research&development

dave’s corner

Dabrye live at Sonar Foutet live in NYC

laps are tops?

by dave hagger

Laptop performance. Do we want more or is it a chore?

I was recently thrown into a cyclical dinner table debate over the place of electronic musicians who performed using laptops versus the traditional live act. Whilst the osso bucco had the perfect combination of veal shank to fresh thyme, my postulations were becoming sour within a matter of minutes. I confess, I have frequented a number of ‘laptop’ shows by a bevy of beat busting muso’s in my thyme and as such felt I rightfully held my place in the conversation, so I didn't shy away from making my points.

It was agreed that the argument does not stem from the music itself, but more the delivery. It's a common notion that in order for a live gig to be visually arresting it must have a musician actually playing an instrument, or at least a physical movement to connect with a resulting sound. Now, unless you are situated close enough to the laptop artist to discern each click and drag there is little chance of seeing even a finger move let alone a punk thrashing stage dive or stand up growl a la Thelonious Monk. Perhaps if it was treated like a turntablist's set then it would be more arresting; A live feed from the computer screen is paired with a camera trained close up so we can see the performers hands working the various controls of their program.

I remember seeing Jan Jelinek in the Hopetoun Hotel in Sydney, 2001. The gig was touted as a special live performance by a man well regarded as one of the founding fathers of a genre that the music intellegentsia have labeled micro-house. The evening was to be accompanied by a ‘video experience’ and although I can not confirm whether it was Jelinek’s own video artwork or not, after seeing the loop restart after 10 minutes, the audience's attention was firmly averted to the bottom of their schooners. Not to say his set wasn’t incredible, because it was, but in a lackluster surrounding, the thick rimmed glasses and 15 inch Mac screen whitewashed the motionless German, leaving very little left to Ôwatch’.

On the other hand, and although not live per se, the club punter has had no trouble at all accepting the dj as a hero to worship. The location of the turntables in a room will denote the direction in which the crowd faces nearly ever time, eagerly looking to the mistress or maestro of music as they place one record on after another. Seemingly, the more subtle the head nodding and cigarette smoking, the more he/she becomes recognised as a competent and confident mixer. Almost akin to watching Ronaldinho giggling on the football pitch _ the attitude just oozes. But DJ's like Dexter smash this theory, his enthusiasm behind the turntables is infectious not to mention his selections, programming and lightning quick skills. And a simple comparison is telling in the laptop department too. Watching Four Tet perform live I was transfixed as much by his almost possessed rocking back and forth as the intense sonics issuing from the speakers. Yet the same could not be said for Luke Vibert who, although outputting a wonderwall of electronic mayhem, may as well have been searching Google for the location of his nearest 7/11 store.

In a recent response to Nigel Heyler’s critique of laptop performance, Ben Byrne writes “Laptop performance should indeed be recognised as banal, and purposely so, but this banality cannot be explained as the result of a complete disinterest in performance or commitment to the acousmatic. With its banality of instrumentation, coupled with a conscious absence of gestural performance (which itself is contradictory and inevitably incomplete), laptop performance exists as a paradox, presenting an ephemeral space of sounding, grounded neither entirely in existing languages of popular musical performance, musical avant-garde nor more established artistic conventions. As such it sits uneasily between art and music as a discipline, accepted fully by neither, and instead often functioning as an exclusive sub-culture, to its own detriment.”

I am reticent to say that we will inevitably see a decline in laptop performances as recent trends in technology show more and more artists converting to digital studio production in the humble home. I believe that, like any art form or movement, there are a number of people constantly pushing limitations to further impact the observer. It is with great gusto that new cross over bands incorporate the digital realm their live setups. Four Tet recently destroyed the crowd at the Spanish Club in Fitzroy with his swirling brand of synthesizer, drums and noise. Locally performers like Qua and Mountains In The Sky involve laptops in their performance and indeed, the formers' blissfully textured set in support of the latter was one of my favourite performances of the year. It's 2006 and 30 people stood loosely spaced in a dingy low roofed pub and stood quietly, respectfully listening to man with a computer and a guitar. That night they applauded and were changed and that night, schooners were drained instead of employed as a pondering crutch. Kid 606, Jim O’Rourke, Prefuse 73, and Mimeo (amongst thousands of others) all have or incorporate other performers and additional equipment to add a further aurally and visual dimension to their performance.

So you see, I am a sorry fence sitter in the sense that I am complacent enough to sit and enjoy what enters my aural space without having to be overloaded with a wildly arresting stage performance. But, and that is a big but, after seeing Architecture in Helsinki play at the Prince earlier this year, I felt for the first time in my life, the burning need to try and concoct some sort of distinguished dance cum jump cum free movement that reflected what I was seeing, let alone hearing. I felt like I really had arrived at a live gig.

In the right context, with the right support, and with the added element of visual production, live laptop performances can excite and enthuse. A perfect example is Matthew Herbert, a pioneer of digital stage performance thwarts the generic laptop gig with live manipulation of the ordinary object, leaving audiences aghast and dumbfounded each and every time.

In reality, like all consumables, if there is a buying market then there is most certainly a place for the product.

Maybe it could be argued that going to the latest Farben gig would be as enthralling as watching me type this onto your screen. Or maybe even reading it.