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What in the world is 'Pitchblack Playback'?
It's sensory deprivation meets sensory overload, and it may be the best new way to experience music.
There had to be a way for the traditional listening party to cut through the noise.
In case you’re not familiar, a listening party is when people are invited to—well, listen to—an artist’s new album. But as you can imagine, the music in question is either reduced to background noise in large, club-like settings where everyone is mingling or it is forced to compete with smartphones as people strain their attention spans listening to track after track in a solitary space.
And I was promptly handed a blindfold.
OK, it was more like an eye mask (a lovely, soft eye mask, I should note). But clearly this was a listening party that was really going the extra mile to make the “listening” a priority.
This was Pitchblack Playback. Created by DJ, producer, and promoter Ben Gomori, this London-based company puts on events in an ever-growing number of cities, including London, New York, Denver, Amsterdam, Paris, and Copenhagen. These Playback events give fans a chance to hear upcoming albums (as well as classic albums from the past) at local performance spaces with top-notch sound systems—all while sitting in complete, masked darkness.
“We’re not the only ones doing album listening events. It’s a trend, and I love that,” Gomori says. But Pitchblack Playback events are unique in that there are absolutely no distractions.
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Before the Christine and the Queens event at National Sawdust began, we were all politely instructed to turn off our cell phones and not talk or sing as we listened to the music.
Then the space went dark. As I slipped on the Pitchblack Playback-branded eye mask provided to me, the only light in the room was the red glow from the Exit signs.
Paranoïa, Angels, True Love began playing over the venue’s sound system, and, to be honest, it took me a few minutes to relax because it’s not every day that I sit in a room with strangers in the dark wearing a blindfold. Initially, I found myself counting the songs as they played, clearly trying to exhibit some control over the experience. But after the second track, I forgot about keeping count. I simply got lost in listening to the music.
I should note that I have seen Christine and the Queens in concert multiple times, and the shows are always amazing. Chris is a charismatic performer, and I can’t wait to see him on stage again. But I am glad I got to focus on the sonic and storytelling qualities of this haunting, operatic new album during my first encounter with it. I felt the music, and it was intense.
Gomori is always delighted to hear this kind of feedback from audience members. “It’s quite insane how transformative it can be,” he says of the experience.
The Pitchblack Playback founder came up with the concept when he was working as a music journalist. He had been invited to listen to a press preview of ISAM, the seventh album recorded by Amon Tobin, the innovative electronic musician from Brazil, at a cinema in London. Gomori remembers sitting in a big comfortable armchair and watching visuals on a movie screen as he listened to a surround sound mix of the record. He found it exhilarating.
“I’d never experienced this concentrated listening environment before, and I thought it just sounded amazing,” Gomori reflects. “I could feel the sub-bass. I could hear every little detail, and it was just really nice to be in this environment where I was just concentrating on the music and forgetting everything else.”
Gomori was struck by a desire to replicate the experience for the public.
He was met with mostly skepticism when he told some of his friends about what he wanted to do via an email thread. But then one of them, photographer Ben Davis, had just been to see the Samuel Beckett play Endgame, the first act of which is in performed in complete darkness, asked, “Oh, are you doing to do it in complete darkness?”
Now, that’s something Gomori hadn’t thought of. He incorporated the idea into his plan. Soon after, he came up with the name Pitchblack Playback. In 2016, he started producing listening events.
Simon Raymonde, one half of the Cocteau Twins and the founder of record label Bella Union, was the first person in the music business to see the potential of Pitchblack Playback. Raymonde partnered with Pitchblack Playback to do a premiere listening in the dark event for The Wilderness album Explosions in the Sky and set the ball rolling, according to Gomori, who is thankful for Raymonde’s belief in what Pitchblack Playback could be.
Over the years, Pitchblack Playback has featured the music of Kendrick Lamar, Joni Mitchell, and Nirvana among other artists. In late June and early July, there will be listening events dedicated to the 10th anniversary of Tame Impala’s Lonerism and the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief in Los Angeles and New York.
Sure, you could listen to any of these albums alone at home. But, Gomori notes, “People say, ‘Oh, I can do this at home.’ And then I say, ‘So, you’ve got a 200,000 pound cinema sound system and soundproofing and acoustic treatment and no neighbors?’”
Beyond standout sound quality, Pitchblack Playback allows fans to commune with others who share their taste in music. I bonded with the person sitting next to me, who had also come to the event alone, over our love for Christine and the Queens before and after we listened to the new album.
“Do you want to share experiences with other like-minded people? For me, that’s really the point,” Gomori says.
Find out more
🎤 Learn more about Christine and the Queens