Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Alive?


Like many a good idea, it started as a beer-fuelled ramble with a mate in the pub. Where are the boundaries of live music?

For years the live/performance (rock, indie, jazz etc) and studio/composition (dance, urban etc) traditions have, to a certain extent, eyed each other nervously from polar extremes. Rock and indie have maintained their “live” moral higher ground, where the ability to reproduce songs in real time became canonised as a sacred experience. By contrast any studio act unable to compete missed out on lucrative live circuit revenue. So despite the losses in sonic impact or credibility what were ostensibly studio acts took to the live arena. Just compare Destiny’s Child (studio) as produced by Rodney Jerkins and Timbaland versus Destiny’s Child (live) with fat rock drummer and session slap-bassist. Bon Jovi tom solos and atonal Seinfeld bass indulgence are go!

Kode9’s recent performances, at the Sonar and Mutek festivals, have pushed well beyond the realm of mere DJ sets into the live arena. Spaceape takes the mic while Kode mans the live re-edit machine, Ableton. (You can see some of it here, thanks to Tobias van Veen, alongside Kode’s wicked but lesser spotted sense of humour).

With studio composition, via Ableton, increasingly edging into rock’s performance realm, it’s interesting to look into what actually separates “live” performance with “electronic/live” performance. Excluding outfit changes and dance routines (let’s not go there shall we…), the visual medium of performance, in both electronic and rock music, is tied to the physical process of making the music. That much they have in common. The emotional response to the visual element of (say) live rock, however, has long since become tied into specific, learned gestures, perceived and understood by audiences to have known meanings and emotional responses. Even DJing, which doesn’t bare a direct correlation between the movements of the performer and the parts of the track, has come to be visually appreciated by fans – just witness the drooling a technically amazing DJ like Youngsta receives from audiences. What’s interesting, therefore, is how, given the advances of new technologies, audiences respond and learn responses to new visual patterns of the functions of making live/electronic music. Or, conversely, how audiences can seemingly enjoy and respond to the perception of live audio being performed (when it’s not) when all the visual queues are being provided.

Take for example, the hip-hop/ grime-MC-as-live-act. Of course, in the beginning, there were two turntables and a microphone, somewhere in the South Bronx or Bow E3. Yet when grime-affiliate Plan B played “live” in 93 Feet East, Brick Lane, East London last month there was a microphone, two turntables, a drummer, guitarist and a bassist. Only when you looked closely did you notice that the visual guitar actions weren’t correlating with the guitar audio, that something was afoot, or moreover, coming out of the CDr deck. Did the 93 Feet East crowd mind? It was packed to the rafters.

Instead of the live act that isn’t, the electronic act that’s truly live provides a far more interesting set of opportunities. The pub fuelled ramble brought to mind few examples. There was Mathew Herbert as Radio Boy a few years back at the National Theatre, breaking Disney videos and McDonalds boxes and live-sampling them into a anti-capitalist protest, which proved more conceptual than enjoyable musical experience. More recently there’s UK’s Jamie Woon: check the jaw dropping live video here. My friend, who prefers more acoustic stuff, mentioned Argentina’s Junana Molina.

Looking at these three, are the physical processes they undergo to make live electronic music visually stimulating? The answer is probably yes, and definitely more so than a bloke twiddling a laptop, largely because there’s a palpable correlation between their physical movements and their audio output. What this conclusion opens up is the debate whether, given advances of technology, the visual angle of the music making process could be taken into account as much as the sonic considerations. Given an engaging live electronic music making process, that moral live high ground of rock might start to look distinctly vulnerable.

What is surely now up for grabs is whether the live electronic technologies will be absorbed as visually aesthetically pleasing, and beyond that whether at a certain point the visual control of live electronic performance will be a dominant priority in the software/technologies creation. So that software designers ask themselves not ‘how can I make live electronic music?’ but ‘how can I make visually engaging live electronic music?’ Maybe they already have.

15 comments:

GTTRBRKZ said...

interesting thoughts. of course 'charisma' can go along way - i was impressed by Aaron (Venetian Snares) Funk's energetic 'live' performance, using merely cd decks and dj mixer. His own physical expressions, including highly stylised motions when tweaking the knobs, was visually compelling. But I'm also in favour of creative back-projections as a focus of visual stimulation. The Sex Pixels laptop imagery was part of the experience at Dubloaded. whatever, i don't think hiring a bloody drummer for the sake of visual interest is the way forward.

Luca said...

yeah, I saw Venetian Snares too and I can confirm it's unbelievable... Richard Devine shows are quite entertaining too.

I'd recommend reading this essay written by Robert Henke (Monolake): http://monolake.de/interviews/supercomputing.html

JAL said...

ever seen reprezent live? probably one of the best live shows i've ever seen. krust, die, suv, size all gurning & bouncing playing midi controllers. dynamite mc running all around the stage, mcing his head off. and their fantastic drummer and bassist jamming away. unforgettable really.

although something of that magnitude is really a rairity given the costs associated with a tour of that size/complexity. it's a shame too...

dubmugga said...

you ever come across 'shapeshifter' live drum and bass band from Christchurch New Zealand ???

...then you're definitely missing out on something

dubmugga said...

cut and paste this of shapeshifter at anew years dance party last/this year

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaG5nJ9T13c

the pearl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the pearl said...

I think as far as electronic and acoustic hybrids in performance, Jamie Lidell stands out above the rest. Not to mention that dude's been doing this type of stuff for the better part of a decade, sometimes with tape machines. Ableton is OK, but it's shouldn't be championed as a substitute for ideas, technical ability, and musicallity. And some of Ableton's processing sounds distinctly SHIT.

Check this:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=PKqE1d1ucRg

cheers. great article. well observed.
URL.

Laurent said...

interesting article once more. and i like your points about visually pleasing 'electronic music' live shows.
Personally for me recently one of the people who's really been interesting in that sense, is Goth Trad. He only started Djing last year, and he pretty much always plays live apart from the odd djing spot. his live shows are pretty interesting not necessarily because they're visually pleasing, but because of the energy they emanate compared to a DJ set. The way he keeps a crowd moving and navigates through styles and tempos he's pretty fascinating i find. There is also something interesting about watching one person man a mixing desk, laptop and a bunch of effect units with what looks like serious energy and intent at times - visually speaking he's definitely not doing anything more captivating than a DJ but, like people like Mala or even DJ Marky, his energy and passion for the music really comes through his 'playing' and i think that's something else the crowd can vibe off.
Also his shows with Rebel Familia are on the same wave length and have the bonus of a live bass player so there's a mix of that live band and live electronic music thing, albeit on a much smaller scale than say the dnb/jungle live outfits.
anyways if you get a chance to catch him when he comes over in september i think you'd enjoy it. he should be doing a series of live shows or so i heard.
oh and nice on for mentioned forsaken in your column, checked the virb page and the tracks are really nice (sorry couldn't be bothered to post in the other page, blogger's been weird).
Lo

the pearl said...

oh yeah, and if there's anyone that can claim to be pushing the envelope as far as technology it's these people:

http://www.jazzmutant.com/

You'll be seeing A LOT of their gear in the coming years.

PRL.

DJ said...

When people go to a performance, they love to see a 'show'...this can be everything from the hi-energy Reprezent show to someone like FatBoySlim bouncin up n down in a hawaian shirt, they want to be entertained and in our increasingly visual concious culture audio alone is often not sufficient for their needs (I blame TV!).
One thing to bear in mind concerning the often static nature of live electronic performers is that the technology we are talking about is in its infancy. The guitar is up to 5000 years old, MIDI barely 25! We're still finding our way...However electronic technology is evolving rapidly and more and more people are creating their own custom performance setups with hardware and software. Just because someone is using Ableton/Max/whatever doesn't mean that they're using it in the same way that I or you are.
Also custom interfaces to allow us to 'perform' better with software allow one to break free of the mouse/keyboard paradigm. Check:
http://mtg.upf.edu/reactable/?related
for lots of cool toys!
More here:
http://createdigitalmusic.com/2007/06/25/innovative-new-digital-instruments-nime-conference-multimedia-mega-report/#more-2260

Thomas said...

what i think people really want to see in a live performance is interaction between the artist and the equipment. the thing about a guitar bass and drums is that if the players dont do anything, no sound comes out. whereas an ableton set or whatever, you can press play and be done. what exactly are most "live" electronic acts doing tweaking stuff out for an hour that has mostly been preprogrammed? nothing that *needs* to be done for the sound. it is more like window dressing.

a friend of mine, Shawn Ruidman, is a techno artist who performs live around the world. i have yet to see someone be more interactive with their machines than he is. he programs all beats into the 808 and 909 live, he plays live keys over top of some previously recorded sequences (that are playing off of synths that he can tweak the sounds on) that he live arranges with an MMT-8 sequencer, tweaks effects and mixdowns live, and even adds vocals and other little bits depending on what he has with him at the time. but what makes his sets compelling is that they are never the same. he's not just playing a standard set of some songs. he can move between the preprogrammed stuff at will, and the rest is all done truly live. you might not even recognize any of the prerecorded sequences because one night they can be a fast energetic techno jam, the next night theyre in a downtempo 808 joint, the night after that a broken beat jazzy sounding thing. but he is a musician, i honestly dont think many if any electronic producers would be able to pull off what he can do.

dan hancox said...

roll deep with live band in may 05 were apppallingly dull.. all the energy was gone. it's a big ask, as they say.

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