Thursday, October 31, 2013

Leave the laptops at home

I was happy to see Attack Magazine tackle the issue of shifting trends in live techno music, not least because it's a woefully underreported subject.  There have always been plenty of articles about how the music sounds, and the thought processes of the artists, but very little about how the music is made.  I'd wager that the process of recording and performing electronic music is still something of a mystery even for devoted fans and clubgoers.  Any novice can look at a guitar, or watch someone playing a guitar, and connect the dots between the shape and feel of the instrument and the sound that emanate from it.  Almost nobody can understand what to do with hardware sequencer just by looking at it, or intuitively decipher digital waveform synthesis programs on a computer.  The way that the music gets made is still very much in the domain of the artists who actually make it.  

I've long since defended laptop techno as a performance art, or at least defended the idea that a laptop (and the lack of animation from the person clicking the mouse) should never be an obstacle to enjoying the music.On the other hand, using live, physical instruments (including electronic music hardware) does add something tangible to a gig, after all, the music can and should be enough but concerts are also performances and fans love to see musicians in the more physical act of performing.  As I noted in my MUTEK 2010 wrap-up:  "In 2003, nearly all the performances were centred around laptops. Almost every performer in 2010 incorporated a laptop into their setup, but in plenty of cases, the laptop was nowhere near the centre of the spectacle."  

As for why performers are switching from software back to hardware, well, it's very much an open question and the article doesn't offer many answers beyond the fairly obvious "people got bored and tastes changed". A hardware setup certainly creates a more unique visual effect onstage.  No matter what programs you use or how much effort you've put into trying to sound different from everybody else, a guy sitting in a chair in front of a laptop is just a guy sitting in a chair in front of a laptop, every time.  Even after more than 20 years, the idea of "live techno" is still something of a misnomer in the eyes of many people, which has led musicians to become more dynamic performers.  As fans became more conditioned to live sets, it became more acceptable for artists to break with blank-faced stoicism of the past.

Most of all, I'd say that the sound of techno in the '10's deserves most of the credit.  The days of "plip-plop" laptop techno and minimal are long gone, techno is deeper, groovier, and heavier than it was a decade ago.  Unless you were Ricardo Villalobos, you weren't about to get too animated while endlessly flat plains of minimal crept from the speakers, but the newer styles are far more energetic and therefore more conducive to more visually arresting, hardware-based live performances.

It's interesting to see (p. 2 of the article) that classical training is becoming more common in techno.  I think this would be a first -- I can't recall every reading something by techno artists who stress the benefits of having classical music training.

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