Aesthetic Perceptions of 21st Century Laptop Performances

When laptops are used as instruments on the stage, questions of performance authenticity are raised, and for good reason.

Audience Reception

Joel Zimmerman, a.k.a. Deadmau5’s we all hit play Tumblr post sure turned a few heads in regards to performance authenticity in live electronic music shows. As this topic has been battered about from blog to blog and by the likes of Rolling Stone magazine, it's worth looking into the musical processes surrounding the value of using a laptop on stage.

In the tradition of musical concerts, instrumentation and stage presence have been determining factors in how audiences tend to perceive the aesthetics of a live performance. Since, many concert attendees today still go to shows expecting to be wowed by the spectacle of a so called live performance. The sense of virtuosity is lost for many when a laptop is used on a stage more associated with traditional instrumentation.

To compensate for this lack of spectacle, many live electronic performers and DJs have beefed up the visual aesthetics through the use of projections. The VJ arguably serves this purpose, but there are also performers who have adopted various control interfaces for added virtuosic flavor. Electronic music artists such as Daedelus and Moldover are examples of this rise in laptop controllerism. It may not be said for all, but it seems that many laptop performers require this extra level of spectacle in order to justify their stage presence.

What comes to mind is that performance venues hold certain aesthetic values based on historical contexts. For many audiences, these traditional associations may affect their understanding of a laptop performance. Take for example a performance in a traditional proscenium arch theatre, where the audience has been formally seated and separated to observe the performative actions and gestures of musicians on stage.

Traditional auditoriums, theatres and concert halls are designed specifically to project the sound of acoustic instruments, but many were not originally designed for amplified electronic instrumentation. By performing electronic music in such a venue, an audience used to tradition may question the appropriateness of using electronics in such a venue. On the other hand, much electronic music is played in a club-like setting, where the audience has been separated from the performers.

With each laptop performance there are usually members of the audience who are already familiar with this type of presentation.Those better acquainted with laptop performance may not have issues associated with the aesthetics performance and alienation. Some electroacoustic audiences, such as composers or fans, may also be fairly acquainted with the compositional styles and sounds of algorithmic or soundscape music. These audiences are focused more on the sound rather than on the image of performance, or maybe some audiences enjoy exploring the music as an embodied atmospheric experience in a dance club, festival or rave.

Yet for a wider audience that consists of members who are much more familiar with traditional or popular music performances, the aesthetic issues of laptop performance may still affect their overall understanding of an artwork. Author and electronic musician Kim Cascone once mentioned that the “Spectacle is the guarantor of presence and authenticity whereas laptop performance represents artifice and absence, the alienation and deferment of presence”. (Kim Cascone, Comatonse Recordings: Articles & Reviews. Computer Music Journal 24.4, 2000). Laptop performers in turn are compensating for this deferment of presence in the way of projected visuals and controllerism.

The laptop as an isolated object has been designed to appeal to a larger consumer base than to that of just musicians. Laptops are not specifically designed to be musical instruments, but over the last few years they have been adopted as such by electronic music performers, just look at almost any live DJ or electronic act on Youtube. In the traditional instrumental setting of an orchestral concert, many of the instrumental objects are not all that familiar to an audience member, but the sight of a laptop on stage is that of a familiar everyday object. Some may see this familiarity as a loss of performativity.

Not to get too theory heavy, but Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura a “unique existence at the place where it happens to be” is brought up often when laptop music is mentioned. (Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, The Continental Aesthetics Reader , 2000). Some audiences see a loss of tactile visual and physical interaction with the musical instrument. Traditional instrumentation and performance may be perceived to have a said aura, but in the context of laptop instrumentation, traditional audiences may disregard the laptop, based on the differences in tactile interaction with the performer.

As per Deadmau5’s argument, a traditional audience may assume that the laptop performer has essentially migrated their desktop from home onto the stage. The laptop performer is typically situated centre stage with a table supporting the equipment. The laptop is placed on the table where the performer gazes into the open monitor rather than towards the audience or a conductor. From the audience’s perspective, this performer’s identity and stage presence may be completely obscured by the monitor and, for some people tied to tradition, this act may be perceived in the same way as a performer playing with their back to the audience.

As the laptop was designed as a business tool, and not specifically as a musical instrument, audiences are maybe too familiar with the laptop as an object. It would seem that much criticisms centered on a lack of presence are derived from the business symbolism of this object.

Perceptions of Authenticity

The use of laptop technology on stage, in both traditional and popular music performances, has produced concerns about live performance authenticity as echoed by Deadmau5 and authors such as Philip Auslander. In his book Liveness, Auslander suggested that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the public exposure of in-authentic lip-synching by Milli Vanili and Ashlee Simpson, has tarnished a public view of live popular performances. Liveness (Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance In a Mediatized Culture. 2nd ed 5 October 2010) Indeed, many audiences are quite aware that technology can be used to mask a performance. Just recently Justin Bieber could be seen throwing up on stage while his main vocal performance could still be heard. Perhaps Bieber should hold back on those Milli Vanili milkshakes. Deadmau5’s comments on other DJs' live techniques seem to fall into this category, as well.

Of course, other technologies have been used to mask the musical mistakes or imperfections of an artist. For example, Antares’ Auto-Tune has been used by many acts to correct the pitch of vocals in the production and performance of popular music. It 's also quite common for many popular acts to use pre-recorded backing tracks in augmenting their live performances. Depeche Mode comes to mind here. To an audience, a laptop performer’s authenticity may be hard to comprehend, as there are very few visual clues or indications as to where the sound is being created.

Since the laptop as mentioned is a common object to many audiences, some may assume that the performer is merely working on something other than the performance itself. Many have argued that the DJ or performer may as well be checking their Facebook page. On the other hand, audiences that are familiar with electronic music laptop performances may not see authenticity as much of an issue. But if laptop music performance is to be widely accepted by a traditional music populous, there needs to be some margin of understanding. For traditional audiences, it may be hard to distinguish what is the performance and what is simply a playback of pre-recorded material.

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