Thursday, February 22, 2007

the closed laptop pt. 0: a cautionary tale of performance practice

I’m taking a little detour from the bread and butter subject matters of this blog, and having a look at laptop computers in the context of live, and, in particular, improvised, performance.

Before I start, as my position is partial, and by no stretch of the imagination ‘objective’, let me sketch out a few background details. I’m a guitar player—an improviser. Nine times out of ten, that’s my identity (function, assignment, designation) on stage. On the other hand, I have worked around, from, and within, the loosely defined field that enrolls laptops for live, music performance. I’ve intersected with these practices long enough to witness various monikers and prefixes—‘plunderphonics’, ‘EAI’, ‘new media’—come onto the scene, and others—‘live’, ‘real-time’, ‘interactive’, ‘new media’—fall out of favor. I’ve performed several times with laptopiteers. I’ve even sat behind a laptop on stage a few times, although not recently (and if you think I have an axe to grind, maybe it’s in my self-conscious abandonment of that last position).
However, I feel alienated from performances with laptops on stage despite (or maybe because of) my background—my prior experience, my prior contact, with these practices.

There’s two issues I will be hovering around in my discussions (I’ve already posted a version of these, and they originally started in discussions with AF):

  1. The laptop interface encourages a narcissistic attitude.
  2. Significant fraction of laptop performers are interested in computer science issues at the expense of issues of culture, tradition, stage presence, or the body and the corporeal.
Okay, let me unpack these a bit….
  1. That clam-shell interface was designed to create a virtual, private office space in, say, a semi-public airplane seat. That's not an inescapable or inevitable position, but very few laptopiteers are either aware of this, nor are they actively deconstructing it. Which is related to point B.
  2. Okay, this is a caricature: you cannot neatly separate the technical, on the one hand, from these other issues. This dualism, however, underpins much of laptopping. And, although I'm very much interested in the technological, to simply transpose that into performance space (the concert hall, the club) leaves a lot to be desired.
Combining, A and B, I find, as an audience member or performer, the whole experience problematic. I don’t believe laptopping to be a unique case, but I think it is an example that starkly demonstrates the problems of performance practice and audience engagement. As a cautionary tale of technological music practice, it's interesting and instructive.

To be continued…


Good Times said...

Here's a question, and it really is a question: Who is the "John Coltrane" of the Laptop? Who is really really kicking ass in the world of lap-top music/improvisation?

the improvising guitarist said...

Who is really really kicking ass in the world of lap-top music/improvisation?”

And that’s a really good question. Let’s break that down: How would you recognize a kick ass improvisation with a laptop? What are the characteristics, gestures, events that (could possibly) signal something special, unexpected or outstanding happened in a laptop-based performance? And I suppose the question I’m circling towards is that last one.
I hope to address your question eventually by, after discussing some problems with laptops in performance, looking at a few promising strategies and tactics that some practitioners have come up with.
Thanks for the question—do you have any potential answers?

S, tig

Good Times said...

How would I recognize a kick ass improvisation with a laptop?

How I would recognize it is one question is how and what 'they' consider to be a kick ass improvisation. Who, according to them is leading the (their) way? "Take me to their leader" so to speak.

I say this not to be a wise ass (for once) but actually out of an honest, genuine curiosity. Certainly there is a fascination, and certainly those 'musicians' who 'play' the laptop can't all be unmusical dolts, right?

No potential answers here. I'm asking!

the improvising guitarist said...

…my question is how and what 'they' consider to be a kick ass improvisation. Who, according to them is leading the (their) way?

Okay, I understand. That’s a good question, but not one I feel able to tackle (especially since I do not occupy that position behind the laptop). I’m pretty much in your situation in regards to this question (i.e. I have no idea), but I have an inkling that there may be one or two laptopiteers lurking here…

…certainly those 'musicians' who 'play' the laptop can't all be unmusical dolts, right?

No, of course not… but, anecdotally, let me tell you about a colleague of mine, who I think is a fine improviser and pianist, and who, when they sit behind a laptop, transforms into something other than a fine improviser….

S, tig