Column: Over-Analyzing Electronic Music Performance

Oakland’s Glenn Jackson of digital blog/digital label Mapzzz conceptualizes live performance and, more specifically, electronic performance.

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Oakland’s Glenn Jackson of digital blog/digital label Mapzzz conceptualizes live performance and, more specifically, electronic performance.


This is a bit of a trite and clichéd statement to begin your column with, but the sentiment surely rings true: things used to be simpler. In this case, I’m considering the conceptual capacity behind music performance. I imagine that since the dawn of human musicality, the basis of performance was pretty obvious: human being strikes object, object makes sound. This is how music was made audible for almost all of our civilized history—if you wanted to hear chords from a piano, a person would have to sit down and play them, if you needed a trio of violins for your composition, three actual people would have to sit together, pick up their instruments and bow in unison. As someone who indulges in the splendor of electronic music with almost every ounce of waking life, it’s almost frightening how far removed I am from this concept. Yet, by the same token, it makes me realize the completely open-ended possibilities that the electronic music world has tapped into over the past few decades. When you consider the relative newness of recorded music (it’s been around for around a hundred years, whereas music itself has existed for thousands), we’re already interacting with it on a immensely sophisticated level. Every electronic artist who performs live is forced to strike a balance somewhere between the litany of hybrids which fold live performance and recorded audio into the same motion. Whether it’s a controller and Ableton, a band playing along to a laptop, a pair of turntables, or just fucking iTunes, a choice was made somewhere. Let’s take a look at a few examples of this which—for better or worse—I’ve found intriguing as of late.

Really, this whole thought process stemmed from an interview I had conducted with Brian Simon (a.k.a. Anenon) as part of a piece which sought some insight into the LA artist’s live and recording processes for XLR8R. First, its worth noting that Simon achieves his dense, floating productions live with use of the fabled Monome unit along with extensive use of a tenor saxophone. At the surface, this can seem like not too lofty of a concept—Simon triggers some samples, messes with them a bit, then plays saxophone on top of it. But this is not the case, and, as was quickly obvious in our conversation, Simon has spent a good deal of time (years) conceptualizing and honing this side of his craft. Instead, Simon builds his productions live in a almost completely improvisatory fashion, relying on absolutely no quantization or loop-based material in the traditional sense of Ableton sets. As Simon goes on to explain in the article, “I never have a tempo set on the Monome that it clicks to, so it’s more raw. The imperfection is what I’m trying to get, so that I can’t be lazy and loop it. I have to play it live.” This is one of the more blurry examples of the live performance/recorded material line seeing as not only is Anenon creating much of this material instantaneously, but also making the recordings part of a larger instrument which he can control and utilize, guided by his own human inclination. It’s this grey area that is immensely intriguing, and it doesn’t hurt that Simon’s compositions are rendered all the more beautiful by this particular execution.

Anenon’s methods are considerably complex, and a lot of electronic artists end up straddling a much less interactive, but not necessarily less worthwhile, line. For the most part, going to see a “live PA” set in today’s venues is going to lead you to a person sitting behind a laptop with some combination of controllers. This approach serves some better than others, and strangely enough, I think this actually relies heavily on the performer having a strong personality to go over well. Two examples come to mind immediately: LA beat-messiah Shlohmo and his less-visible West Coast contemporary Devonwho. Both stem from the wozzy beat scene and both utilize little more than a controller and a laptop on stage, but something about each of them is undeniably engaging. The technical side of their sets appear to of the part-DJ, part-messing-with-their-own-tracks approach. It’s not the most impressive thing visually per say, but each manages to imbue the performance with a sense of personality, running their hands in the air as if playing the keyboard, nodding their heads assuredly along, even talking to the crowd a bit. It renders their performance pleasantly disengaging, helping to bring the audience into the music along with them. In the end, it’s truly a lot of fun.

Of course, there’s the other side to that coin—the producer who simply plays back tracks while we begrudgingly acknowledge that we enjoy their music. Perhaps the most extreme example of this would be Zomby, the legendary UK figure whose live performances (when they actually happen) boil down to watching a tall figure with a mask chain smoke cigarettes and joints while lights and shit flash behind him. It’s almost a DJ set, except it isn’t framed as such and Zomby’s body language and actions (when I saw him at last year’s Decibel Festival he would eventually leave the stage after starting every song, only to return to press space bar for the next one) clearly indicated that he didn’t want to be there either.

But let’s take one more trip down the rabbit hole, shall we? Once upon a time there was an almost perfect performance space in San Francisco known as Recombinant Media Labs (RML for short) which housed—I shit you not—a 10-channel surround video system and a 16.8.2 surround sound system (that’s two rows of 8 directional speakers, giving you 16 total, and a pair of directional sub-woofers, also there were transducers in the floor, wow). Basically, it was the kind of place where no drugs were necessary to have a completely out-of-body experience. There were a number of artists and composers, some even associated with the more academic side of electronic music, that performed at RML during its far too short run (I still tear up every time I remember that this magical place has been closed for years now), but each had to approach the same challenge when performing: how do you use the space to enhance your work? It’s an interesting approach to curating performance, to keep the medium and the tools a constant, but invite artists to find a way to use it for their own means. In the end, it yielded some of the most powerful music I’ve ever experienced live and opened my mind even further to the different ways we are to perform and take in electronic music.

Ultimately, this discussion is only intended to highlight a few areas of interest. Obviously there is an incalculable amount of possibilities where artists can fall in between here, but with the proliferation of controllers like the APC and the MPD, it seems conceivable that new producers would be led to assume that this is the most appropriate method through which to interpret their works live. In fact, the opposite is true. The conceptual landscape is seemingly endless, and the more we encourage each other to explore it, the more powerful and enveloping the art form will become in its ever increasing diversity. Yes, it used to all be so simple, but personally, I’m glad it isn’t anymore.