Oven-Garde: Lap-toppers can dance

Bruce Mowson

When is live, live? If it’s not live, is it dead? Can it be half-live? How much equipment can be used before it’s dead? These are questions arising from contemporary music/sound performance. Stelarc provokes considerations of ‘the body’ against ‘the machine’ in an obvious visual way—with half a ton of metal hanging off him. Musicians, however, have been sonic cyborgs since the coming of electronics to sound. With the current popularity of laptop computers as instruments, the divide between the performer’s body and the sounds produced is emphasised. Like the mouth and eyebrows of a guitar player which dynamically narrate the ‘hotness factor’ of the sounds at hand, the nostrils and corners of the eyes of lap-toppers dance a funky beat to the shifts of their controller data.

Melbourne digital media artist SEO (Jeremy Yuille) uses a games joystick to control the sounds coming from his laptop. The set-up includes the laptop on a music stand at about stomach height, and Jeremy standing about arm’s length behind it. Using the joystick as an interface allows his body, rather than just fingertips, to be involved in the performance. Jeremy’s face is alive with concentration: reading his controls on the screen and reacting to the sound from the PA. He shifts from one stance to another, moving with a slow grace. The scale of the movement is reduced—down from the 100% physicality of a drummer or dancer to a more subtle 10%, but the body moving with the music none-the-less.

Traditionally, musical energy flows from bodies. But with computers “you can just hit return and have 16 channels of anything” (Violinist Jon Rose, in Andrew Beck, “totally huge: it’s what you do with it”; RT # 43 p39). Taking this to an extreme is a Merzbow performance— Masami Akita seated calmly behind Powerbook, his mouse-hand twitching as if he is playing Pac-Man, as the audience is practically eviscerated by a barrage of searing white noise. Hrvatski, a U.S. drill and bass producer, admitted that his role when playing ‘live’ is to hit ‘play’ and ‘stop’ at the start and end of each song. During his set at the 2001 Electrofringe Festival, he jumped into the audience to dance to his own music. This kind of makes him a DJ. Putting electronic and particularly computer-based performers on a continuum with DJs is important in understanding what is going on in contemporary music performance.

The DJ has been accused of being an overpaid prima donna (the same accusation levelled at conductors), stealing the glory from the people who ‘actually make the music.’ They portray, however, a realistic relationship between technology, the audience and the performer. 99% of the music we hear is recorded, and the role of humans playing live is both optional and discontinuous—present in the same way the violinmaker is present in a recital.

Bands are the worst offenders, cherishing the live performance, the direct connection between their soul and the audience; but happily using pick-ups and mikes, effects pedals, amps, compressors (etc ad infinitum) and the PA —all of which is conceived and performed by faceless sound engineers. (To come clean here, my other life was as a faceless sound engineer). Who is ‘the Band’ trying to fool with its ‘honest’ live performance using ‘no digital sequencing devices’ (‘Area 7’, 1999) or ‘studio trickery’. If you want live, go busking.

SEO (Jeremy Yuille), Oven-Garde, Melbourne, April 1. Oven-Garde is a performance series held on the first Monday of the month at the Builders Arms Hotel, Melbourne, and is presented by the tRansMIT sound collective.

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. web

1 June 2002