Aesthetic Perceptions of 21st Century Laptop Performances

by Christopher Anderson

3 December 2012

Simulation vs. Live Representation

Since the turn of the 21st century, many DJs have now abandoned the turntables for the laptop, or have incorporated the laptop as a tool within their performance. With an abundance of recorded music on the Internet, most laptop DJs can download songs for live playback and create a real-time mix on their laptops in a live setting. Although, much like canned music, some audiences may also question the authenticity of a laptop live mix.  For now, it’s just as easy for a laptop DJ to use Ableton Live, to prepare a pre-made virtual mix. This may be done prior to an event and later presented as a performance. 

The line between a real laptop performance and a simulation may be hard to distinguish. Even the mass produced copies of digital music files that laptop DJs use to create a mix are perhaps simulacra. Take for example, how many electronic dance tracks were created from sampling music and sounds from various vinyl records, CDs and digital files. A recorded song in any format could be seen as a recreation of a real performance.  This real performance recording can be mass replicated and presented again as a real original copy. An electronic music producer then takes musical samples from these so-called real original copies and appropriates them for use in a new real song that is then mass-produced as a real copy. 

So in a sense, the original real performance has been copied into a recording and then copied once again, as a sample to be used in another song, which is then copied and presented as “real.  When a laptop DJ uses this new song in a mix, the audience may not be aware of what the original real performance was and may see this new song as the original real. In other words, the new song is simulacrum. An example of this would be Daft Punk’s sampling of Edwin Birdsong’s recording of “Cola Bottle Baby” for use in their song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”.  Mash-up DJs, such as Girl Talk or Madeon, will only use the recordings of other artists to create new compositions for use in their mixes. 

Due to a confusion as to what constitutes an original real performance of a laptop DJ, some EDM (Electronic Dance Music) audiences may be wary that they are being presented with a musical performance that does not overtly show where or how the sound is created, or perhaps they are less concerned about the authenticity and are just there to experience the dance atmosphere.

Perspectives of the Performer

While on stage, a laptop performer may not be aware that they are possibly alienating the audience by remaining behind the screen of their laptop. For many laptop performers, what’s of greater concern is not how they appear aesthetically to an audience, but the quality of sound emanating from the speakers.  Of course, in the context of music appreciation, what tends to matter most is the sound of the music rather than the visual representation, but for many in the context of live musical performance, the argument can be made that a visual representation may be of some considerable importance. 

To some electroacoustic composers, there are limitations on how their pieces can be represented in a live setting. For example, many composers present their laptop performances as real-time as opposed to live performances. Real-time performances tend to use live computer programming or generative algorithmic compositional methods.  Introduced by
Iannis Xenakis, the uses of systematic or stochastic processes are also utilized in a live electroacoustic setting.  Many of these real-time compositional approaches involve using computer programming languages such as Max/MSP, PureData, Super Collider and Chuck.

In the case of a multi-speaker performance, many performers will sometimes move their equipment behind the audience in order that there be less visual distraction; or, in the case of some multi-media performances, visualizations may be incorporated to augment or enhance a real-time laptop performance. Many laptop performers have also expressed the need for gestural content ,and that the physicality of a music performance has remained both a critical and valuable characteristic of live music. 

With the advent of consumer-based multi-touch screen interfaces and tablet computers, many performers are using the iPad for live use. With software applications such as Touch OSC and Lemur, touch screen devices are being used as a gestural interface in live laptop performances. The iPad, which has somewhat replaced Jazzmutant’s Lemur, allows laptop performers can control their performances remotely without having to stare into a laptop screen. Although some may argue, like Deadmau5, that this is just another button pushing approach, cloaking the process.

On a different note, some laptop performers are creating devices using open source technology and use online communities to share in the development of alternative expressive devices. By opening the hardware and software source code, there are fewer limitations in how new devices may be developed for live performance. The Monome is one such device for both physical and visual interaction.

Through hardware hacking, breaking the commercially locked programming codes for device development, some artists are using video game peripherals such as the Kinect to control elements of their performances. Through the use of these devices, many laptop performers are working towards new performance practices, and in turn providing a better connection between themselves and their audiences with less worry about the aesthetic barrier of the laptop.

Alternative Approaches to Laptop Performance

To be better connected with their own audiences, some laptop performers are exploring alternative approaches to musical expression, much of which are outside traditional approaches to musical performance. In some situations, laptops are being treated as an individual instrument within the context of a larger ensemble. Dan Truman has presented the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), and has described a laptop orchestra “as a working ensemble aiming to make compelling music from a range of aesthetic sensibilities” and “has the potential to both guide the development of new instruments and technologies and also suggest new ways of invigorating the traditional orchestra.” (Dan Truman Why a Laptop Orchestra? Organised Sound 2011).

Another approach to laptop or computer music has been through the use of collaborative devices, such as tangible tabletop interfaces like the reacTable. The reacTable is an interactive musical platform, where multiple performers interact with each through the use of an interactive tabletop touch interface.  \Objects are placed and manipulated on the surface of the interactive table by each performer.  The device is not necessarily meant to be used on a stage and can be used within an installation setting. This was most popularly shown on stage with Bjork a few years ago.

There are many circumstances where traditional audiences have not readily accepted laptop technology on stage. Deadmau5’s audiences have accepted the laptop, but he still seems concerned. It may come down to what kind of technology is appropriate for certain venues. It seems that many stages aren’t well suited for EDM.  Their designs reflect a music and time where the emphasis was projecting acoustics and spectacle from the stage. The virtuosic performances of other genres aren’t necessarily reflected in new ones. The use of pre-recorded material in performance may not always come across as real or authentic to some audiences.  As such, some audiences may mistake real-time electroacoustic laptop music for pre-recorded material. 

There is also a challenge for performers using new devices in order to enhance their laptop performances, in that these devices may present themselves as mere props or gimmicks to an audience. Ultimately, the laptop and devices should not be viewed or used in the same way as traditional instrumentation. In discussing the Theremin John Cage mentioned that, “Most inventors of electrical instruments have attempted to imitate eighteenth century- and nineteenth-century instruments, just as early automobile designers copied the carriage…” ( John Cage The Future of Music: Credo Music Journal, 1962). This is much in the same way that many laptop musicians imitate older instrumental virtuosity through controllers. But does electronic music performance require virtuosity? That’s another debate.

In time, these issues may cease to be a concern. Audiences are becoming more tuned to the sounds of electronic music and will be looking for different ways in which they can be engaged or interact with the music in a live setting. Interactivity and audience participation may become more commonplace and, perhaps, the traditional setting of a concert will evolve into a different experience. 

Deadmau5 brings up a valid argument within his deconstruction of laptop performance. The risks taken within a laptop performance may seem smaller when compared with traditional instrumental performances, but these performance practice problems have stemmed from the methods in which EDM is composed and presented. It would be interesting to see a new kind of live laptop music in which laptop performers use less pre-determined/recorded material and more risks with real-time generated content.

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