At the end of the world.

Certainly there was sweat. Our battered hands prove there was blood. And in fact it ended, for some, in tears. Yes, folks, the silence on this blog can be explained in only one way. We’ve pulled off another holiday party. And avoided arrest, even.

Above: Around the World Timelapse from John Tolva on Vimeo. Timelapse from my laptop camera (right) and a second one (left) pointing out from the DJ booth. (Higher-resolution version)

We’ve done this a few times before. In fact eight times before, when planning had primarily been logistical: How do we accommodate as many people as we want to invite? How do we feed them? How do we make sure they don’t slink off to any other soireés?

But we’re beyond that now, having basically mutated the gathering into a nightclub-meets-Norman Rockwell split-level affair. For as long as we run this little shindig we’re going to be dealing with the bounty of what we’ve sown — a bumper crop of merry-makers ready for (in fact, expecting) one hell of a party.


Bringers of sound and light

It started, as so many things do, drinking at a bar. Vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine this June my wife and I had been pondering a theme for the party, the glue that ties it all together. Last year was the first time we’d really used a theme (“Naughty/Nice”) and it was a useful, light framework to hang all the party pieces from.

But themes are tough. There’s a reason you don’t have Star Trek birthday parties any more. (Really, put the tricorder and confetti away.) Seasonal themes seem right but are blasé. Joy to the world? Yay. We liked “naughty and nice” because it had other undertones, but really that was the limit.


View from the basement stairs

I suppose because we were on a vacation in a new place and because my travel this year had been so frequent and diverse that it was natural that we’d land on “Around the World” as a theme. Initially it was Christmas Around the World, à la1 the MSI exhibit, but we quickly ditched that from the sheer amount of work it would take to pull off convincingly. All we had to do was avoid the extremes of foreign Christmas traditions (too complex, not exactly fun) and collegiate “around the world” drinking parties (too formulaic and, um, college) and we’d be just fine. We thought.


The party favor, carry-on size

The favor was always intended to be a piece of luggage. Just when we were going to settle for flimsy junk we stumbled on to these beauts. Surely they are custom creations because none of them are exactly the same and they were exquisitely crafted.

Inside went this year’s music mix. I finally ditched the CD (and, sadly, the Jewelboxing packaging that always accompanied it) in favor of a USB memory stick full of tunes and a short video. I had naïvely2 figured that with the ever-falling cost of RAM a few dozen 64MB keys would be at most $100. Wrong. That particular price graph ain’t linear. But I’m no economist and just didn’t want to mess with burning CD’s. We settled on 1GB keys and I filled them with our family’s favorite music of the year.

I’d love to know what percentage of the 100+ guests actually loaded the music onto their systems. One guest said she could not get the “whistle” to make any noise.

The favor also contained some treats and a postcard-style message to our friends with (bonus!) a mini-version of our holiday card on the back. Postage, saved.

Of course, there was hooch. There’s always hooch. After last year’s re-fermenting bottles of homemade raspberry wine exploded in people’s homes (“Happy Holidays! Here’s a timebomb of bright red liquid!”) we almost ditched the tradition. But no. Obviously we needed mini-liquor bottles like they serve on airplanes.


Victuals and bits

Bottle procurement proved very challenging. The brain trust in the Chicago city council apparently decided recently to ban the sale of mini liquor bottles citing them as being favorites of alcoholics. I found this out by asking our local liquor guy who explained to me the rationale as he served up a flask-sized bottle of liquid fire to an obvious alcoholic just stumbled in from the street. Ultimately I hauled myself just outside of the city limits and bought the cheapest minis I could find. The alcohol in which formed the foundation of …

Homemade cranberry liqueur! For the first time ever, we did not ferment or distill anything ourselves. Instead we essentially mixed up a massive cocktail. We used fresh cranberries (following this recipe and adding in some things like ginger and lime) so we still got to enjoy the annual festival of crushed fruit nastiness in the bathroom. Tolva liquor, like laws and sausages, is something you simply do not want to see made.

With a screw-on bottle top and no moonshine-grade alcohol (lethal quantities of ginger, another matter) you might think this was the first party with nothing booze-related that might kill you. You would, of course, think wrong. Robyn ran with the theme and ordered little metal airplanes shaped, seemingly, from paper clips and meant to attach to the lip of a drink glass. Cute, sure, this twisted metal — but also nearly invisible if dropped into your drink. No reports of GI tract lacerations from anyone, so far.


Ready for departure

The drinks are designed for whim and power. Pretty sure we succeeded on both fronts. Budget cuts forced us to ditch the ice luge, but we made up for it with globe liquor dispensers serving Rumple Minze and Jägermeister3 like magma from the breached core of the planet. This was the downfall of many guests, I believe.

There’s a degree of pity one has for hired bartenders at our parties. It’s loud and crowded and my wife’s specialty beverages are only slightly less difficult to handle than her wrath if the drinks are improperly made. But Jim the Bartender did marvelously. I even caught him dancing a bit in the four square foot veal pen we gave him to operate in. The menu included Cruising at 37,000 Feet (white cranberry Cosmopolitan — cloudy, you see, with killer airplane clips), Around the World in 80 Proof (rum punch), The Red Eye (Espresso Martini — a crowd favorite), The French Connection (French Martini), and Roman Holiday (Italian Bellini).

Also brought out late were “TSA Blues” shooters — blue raspberry mixer, vodka, and white cranberry juice — served in security theater-approved three ounce containers. I suppose we should have made guests take off their shoes and unload their cell phones while taking the drink. And, lest you think we actually succeeded in classing up this affair past a college party boozefest, a friend showed up with red and green Jello shots late night. You would have thought she was doling out nuggets of purest gold. They went instantly.


The UN of Cheesecake Lollipops

(Here’s the recipe.)

The food. Yeah, that. Possibly the only thing that has remained constant in nine versions of this party is a firm ban on catering. My wife enlists assistance from friends, but basically the spread is and forever shall be all hers. Year-to-year favorites include Texas chili con queso (con Fritos FTW!), bacon-wrapped dates (a near-perfect texture-taste match), cheesecake lollipops, and pepperoni bread. Newly added to acclaim were corn cakes with BBQ brisket, sausage-stuffed mushrooms, and chicken satay bites.

One clever idea from Robyn was to put up a map and have people mark their 2008 travels on it. If nothing else it was a conversation starter, but it looked cool by the end of the night, especially since we had folks in from all parts of the country and — this year’s long-haul winner — Ricky Thorpe came from Helsinki via his home in the UK.


Map of our guests' travel in 2008

I can’t encounter a geospatial data set and not want to do something with it, so here it is transcribed to Google Maps. Suggestions on how to further extend this most welcome.

View Larger Map

The map and out-of-town visitors was the inspiration for this year’s photo “booth” props. We had a few dozen “x miles to y” signs printed up, though it isn’t as though anyone needed prompting to vamp in front of the camera.

And yet, none of this is why people really attend the party these days. Or, at least, it isn’t why anyone stays. This year the basement reached its apotheosis as a full-fledged nightclub. And the club-goers responded.


View from the DJ booth

The transformation of the basement is, by far, the most time-consuming, complex undertaking of the whole deal, basically starting right around Halloween.

First thing is to get nearly every piece of furniture out. It’s physically exhausting, logistically challenging (“do you really think we should put that chair in the rafters?”), and psychologically unsettling. My desk, center of a not altogether stable universe to begin with, has to be disassembled — leaving me a laptop-toting nomad in my own home.

The biggest upgrades this year were a huge leap in lighting and the introduction of turntables. Last year’s lighting was an afterthought (though I am still proud of the LEGO disco lights). This year it was the first thought, thanks to the ridiculous inventory and commitment of Tom Herlihy. One night in November Tom came by and loaded several thousand dollars worth of gear into my garage. Robotic spots, LED cans, pattern generators, strobes, projectors, a haze machine, a laser (yes!) — and that was just the stuff I ended up using. There were dozens more.

The best part, though, was Tom’s mastery of the visual machinery; he wired all the lights up using the DMX protocol and hooked them into this control app. Tom set up all kinds of cues — all spots rotate to bartender (i.e., “the DJ needs a drink!”), LED chases around the room, a laser “surface” above dancers’ heads, etc — and controlled it all by touchscreen.

In addition, Tom’s mutant-huge AV laptop powered the visuals on the screen built into the DJ booth and the projector that threw to the back wall. We had all kinds of funky beat-responsive geometries on the screens, but the best may have simply been the rotating globe courtesy of Google Earth. The visuals transformed the space utterly. Tom is my hero.



Of course, if you read this blog with any regularity you know that what I really care about is music. And this is how the story figuratively and, as it turns out, literally ends. If Tom was the hero of the visual, Jesse Kriss was the hero of the aural.

Jesse is truly a superstar. He’s a colleague at IBM (creator of one of my very favorite projects), but I first came to know him by way of his Visual Scratch and History of Sampling work. (He’s also my collaborator on the moribund breakbeatbox site. Really should get that going again.)

Anyway. Jesse came in from Boston … by train. He’s a turntablist at heart so he brought a kickass mixer and we rented two decks in Chicago. This was all hooked up via Serato Scratch such that he could control digital music with all the tactile control of old school vinyl.

It was perfect. For one, in the era of laptop DJ’s people go even wilder to see someone actually, you know, doing something to make the music. (The night before as we set up and rehearsed my mother-in-law noted to my wife “They’re all up there with headphones on pushing buttons.”) But also it was a perfect accompaniment when my brother or I were playing the main music. Jesse would drop in beats or scratches, on-the-fly annotation of the stream of tunes.



We had some issues recording everything (with seven laptops up there you’d think we’d have been OK), but I did manage to get a portion of Jesse’s set. Probably the highlight of the night was when he layered in portions of Obama’s election night speech. I thought a certain female supporter of the president-elect in the crowd was going to jump up and rip his clothes off right then and there. (Note: Jesse is working on an inauguration mixtape. A must-post when it is released.)

Jesse Kriss, set two (25:25)

I had my usual rig set up with Ableton and the monome ready to control an atomized version of Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” the obvious theme song of the whole night. You can hear one version of it (we dropped it in throughout the evening) in the set below. That moment, as I hazily recall, was probably the most raucous. Everyone singing, everyone moving.

John Tolva, Around The World 2008 (1:59:53)

My brother rounded out the DJ lineup, keeping the tracks young enough for everyone to pretend we were hip. Joey was the designated Rickroller dropping ol’ Astley in from time-to-time to the delight of some and confusion of most.

With Tom on the visuals and the three musicmakers in the booth we were a uniquely dorky quartet, but a few different people noted that it looked like we were having a blast. We most certainly were. I’d do it again even without a crowd.

In fact, I just may. For one, I ignored just about every request that came my way so it isn’t like I was reading the crowd. For another, the DJ booth got a massive overhaul this year and I’m reluctant to tear it down. It was much wider, more stable, and roomier (with space for a projection rack behind us). But the clear killer feature — added only hours before the party by the industrious Jeff Greer — was carpeting. That’s right, it was plush bordering on posh up there in mission control. I just can’t bear to part with that degree of luxury.


All this music was pumped through a dedicated sound system, also courtesy of Tom. No more tripping the circuit of our media center amp. (Actually we deliberately overloaded the circuit box about a week before the party to see how far we could push it. Tip: watch the strobes.) The bass was delivered from a monstrous four-foot-cubed subwoofer tucked into the corner — a seismic rumbler that surely shook our neighbor’s foundations.

How can I be so sure? Well, the police told me so. Around 3AM when the basement was still thumping Chicago’s finest showed up and declared the party over because of “multiple” complaints from neighbors about the noise. Given that our neighbors on one side were actually at the party, I’m fairly certain I know who was complaining. Guess I better invite them next year.

Actually I think I’m to blame. It was fairly toasty down in the basement (I thought, though few others did) so I cracked the windows. This, I bet, was the source of audio leakage that was the ultimate downfall of the party.

And yet, there’s something right about a party of this magnitude not stopping on its own. I suppose we’ve all matured since high school as no one, to my knowledge, fled out the back door when the 5-0 came knocking. The cops actually said they had come by once before in the evening and someone shut the door in their face. Nice.

There were other hijinks this year (and thank god the kids were with their grandparents), but there’s no need to impugn reputations or submit these tales to the Google index for perpetuity.


It was a spectacularly good time. With the sole exception of my wife using Comic Sans to create address labels for an otherwise carefully-designed invitation, I think we’d change nothing. (No open windows next year, obviously.) Many complained of a “Tolva flu” the next day, but this is what you get for drinking booze from a globe, or a TSA container, or a Jello mold.

And how many parties have you been to that make the cover of a city newspaper the next day? (Look for the record.)

There is simply no way we could pull this off without the help of our friends. Deep thanks to Justin Bowersock, Kellie Burke, Chris Gansen, Jeff Greer, Tom Herlihy, Alyson Higgins, Jesse Kriss, Ricky Thorpe and Michael Tolva. It is your party too.

See you next year!

  1. That’s three foreign, accented words in not much column space. I am taking this post around the world, you see. 
  2. Apparently this linguistic grand tour is stuck in France. 
  3. Hallo, Deutschland! 

5 Responses to “At the end of the world.”

  1. 2B's says :

    as I said last year, just reading the post-mortem makes me tired! Can’t believe Greer actually survived.
    Doing my best to clear my calendar and build enough husband equity to attend next year.
    Bravo Team Tolva!

  2. cbjg says :

    great summary. thanks for the props and nice shot of Jenn. when can we download the DJ sets?

  3. Laura says :

    I missed the map! please add Los Alamos, NM – that fine state is sorely under-represented with googlemap dots.
    Thanks for a fantastic time!!

  4. Andrew says :

    Definitely the most elaborate holiday party I’ve been to! Lots of fun, thanks again for inviting us.

  5. ® Andy says :

    The post-party wash up blog post that I always look forward to each year! So another absolute wonderful party, and one whose reporting brought a diversity of responses in the ® Andy household.
    I laughed at the USB whistle, plod shutting down the party at 3AM and just which neighbour the Tolva children are going to be encouraged to play knock-and-run on, and of course the stunning photos that I displayed in glorious technicolor via CoolIris so that I could slickly eye up the ladies.
    For Mrs ® Andy it was more a case of … just look at the house! Yep, your basement is bigger than our whole house, and the ground floor shots with lovely floors and decor, and a vibe of classic American home where enough for her. She did at least attempt to make me feel slightly less of a failure when I reminded her that John is younger than me … “Really!?” … but yes younger and more successful with a gorgeous house and with much better parties! Twiglet anybody?
    Happy Xmas everybody :-).