds over time, with the act of being there for a long period serving as the act of experiencing the art. It’s a long-form experience, as opposed to just hearing a record.”

Harkin, however, has a more prosaic explanation for Planetarium’s appeal: “Basically,” he says, “we all get to sit around and listen to really good music on a really good sound system.” 

What was the original thinking behind Planetarium?
Justin Carter: Eamon and I had been talking about doing something like this for years. In the beginning, I was thinking more about live music, trying to figure out a good way for live music to exist next to deejayed music. But for Eamon, I think you were largely thinking about us being in Japan and those hi-fi listening bars they have there. 

Besides those hi-far bars, there have been somewhat similar endeavors popping up, like DJ Cosmo’s Classic Album Sundays events or venues like London’s Spiritland and Brilliant Corners. Is there something in the air that’s leading people to these kinds of parties?
Eamon Harkin: I think it’s just largely because it’s something we’ve left behind, but that a lot of people still want. I equate it a little bit with the resurgence of vinyl. Obviously, vinyl sales dipped off hugely when people were seduced by the convenience of digital music. But then, when they were faced with the wealth of music, some people began to think realize that it just didn’t feel as good, and that they had lost something. And the resurgence of vinyl has perhaps been a response to that.

What does the event’s name signify?
Harkin: The reason that it’s called Planetarium is that the night is supposed to envelop you; it’s supposed to be immersive; it’s supposed to be something that evolves over time. In some ways, it mirrors the arc of a dance party in the way that the energy and mood changes over time. As DJs, we try to create that kind of arc over a four- or five- or six-hour time period.

"The goal is for everyone to experience this kind of active listening. You can feel that happen when the room gets quiet."

Is there a musical formula for that arc? Have you discovered a pattern of some sort that seems to work?
Carter: I wouldn’t say that there’s a pattern, which is one of the things I really like about Planetarium. But one thing I have noticed from deejaying in this environment is how sensitive the room is. 

In what way?
Carter: I’ll often find myself going back and forth between the turntable to my records to find just the right record. I’ll pick up a record and think, okay, this record will suit the mood that exists here now—it’s mellow and low-tempo or whatever. But then when I put it on the platter and listen to it on my headphones, there might be something about this energy that exists in it that’s too much to come after whatever is playing right now. It’s kind of striking, how a record can take on a whole new dimension when there’s a room full of people sitting quietly and listening.
Harkin: The goal is for everyone to join in and experience this kind of active listening. You can feel that happen when the room gets quiet. The arc involves people transitioning from socializing to reaching this zone, where people are sharing an appreciation for the music in silence. Getting to that point is an exercise in choosing music that will pull people in. The music and the choices are nuanced—you’re not just picking dance-floor fillers. You’re guiding a group of people towards a certain mood—and that’s hard to do, because it’s all within people’s heads.

It’s almost like a guided-meditation session.
Harkin: Yeah, it is a bit, though we don’t want to get too hippie or new-age about it. [Laughing]

You always have some kind of live music as a component of the evening. How to you choose your performers?
Carter: So far they're people we know, they’re on Mister Saturday night label, or we have some kind of contact with them. For instance, Greg [Heffernan, the artist known as Cosmo D] has played a couple of them. One time, he sat down and started to perform an improvised cello piece out of a blues song that I was playing. About halfway through his piece, he paused—there was these long moments of silence that in the piece—and everybody got super-quiet. After that, till about 45 minutes later, nobody in the room uttered a word. That was the most intense segment of the evening, and it was really interesting that the peak of the night was defined by silence, as opposed to defined by when everybody is at their most energetic. 

The live music always seemed very tightly intertwined with the deejayed aspect.
Carter: Eamon and I have been talking about that for ages. Because of the commodification of music, a lot of musicians end up having to play in a format that doesn’t always showcase their talents well.

How so?
Carter: Touring and playing in venues with stages is the way you make money as a musician, and that’s pretty much how we all experience live music. But there are other ways. La Monte Young’s ragas, or Sufi singers in the vein of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or music in a church—with those kinds of performance, the environment where the music is presented is central to the performance, and the artist is attuned to the environment.

Those examples have a sacred aspect to them. Do you feel there’s something spiritual in what you’re doing at Planetarium?
Harkin: Perhaps, though I would leave that to the participants. But I do think we live in a time of information bombardment, and that abundance of information isn’t necessarily good for us. People feel a need for something that does more than scratch the surface, something that feels deep and meaningful and sustained—and when you get into that territory, you do enter the world of spirituality a bit.
Carter: I actually grew up in a pretty religious house, though I’ve largely disengaged from that. But there were multiple things about my religious upbringing that I still desire. I still search for spiritual meaning in my life, and I think I find that in some degree through music. So for me personally, not only is Planetarium a spiritual outlet, but so are the other parties we do as well. When I play music, I not only want it to deeply connect with others—I want it to deeply connect with myself. I want to see people get lost in the music in the same way that I’m getting lost in the music. 

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