Ideas on the Ephemeral in Live Electronic Music

by Christopher Anderson

10 July 2013

Current Representations

As recordings have become a sole source of music reference for some, a listener can expect to hear the same performance every time. Unexpected sonic events, or to some, mistakes, become expected after repeated listening. This happens even when these events were largely unplanned in an initial recording process and when improvisation is also involved. What was to be ephemeral became documented and engrained in listeners through repeated experience.

This is sometimes less the case with sequenced computer music, but is nonetheless a phenomenon of recording an acoustic event. Electronic music has largely been represented through fixed media recorded formats and for many DJs this is a blessing. A massive corpus of beat-driven music pre-sequenced and produced to flow from track to track. These are tracks with surprises yet arranged with the standard lead-ins, dropouts, beat-drops, climaxes and lead-outs. These tracks contain the same aural experience upon every playback and as much as dance music tracks are fixed, it’s largely up to the DJ to weave these into an interesting mix. A DJ is at the whim of their records or tracks and the crowd. 

The Ephemeral

The concept of ephemera, that which only happens once or is not to be preserved and different every time, is largely associated with temporary writings but can also be seen in improvised live performances. With many DJs and electronic music performances taking to center stage, there has been a large emphasis on reproducing the same event in every night. For rock musicians being able to play your album every night is a must, but for bands with electronics, solo electronic musicians, and DJs, translating album studio recordings into an interesting live performance seems a bit challenging. It seems as if the larger the stage, the larger the stakes and as Deadmau5 once ranted, “My ‘skills’ and other PRODUCERS skills shine where it needs to shine… in the goddamned studio.” (“We All Hit Play”)

So at that level, can an audience expect that the show they are experiencing will be memorable or a repeat performance? Many other acts, such as Daft Punk, have been hailed for the spectacle of their stage shows, but criticized for practically repeating the same musical performance each night.  But now after the release of their studio-musician heavy album, Random Access Memories, many are left wondering if they can perform this music live.

With the use of electronic music software such as Ableton Live or Native Instruments Traktor, electronic performances have usually involved live audio loop playback, or what Deadmau5 would call just pressing play. With laptops now handling audio on a much larger/faster scale, the use of samplers, synthesizers and external MIDI sequencers for live electronic music seems obsolete. 

For many however, the use of more obscure equipment onstage can be seen as a push in the opposite direction. With knobs, buttons and cables on display the audience can share the performance view of the apparatus. To display the origin of the sounds through a visible signal path much like a guitar plugged into an amp. However, what remains to be seen or heard in much live electronic music is a concept of ephemeral performance. What if new forms of live electronic music emerged that pushed this notion of the ephemeral work?

Other Genres

It’s worth looking at other genres of music that have embraced concepts of ephemeral music performance to better see where new electronic music could possibly grow. For the most part, music education has largely been based on learning from the past. In the past, however, much music was only performed once and our only reference points to the history is either written or verbal form. Much of the pedagogy had not been preserved for some early works of many cultures. One example could be that of pieces that were written for one-off events for a court such as chamber music for the birthday of a prince or duke in which the pieces were only composed for this event. 

Indeed, a lot of classical music adheres to subtle variation in performance while being true to the score. In the case of referencing/re-playing a one-off classical piece, one might only have the score and perhaps some historic documents. The performance would most likely be tied to the score. Rock music is similar in that the audience can expect a different performance each night, but will be expect to hear the same guitar riffs or solos true to the original recording without mistakes. However, genres based on improvisation take this ephemeral notion a little bit farther.

Elements of Jazz

Jazz is as broad a genre label as electronica or electronic music, but on a much larger scale. There are many styles within the label of jazz, but like electronic music, not all are the same. From bebop to salsa to swing to free jazz to Dixieland, each has a very separate sound. What is common in jazz as a whole is that the performances are always and purposely different. Many jazz performances have never been recorded, and those that were have been prime educational sources for musicians honing their craft. Musicians would learn how their elders did it by experiencing the past inside the present.

However, most jazz musicians veer from performing an exact solo from a legendary recording. At some point the arpeggios, scales and licks get mentally absorbed from repeatedly mimicking or lifting these recorded solos. For some, a palate of improvisatory colours are facilitated from years of repetitious practice. Mistakes are also worked into intricate lines and the mistakes become purposeful. Much like a painter who has studied and recreated other artist’s pieces, these become experiential memories perhaps destined for later expression in some form. 

Many assume Jazz improvisation comes from a blank-slate; a tabula rasa of ideas, but in many ways, jazz is really all about structure and listening. For most jazz styles, the chord progression is what dictates where the adventure will go. Like painters, many jazz players may only improvise in a certain style and for each style may lay a specific methodology and in turn players learn the methods of the past through recordings. Over time, jazz improvisational styles had stretched from the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke to players such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. By paving the way for new improvisatorial approaches, these artists opened new ways to explore live music. 

Some might wonder what live jazz improvisation has to do with live electronic music. Used as an example, jazz is a form of music that had evolved largely because of the spread of recordings, but also because of its ephemeral nature. It’s a form of music that has existed for decades in which different versions of songs are performed every time.

Hypothetically speaking, many electronic musicians could adopt this concept of ephemeral performances. As a fixed medium of recording yields the same results every time, watching a big-stage DJ play the same set would be similar to a watching band trying to recreate the exact studio version of their works. Many DJs such as Richie Hawtin and Sasha had moved away from the standard turntable model in order to explore their sets deeper by weaving through the loops. 

Other electronic groups such as Orbital and Underworld still send sequences to synthesizers, but from laptops. Simian Mobile Disco use modular analogue synthesizers in a live-PA styled setup and Dan Deacon uses multitude of pedals and samplers to sculpt his sound live sometimes at audience level. 

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