Ideas on the Ephemeral in Live Electronic Music

by Christopher Anderson

10 July 2013

Unfixing the Sequences

While many electronic musicians are sculpting performances with ephemeral elements, many of the melodies, sequences and beat patterns are pre-programmed. But what if these loops weren’t fixed? What if new forms of improvisation moved to the centre stage of many live performances? What if they were not necessarily based on noise genres or free-avant-garde models, but rather through generative models in which loops are generated from the musician’s ideas in real-time?

What is also to gain from looking at the jazz model is a level of musicianship that puts the player in the immediacy of the present. Rather than predetermining what may happen on stage by preparing a set, if an electronic musician has a blank slate with a small set of rules, some interesting things may happen. This also borrows from John Cage’s concepts of indeterminacy. When improvising not all parameters have to be subject to chance, but when placed within a set of well-placed limitations or rules it may produce interesting results. For example, these limitations could be used to keep the form of a track progressing or the altering melodies to stay in key. 

New Tools, Different Methods

Software such as Ableton Live now includes features to allow a performer to use indeterminate elements in a live set. The program can change loops or parameters automatically and probabilistically. Some companies, such as Ableton, seem to be encouraging this type of exploration. This many not be news to many, but Abletonteamed up with Cycling 74, makers of the visual programming language MaxMSP, which was pretty significant for computer music makers. They both came up with MaxForLive, which allows music producers to make their own instruments and make software devices that can control Ableton Live.

In other words, electronic musicians can make features that can vastly add generative elements to their live sets. The line between computer coder and performer is also being blurred with tools such as this and electronic groups such as Icarus are moving into areas where MaxForLive is enabling them to release multiple unique copies of albums.

Borrowing from concepts of generative music and real-time computer music, an artist could manipulate newly grown loops and patterns at their musical discretion. Some of these concepts are stemmed from John Cage’s work on indeterminate chance music, Iannis Xenakis’ Stochastic processes, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s aleatoric music and Brian Eno’s generative systems.  he ideas of the artist could be re-interpreted by the computer, which would also be a much larger role for the machine than just a glorified tape player.

Algorithmic music is an example of a kind of music that can yield unexpected interesting results. However, this depends largely on the kind of algorithms used to generate notes. Algorithms have the potential to mutate an artist’s ideas then provide them as material to mix with. Autechre and Aphex Twin have also been known to use algorithms in their compositional processes. The speed of computers is now at a point where complex calculations can be made in real-time to yield interesting generative results.

The computer could also dictate where the form of the piece is moving while the artist makes decisions to agree or disagree aesthetically. This may provide extra challenges, but re-introducing certain elements of musicality may provide extra excitement. 

As much as there is plenty of improvisation in live electronic music there is a large potential for its growth. Some growth in this area is visible in the form of live computer systems being used in performance such as live coding or algorithm manipulation. Algoraves have served as an avenue for new forms of live generative music and may be more common over time. 

Concepts of interactivity are also moving beyond the individual performer and much generative music yields itself to installation. Electronic music seems to be at a crossroads, with the use of pre-produced material in live performances and with pop music also adopting this model. The increased speed of computing will probably bring more real-time instrumentation and a return to real-time sonic events. With the decline in music sales, much electronic music may become more ephemeral, with less focus on recorded longevity, and live electronic performance realizing the potential to be a unique artistic event, every time.

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