About a year ago I was at a concert which featured three distinct artists performing live electronic music. The show opened with an interesting take on the solo singer-songwriter format. A Gibson SG slung over his shoulder and surrounded by what seemed to be the entire bridge of the Starship Enterprise his music injected modern electronic styles into an old school context. Following on his heels was an energetic duo summoning pounding dance grooves from a modest set-up of a couple of laptops, some boxes with buttons to control them and a mixer between the two. Finally, the show was concluded by a band of about five people weaving downtempo hip hop grooves and rock riffs with an orchestral backdrop controlled live by the band’s leader and guitarist.
For some time before the show I had been thinking about how electronic music is performed and how it could be integrated into musical styles that are seemingly unrelated. An appreciation for music made on computers was a fairly recent development for me. Though I enjoyed listening to artists who were creating impossible sounding music I wasn’t very interested in hearing it live if it meant seeing some guy standing on a stage in front of computer pressing play and occasionally twisting a knob, likely while holding a red dixie cup in the other hand.
It seems to me that there is still an expanse of wild frontier to be pioneered by performers of electronic music. For a show to be engaging I feel that an element of spontaneity is important – music is about communication and if there’s going to be a computer in the band then it should not get in the way of the natural ebb and flow of human interaction. Ideally it should be a part of it.
A couple of months ago I came across an interview with the pianist and composer Aron Ottignon. His most recent album, Starfish, features himself on piano, Samuel Dubois on percussion and steel drums and Rodi Kirk who manipulates and augments the band’s sound with the use of a computer, drum machine and mixer. When the time came to go on tour to promote the album the band worked hard to be able to recreate the sound of the album while still preserving the spontaneous and improvisational nature of the music. I found the project to be very inspiring and a great example of live music in the computer age. Check out a performance by the group below as well as a behind the scenes look into how they were able to put it all together.
Back to that show I mentioned earlier – the one that featured three different takes on live electronica. The singer-songwriter who opened the show was successful not only in applying a traditional form to a contemporary style, but perhaps more importantly, he delivered emotion that provided the audience a means to connect to the music more intimately. Interestingly, the artist that brought me to the concert in the first place – the full band that closed out the show, was a bit harder for me to connect with. The music that was being played was great, but it was clear that there was a continuously running backing track being played over the band for most of their set. Though the band leader was manipulating and controlling background elements of the music it still sounded to me like a band playing along to a recording. A great recording to be sure, but it was missing that element of human interaction and with it some of the excitement. Another surprise for me was that the highlight of the show featured a group that had no traditional instruments – just a couple of computers and some devices to control them. The duo seemed to be triggering samples and layers in a free-flowing collaboration that pushed and pulled the audience along in a rip tide of pulsing dance beats and twisted, yet catchy melodies.
The experience at that show and others has stoked my imagination for the what the next five, ten or twenty years may reveal for live electronic musicians. I suspect we may look back on this time as a formative period for an emerging group of artists creating music and sounds that once seemed unreal and impossible to our ears. For this to be more than a footnote in music history musicians should be sensitive to the importance of establishing a connection to listeners. There is no substitute for the intimacy and excitement that occurs when live musicians are on stage, taking chances, listening and responding to each other. Being able to watch and hear the evolution in the way music is presented is inspiring. There’s some cool stuff happening out there and people are reinventing the rules of performance and blurring the lines between DJ, producer and musician. I’m looking forward to what they’ll come up with next.