This is part two of a three part series on live Electronic music. To review part one, click here.
In the first part of this series,”Toward a Practical Language for Live Electronic Performance,” I established the language of variability as an index for objectively measuring the quality of musical performances. From this we were able to rethink traditional musical instruments as musical objects with variables that could be used to evaluate performer proficiency, both as a universal for the instrument (proficiency on the trumpet) and within genre and style constraints (proficiency as a Shrill C trumpet player). I propose that this language can be used to describe the performance of electronic music, making it easier to parallel with traditional western forms. Having proven useful with traditional instruments we’ll now see if this language can be used to describe the musical objects of electronic performance.
We’ll start with a DJ set. While not necessarily an instrument, a performed DJ set is a live musical object comprised of a number of variables. First would be the hardware. A vinyl DJ rig consists of at least two turntables, a mixer and a selection of vinyl. A CDJ rig uses two CD decks and a mixer. Serato and other vinyl controller software require only one turntable, a mixer and a laptop. Laptop mixing can be done with or without a controller. One could also do a cassette mix, reel to reel mix, or other hardware format mixing. Critical is a means to combine audio from separate sources into one uniform mix. Some of the other variables involved in this include selection, transitions and effects.
Because DJ sets are expected to be filled with pre-recorded sounds, the selection of sounds available is as broad as all of the sounds ever recorded. Specific styles of DJ sets, like an ambient DJ set, limit the selection down to a subset of recorded music. The choice of hardware can limit that even more. An all-vinyl DJ set of ambient music presents more of a challenge, in terms of selection, than a laptop set in the same style, because there are fewer ambient records pressed to vinyl than are available in a digital format.
Connected to selections are transitions, which could be said to define a DJ. When thinking of transitions there are two component factors: the playlist and going from one song to another. The playlist is obviously directly tied to the selection; however, even if you select the most popular songs for the style, unless they are put into a logical order, the transitions between them could make the set horrible.
One of the transitional keys to keeping a mix flowing is beat matching. In a turntable DJ set the beat mapping degree of difficulty is high because all of the tempos have to be matched manually by adjusting the speed of the two selections on the spinning turntables. When the tempos are synchronized, transitioning from one to the other is accomplished via a simple crossfade. With digital hardware such as the laptop, Serato and even CDJ setups, there is commonly a way to automatically match beats between selections. This makes the degree of difficulty to beat match in these formats much lower.
Effects, another variable, rely on what’s available through the hardware medium. With the turntable DJ set, the mixer is the primary source of effects and those until recent years have been limited to disc manipulation (e.g. scratching), crossfader, and EQ effects. Many of the non vinyl setups and even some of the vinyl setups now include a variety of digital effects like delay, reverb, sampler, granular effects and more.
With these variables so defined it becomes easier to objectively analyze the expressed variability of a live DJ set. But, while the variables themselves are objective, the value placed on them and even how they are evaluated are not. The language only provides the common ground for analysis and discussion. So the next time you’re at an event and the person next to you says, “this DJ is a hack!” you can say, “well they’ve got a pretty diverse selection with rather seemless transitions, maybe you just don’t like the music,” to which they’ll reply, “yeah, I don’t think I like this music,” which is decent progress in the scheme of things. If we really want to talk about live electronic performance however we will need to move beyond the DJ set to exemplify how this variable language can work to accurately describe the other musical objects which appear at a live electronic performance.
Take for example another electronic instrument: the keyboard. The keyboard itself is a challenging instrument to define; in fact I could argue that the keyboard is itself not actually an instrument but a musical object. It is a component part of a group of instruments commonly referred to as keyboards, but the keyboard itself is not the instrument. What it is is one of the earliest examples of controllerism.
On a piano, typically fingers are used to press keys on the keyboard, which trigger the hammers to hit the strings and produce sound. The range of the instrument travels seven octaves from A0 to C8, and can theoretically have 88 voice polyphony, though in typical that polyphony is limited to the ten fingers. It can play a wide range of dynamics and includes pedals which can be used to modify the sustainabilty of pitches. With a pipe organ, the keyboard controls woodwind instruments with completely different timbre, range, and dynamics; the polyphony increases and the foot pedals can perform radically different functions. The differences from the piano grow even more once we enter the realm where the term “keyboard,” as instrument, is most commonly used: the synthesizer keyboard.
The first glaring difference is that, even if you have an encyclopedia of knowledge about keyboard synthesizers, when you see a performer with one on stage you simply cannot know by seeing what sounds it will produce. Pressing the key on a synthesizer keyboard can produce an infinite number of sounds, which can change not just from song to song, but from second to second and key to key. A performer’s left thumb can produce an entirely different sound than their left index finger. Using a keyboard equipped with a sequencer, the performer’s fingers may not press any keys at all but can still be active in the performance.
When the keyboard synthesizer was first introduced, it was being used by traditional piano players in standard band configurations, like a piano or organ, with timbres being limited to one during a song and the performance aspect being limited to fingers pressing keys. Some keyboardists however used the instrument more as a bank for sound effects and textures. They may have been playing the same keys, but one wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear a I IV V chord progression. Rather than listening for the physical dexterity of the player’s fingers, the key to listening to a keyboard in this context was evaluating the sounds produced first and then how they were played to fit into the surrounding musical context.
Could one of these performers be seen as more competent than the other? Possibly. The first performer could be said to be one of the most amazing keyboard players in the piano player sense, but where they aren’t really maximizing the variability potential of the instrument, it could be said they fall short as a keyboard synthesizer performer. The second performer on the other hand may not even know what a I IV V chord progression is and thus be considered incompetent on the keyboard in the piano player sense, but the ways in which they exploit the variable possibilities shows their mastery of the keyboard synthesizer as an instrument.
While generally speaking there isn’t a set of variables which define the keyboard synthesizer as an instrument, if we think of the keyboard synthesizer as a group of musical instruments, each of the individual types of keyboard synthesizers come with their own set of fixed variables which can be defined. Many of these variables are consistent across the various keyboards but not always in a standard arrangement.
As such, while the umbrella term “keyboard” persists it is perhaps more practical to define the instruments and their players individually. There are Juno 60 players, ARP Odyessy players, MiniMoog players, Crumar Spirit players and more. Naturally an individual player can be well versed in more than one of these instruments and thusly be thought of as a keyboardist, but their ability as a keyboardist would have to be properly contextualized per instrument in their keyboard repertoire. Using the MiniMoog as an example we can show how its variability as an instrument defines it and plays into how a performance on the instrument can be perceived.
The first variable worth considering when evaluating the MiniMoog is that it is a monophonic instrument. This is radically different from the piano; despite one’s ability to use ten fingers (or other extremity) only one note will sound at one time. The keyboard section of the instrument is only three and a half octaves long, though the range is itself variable. On the left-hand side there is a pitch wheel and a modulation wheel. The pitch wheel can vary the pitch of the currently playing note, while the modulation wheel can alter the actual sound design.
As a monophonic instrument, one does not need to have both hands on the keyboard, as only one note will ever sound at a time. This frees the hands to modify the sound being triggered by the keyboard exemplified via the pitch and modulation wheels, but also available are all of the exposed controls for the sound design. This means that in performance every aspect of the sound design and the triggering can be variable. Of course these changes are limited to what one can do with their hands, but the MiniMoog also features a common function in analog synths, a Control Voltage input. This means that an external source can control either the aspects of the sound design and/or the triggering for the instrument.
Despite this obvious difference from the piano, playing the MiniMoog does not have to be any less of a physical act. A player using their right hand to play the keyboard while modulating the sound with their left, plays with a different level of dexterity than the piano player. The right and left hand are performing different motions; while the right hand uses fingers to press keys as the arm moves it up and down the keyboard, the left hand can be adjusting the pitch or modulation wheels with a pushing action or alternately adjusting the knobs with a turning action. Like patting your head and rubbing your belly, controlling a well-timed filter sweep while simultaneously playing a melody is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.
At the same time playing the MiniMoog doesn’t have to be very physical at all. A sequencer could be responsible for all of the note triggering leaving both hands free to modulate the sound. Similarly the performer may not touch the MiniMoog at all, instead playing the sequencer itself as an intermediary between them and the sound of the instrument. In this case the MiniMoog is not being used as a keyboard, yet it retains its instrument status as all of the sounds are being generated from it, with the sequencer being used as the controller. Despite not having any physical contact with the instrument itself, the performer can still play it.
Taking it one step further – if a performer were to only touch a sequencer at the start of the performance to press play and never touch the instrument, could they still be said to be playing the MiniMoog live? There is little doubt that the MiniMoog is indeed still performing because it does not have the mechanism to play by itself, but requires agency to illicit a sonic response. In this example that agency comes from the sequencer, but that does not eliminate the performer. The sequencer itself has to be programmed in order to provide the instrument with the proper control voltages, and the instrument itself has to be set up sonically with a designed sound receptive to the sequencer’s control. If the performer is not physically manipulating either device however, they are not performing live, the machines are.
From this we can establish the first dichotomy of electronic performance; the layers of variability in an electronic performance can be isolated into two specific categories: physical variability and sonic variability. While these two aspects are also present in traditional instrument performance, they are generally thought to not be mutually exclusive without additional devices. The vibrato of an acoustic guitar is only accomplished by physically modulating the strings to produce the effect. With an electronic instrument however, vibrato can be performed by an LFO controlling the amplitude. That LFO can be controlled physically but there does not have to be a physical motion (such as a knob turn) associated with it in order for it to be a live modulation or performance. The benefit of it running without physical aid is that it frees up the body to be able to control other things, increasing the variability of the performance.
In a situation where all of the aspects of the performance are being controlled by electronic functions, the agency in performance shifts from the artist performing live, to the artists establishing the parameters by which the machines perform live. Is the artist calling this a live performance a hack? Absolutely not, but it’s important that the context of the performance is understood for it to be evaluated. Like evaluating the monophonic MiniMoog performer based on the criteria of the polyphonic pianist, evaluating a machine performance based on physical criteria is unfair.
In the evaluation of a machine performance, just as with a physical one, variability still plays an important role. At the most base level the machine has to actually be performing and this is best measured by the potential variability of the sound. This gets tricky with digital instruments, as, barring outside influences, it is completely possible to repeat the exact same performance in the digital domain, so that there is no variation between each iteration. But even such cases with a digital sequencer controlling a digital instrument, with no physical interaction, are still a machine performances; they just exhibit very little variability. The performance aspect of the machine only disappears when the possibility for variability is completely removed, at which point the machine is no longer a performance instrument but a playback device as is the case with a CD player playing a backing track. The CD player if not being manipulated physically or by an external control is not a performance instrument as all of the sound contained within it can only be heard as one fixed recorded performance, not live. It is only when these fixed performances are manipulated either physically (ie a DJ set) or by other means, that they go from fixed performances to potentially live ones.
From all of this we arrive at four basic distinctions for live electronic performances:
• The electro/mechanical manipulation of fixed sonic performances
• The physical manipulation of electronic instruments
• The mechanized manipulation of electronic instruments
• A hybrid of physical and mechanized manipulation of electronic instruments
These help set up the context for evaluating electronic performances, as before we can determine the quality of a performance we must first be able to distinguish what type of performance we are observing. So far we’ve only dealt with a monophonic instrument, but even with its limitations can see how the potential variability is quite high. As we get into the laptop as a performance instrument that variability increases exponentially.
This is part two of a three part series. In the next part we will begin to exemplify the laptop as performance instrument, using this language to show the breadth of variability available in electronic performance and perhaps show that indeed, where that variability continues to be explored, there is merit to the potential of live electronic music as an extension of jazz.
Native Frequencies at the Trocadero 2013, Featured Image Courtesy of Raymond Angelo (C)
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer, technologist and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He is a regular guest contributor to the Create Digital Music website, and maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta is a regular presenter for the Rhythm Incursions Podcast series with his show RIPL. As an artist, he is a founding member of the live electronic music collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Experiments in Agent-based Sonic Composition–Andreas Pape
Sound as Art as Anti-environment–Steven Hammer
*a companion piece of this research, on electronic sounds as lively individuals, is forthcoming in the American Quarterly special issue on sound, September 2011.
Not long ago, while researching the history of synthesized sound—or taking a break to troll for interesting synthesizers for sale online (activities that, for me, inevitably blend together)—I came across a thriving industry of small companies that offer custom-made wood panels to adorn the sides of old and new synths, like Synthwood, Custom Synths, Analogics, and MPCStuff.
As Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco note in Analog Days, their history of Moog synthesizers, an “analog revival” is underway: “Today in the digital world, there is a longing to get back to what was lost” (9). The music technology magazine Sound on Sound concurs, documenting a renewed interest among electronic music-makers in modular synthesizers like those popularized by Moog and others in the late-1960s. Yet there seems to be more at play with this proliferation of wood customizations than merely nostalgia for analog synths, Hammond organs, and hi-fi cabinetry. How might we interpret this desire to adorn—lovingly, even obsessively—steel-encased machines that produce sound by electronic means, with various species of wood? What does this realm of audio esoterica reveal about material and social aspects of musical instruments, and the workings of contemporary media cultures more broadly?
On Contingency and Faith: Walnut, Purple Felt, and the True Cross
Pinch and Trocco describe the Minimoog as the first synthesizer to become a “classic,” due to its relative ease of use, widespread availability, portability and compact design (214). In the retrospective imaginations of historians and musicians, a significant feature that established its classic design was the walnut wood case on an early generation of Minimoog models.
However, Bill Hemsath, an engineer who assembled the first Minimoog prototypes in 1969-70, told Pinch and Trocco that these instruments were assembled from “junk I found in the attic” and an assortment of affordable materials cobbled together in the moment (214). Jim Scott, another engineer who worked on developing the Minimoogs, explained in a 1997 interview: “the reason we made it walnut [was] because Moog had gotten a deal someplace and had a whole barnful.” He noted that “the musicians certainly appreciated the fact that it was made out of walnut,” but eventually the designers “ran out of walnut and started buying something else and slapping paint on it to make it look like walnut.” The various kinds of wood used on models from different years, and the exact start and end dates of the coveted walnut models, remain contested matters among Moog enthusiasts.
Hemsath elaborated on this history in a 1998 interview by making an analogy to “classic” piano design: “There’s a similar story from Steinway. Back when they first got started in the U.S. they used to buy their felts from a feltmaker in Paris… And they got a lot of purple felt because [the supplier] used to be the felt maker for Napoleon’s army, and had a lot left over. So the colored cores in the hammers of those old Steinways were purple because of Napoleon’s army. Well, [the supplier] ran out, and [Steinway] said, red’s fine. They started making pianos with red felt, which is what they have today, and people started complaining, saying, it’s not a real Steinway, it’s not purple.” Like the proverbial purple felt on original Steinway pianos, walnut panels on synthesizers became “classic” because of their association with an originary moment, however happenstance, in the history of a particular instrument, and a limited supply and production run that rendered the material in question relatively rare.
So, a contemporary synthesizer enthusiast’s desire to acquire a “classic” walnut Minimoog, or to commemorate its aesthetic with customized wood panels, is in part an effort to establish a material connection to history. Synthesizer history unfolds in the deep time of technoscience which, as Donna Haraway has argued, often “barely secularize[s]” Judeo-Christian narratives of first and last things, of figural anticipation and fulfillment (9-10). The concern among some synthesizer enthusiasts to possess either the actual wood of an early-model Minimoog, or a faithful substitute for it, indeed resonates with Christian material cultures around relics of the True Cross and next-best artifacts with suitable provenance. A historical conjuncture that is contingent on otherwise unremarkable circumstances (e.g., Bob Moog’s good deal on a barnful of walnut in upstate New York) is marked as an originary or otherwise defining moment (the “invention” of a “classic” synthesizer) for a culture that defines itself as proceeding from it; the former is made to anticipate the latter, and the latter comes to fulfill the former.
Taking Stock: Materialities of Instruments, Sounds, Ecosystems
What kind of wood panels live in my studio? The manual to my Jomox XBase 09 drum machine, from 1999, details that its “steel sheet body” is bookended by “varnished side panels made of alder wood.” Wikipedia‘s pop-anthropological roundup of alder’s “use by humans” includes smoking various foods, treating skin inflammations and tumors, and building electric guitars. Fender Stratocasters have been built with alder since the 1950s. Guitar enthusiasts are notoriously fussy about which type of wood comprises the instrument’s body because of its effect on tone. Scientists, meanwhile, have taken to applying medical imaging techniques to Stradivarius violins, trying to “crack the mystery” of its prized tone. (Some say it’s due to the particular density of slow-growing trees in the Little Ice Age; others conclude it must be the varnish.)
Given these interconnected concerns with instrument materials and the composition of tone, one might venture an etymological connection between timbre—which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as the character or quality of a musical sound depending upon the instrument producing it—and timber, which references “the matter or substance of which anything is built up or composed.” Music scholars often characterize timbre as the materiality of sound. Despite longstanding knowledge of the relationships of timber and timbre among instrument builders and musicians, and possible overlaps in historical applications of these words, placing wood panels on the sides of synthesizers surely has no effect on the resulting tone. Or does it? Audiophiles are prone toward occult-like habits, such as placing a single coin on top of a speaker to absorb vibration; and wood panels may well have subtle effects on the overall stability of an electronic instrument, resulting in barely perceptible sonic artifacts.
My Virus B synthesizer from the late-1990s has darker wood side panels than the Jomox, sort of a faux mahogany. Recently I wrote to Access Music, explaining my research on synthesizer history and inquiring what kind of wood they used. They replied that the B series featured stained beech wood (also commonly used and appreciated for producing smoked German beers and cheeses). Virus volunteered that they “in general do not use any kind of tropical wood for our devices.” Using sustainable wood has become a mandate and marketing concern at the Moog company as well; Moog’s wood “comes primarily from Tennessee. Hardwoods in Tennessee are growing faster than they are being harvested… US hardwoods are a world-wide model of sustained forest management.” Among contemporary synthesizer companies, there is often a selective eco-consciousness; as synthesizer designer Jessica Rylan suggested in our interview for Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Duke: 2010), it is arguably impossible to build a synthesizer that does not incorporate at least some materials that are toxic in stages of manufacturing and/or disposal.
The paradox of dressing up an electronic machine made partly of toxic materials and processes with a sustainable-wood exterior is a fitting metaphor—like a contemporary fig leaf—for how we outwardly express environmentalist concern, despite plenty of contradictions in practice. Wood-adorned electronic devices, in all their glorious contradictions, are especially resonant in this cultural moment; see Asus’s EcoBook, Karvt’s lineup of custom wood skins for MacBooks, and, my favorite, Flashsticks: handmade wood USB “sticks” that combine “the high tech world of computing with the simplicity of the world of nature.” The story of Flashsticks’ handmade creation is a case study in eco-contradiction: the website implies that no trees were harmed in the making of their USB sticks—the company uses locally-sourced, “fallen wood from the previous winter’s storms”—yet we do not hear of the toxic materials that may comprise the drive itself.
Wood panels indeed work to conceal inconvenient truths. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan pointed out, the midcentury aesthetic of hiding household appliances behind wood paneling typified a culture that concealed gendered divisions of domestic labor (205). Lisa Parks has documented the similar recent phenomenon of dressing up cell towers as trees, which obscures the politics of media infrastructure behind a cloak of “nature.”
This is also a story about the mirage of a space between nature and artifice. Retro-culture enthusiasts celebrate that “real cars have fake wood paneling.” Meanwhile, a company called iBackwoods has engineered a “real wood” iPhone case that pays tribute to “timeless style of a wood panel station wagon.” Moog’s new Filtatron application for iPad, a software emulation of the company’s Moogerfooger filter pedal, is rendered authentic by its virtual wood panels. All of these examples reveal the “nature” of wood paneling to be cultural all the way down.
Ultimately, wood paneling might prompt us to recognize the interconnectedness among seemingly divergent materials, environments, and social practices. Consider, as a useful comparison to the climate-forged Stradivarius, the ash baseball bat: cherished by players for its “magical” effects on hitting, and now threatened by a warming climate and killer beetle in its source forests in Pennsylvania. Every synthesizer likewise holds and explodes into an ecosystem, and sometimes sounds like one too. The composer Mira Calix has suggested that analog synthesizers, with their individual quirks that increase with age, are much like wooden instruments; both seem to breathe like “little creatures” and take on a unique character, like a human voice. Our synthesizers, our kin.