Aesthetic Perceptions of 21st Century Laptop Performances

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.

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.