There’s something Stefan Goldmann said in our recent interview that lingers with me. “Now we’re kind of back in 1840”, he remarked about a trend consuming electronic music, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1990’s, and never to this degree as electronic music is more embedded in the popular zeitgeist than ever before. It’s like an 1840 from the steampunks perspective. In an era where the recorded format holds absolutely no monetary value for the artist, we have returned to an age before the shellac disc and gramophone, a time when a live performance was the only way you could experience music. It correlates to the current trend of favouring an “insta-value” over a material worth; where the picture of an experience (a holiday or concert) becomes the commodity over the obvious curio. We display holiday snaps and snippets of live performances on social media like we would’ve done records or books in our homes in the past, placing value on the experience rather than something physical. Venue, social context and style can often sway the experience of the concert, making it unique to the person experiencing it, and the fleeting nature of it all is something we can appreciate in a world where everything is available at the stroke of a keyboard or the swipe of a screen. We are human and still covet that feeling of identity and discovery that set us apart from our peers and in 2017 going into 2018, the idea of the live performance plays right into this part of our psyche as egotistical individuals.
But what constitutes a live show today? For bands like Rolling Stones or the Foo Fighters it’s still very much still about the musicians playing their instruments to packed arenas or music venues, but for a generation raised on electronic music there’s some contention there. And conflate that with the nature of the live performance relying on machines at a constant predetermined tempo and composition and opinions divide even further. Can we suggest a control with the DJ set at one end of the spectrum and the singer-songwriter at the other end? Well… no actually. In many ways the singer-songwriter playing rehearsed composed arrangements relies on very little by way of improvisation, which begs the question again, if you’re just mimicking previously recorded material are you indeed providing a unique experience… but that’s a questions for a whole other article. Let’s stick with electronic music for the moment and ask if a DJ set is indeed live. For argument’s sake let’s consider the DJ in the traditional sense with a bag of records. S/He might be playing pre-corded material, but I’d suggest that the way s/he puts them together, matching tempos and finding that common thread between musical pieces, is quite analogous to a Jazz/Blues band in the context of a jam session, each musician accommodating and/or contributing to the music that’s currently transpiring.
If a DJ is indeed playing live then what is a live electronic performance if it’s not a DJ set? When Vril played Jæger’s basement ion 2017, his live set constituted something of a DJ set in many ways. He used the software Ableton to launch “clips” (samples) of pre-recorded material (mostly from his own discography) and rearrange (compose) them in an extemporised way. The Giegling artist is in fact DJing, but on a macro level. Instead of segueing entire songs, he’s segueing parts of songs in something akin to a remix or an edit. Ableton like most compositional machines run on an internal clock that syncs everything in time, so in Vril’s case and similar cases, the performer is compelled by predetermined aspects like tempo and arrangement, more so than I would suggest a DJ with a 100-odd records spanning genres and tempos.
Where the distinction lies between the DJ and the live electronic music performer is that sense of identity, the very same that compels our desire for a unique experience, albeit from an artistic perspective. We define the live experience as a sound or even style unique to an artist, and although a DJ might be able to adopt some of that identity it’s strongest still in the presence of the artist in the act of composing. Yes s/he is in the act of composing even if it might be re-arranging recorded samples or merely attenuating timbres and textures in the context of a performance. In the case of B12 ( Steven Rutter) for instance he utilises both methods, playing previously composed melodic sequences over synthesisers and pre-recorded samples of entire melodic/harmonic passages. Through this method he is able to change the sonic structure of his works, although he is not able to change the compositional framework by much. In his practice the purpose of his music is to merely recreate the recorded song, much like Foo Fighters or the Rolling Stones might. One could argue for the sake of mere recreation, live is more like a copy of that perfect moment in the studio, only now its subject to the influence of direct human interference and all the random- and imperfect moments that come with it.
Imperfect is the optimal word here, because it’s exactly that aspect of human nature that makes each live performance unique to that moment in time. James Holden’s new live show for the album The Animal Spirits plays on the dichotomy between pre-programmed electronic music performance and live instrumentation, with a live drummer, percussionist and horn section providing that visual, tactile idea of “playing” an instrument, while James Holden himself manipulates an array of electronic instruments from a small podium. He utilises the best of both worlds and can easily adopt methods from both the traditional sense and the electronic music sense, but it was from a single uncanny moment at a recent performance at Gretchen that the show truly sprang to life. During one electronic introduction to a song the performance stopped abruptly as if man and machine stopped communicating, with Holden apologising before starting the song up again. A fairly insignificant moment in an otherwise flawless performance, and yet it had such a conspicuous effect. The usually shy and quiet Holden was forced to address the audience directly which consequently disarmed the band and audience alike and lent that flawed charm of a live performance to the show. As with the presence of the live musicians its effects were that of humanising Holden’s machine music, and all because of an innocent mistake on the part of the performer, the moment offered a unique and direct experience to the patrons. Whether it be a conscious impromptu indulgence of the performer or a happy accident, even the slightest of deviation of the original recorded material can offer that human dimension we long for in music; that artistic identity of the artist, communicated to his/her listener in a unique exchange between two individuals.
Whether it’s a vocal-guitar performance or somebody like James Holden probing the modulating possibilities of a synthesiser, what sets the live performance apart from the recorded performance (which is almost always has its origins as a live performance) is that sense of a dialogue you get between the performer and the audience. Even the introvert behind the laptop, creating music from some unintelligible process is still present in that moment, and although s/he might not be communicating through any concrete language we are able to understand, the music that results has some metaphysical relationship to the here and now. The performer and the music is thus affected consciously or subconsciously to the context in which they appear. In electronic music’s natural habitat that context that is the club, or dance floor and thus live performances by electronic musicians, operate on a similar design to the DJ set. In the context of the club, the DJ set or the live performance becomes more than a performance of a previously recorded composition and elements like the audience, the dance floor and the soundsystem are all factored in to the music. Whether the artist is improvising on a composed piece of music or completely inventing a new composition within this context, elements like how many people are on the dance floor, the body language and even their own sonic signature are all processed through the performer and whether unconsciously or consciously, it will have an effect on the resulting music.
What does this have to do with 1840? Well, besides the fact that musicians and artists are “playing” their instruments in the presence of an audience, nothing really. We could argue that perhaps an orchestra performing in 1840 might even be more constricted by the composed piece than the freer electronic musician. A musician from 1840 is not only able to change the progression and the arrangement of the music anything quite like the modern electronic music artist, who is able change the sound of his instrument to a degree that would warrant a whole different instrument in the traditional sense. Even modern guitar bands, other than in the more experimental Jazz genres, aren’t much able to affect their instruments or their songs in quite the way an electronic music performer could reacting to the circumstances of the moment. Stefan Goldmann’s comment lingers either way and in 2018 where Jæger will be bringing a live act to accompany a DJ almost every weekend it might feel like 1840 again, albeit a revised, updated modern version of it everything from social media to the soundsystem playing their roles in the experience . Yes, live performances are definitely embedded in the modern zeitgeist as it was in the past, but in the age of the club and the DJ, they share an intricate relationship with the artist, the audience and the context, a relationship that’s never existed quite like this since man first pulled an animal skin over a hollowed tree trunk for the sake of entertaining the community.