Wednesday, March 28, 2007

the closed laptop pt. 1: i/o? what i/o?

Continued from part 0….

Leaving aside the issue of narcissism for the moment, what is it that you witness at a laptop performance? What does it mean to ‘perform’ in this context?

…In live [electro-acoustic] performance situations, most people in audiences are not clear what us happening when a performer plays a [MIDI] controller. Most listeners, I believe, actually suppose that what they are hearing is an instrument in the traditional sense. They watch the performer, they experience the action/response phenomena, and they imagine that what they see is what they hear.
Schrader (1991), p. 101
Barry Schrader was writing this in a techno-historical moment before software plugins (VST, b. 1996), when sampling, on the whole, was done at resolutions coarser than 16-bits, and live computer music, more often than now, entailed the use of ‘alternative’ MIDI controllers (remember those?). Despite this technological distance from our current practices, similar issues, I think, are relevant to laptop performances. Specifically, the issue of decoupling bodily gesture and sound production: what you see is not what you hear.

Having not been paying much attention to laptop-based performance for a little while, one of the thing that struck me about the laptopping I’ve witnessed over the past few months was the familiarity of the sound manipulation techniques (reverse, vari-speed, splice, granulation, etc). We’ve increasingly grown accustomed to these techniques from, say, the sound effects of fantastical cinema, trip-hop, or experimental rock productions, but, in the case of laptop performance, the results are, at least to me, oddly alienating. While, on the one hand, there’s a sonic familiarity, there’s a gestural alienation.
This strikes me as almost the reverse effect of a prepared piano or turntablism. In the case of the prepared piano, for example, gestural familiarity (pianist at the keyboard) is coupled to sonic novelty (well, that doesn’t sound like a piano). A (pleasurable?) schism exists because the stimulus and response don’t quite match up.

Just Outside asked about the relative unpopularity of EAI and related musics in comparison to the (postulated) corresponding visual arts. Although laptopping constitutes only a part of EAI and related musics, I think it may be instructive in this discussion. In particular, much of the visual art cited leaves intact the methods, techniques and media—paint, brush and canvas. The shock of the new, in this context, is in the form, the encoding, the process. A gallery goer will have no difficulty trying to figure out the hows or whats of artistic practice. What EAI does, in a sense, is the opposite.
Let’s sketch-out this, as Schrader calls it, action/response mechanism: in acoustic/mechanical performance, there’s a relatively close coupling of action and response in sound production. Pluck a string on a chordophone, and you get a certain class of sound. Even mechanical mediations (the key-hammer-and-damper-string mechanism of the piano, for example) are largely fixed, simple and/or culturally coded. However complex the action/response mechanism, audiences can, with experience, come to learn these (the piano, for example, has an idiot’s interface: left side of keyboard = bass, right side = treble; play lighter = quiet, play heavier = loud).
However, with electronics, and with software mediation in particular, the practitioners (software engineers) gain the ability to more-or-less arbitrarily hook-up action and response. From an audience’s perspective, the action/response mechanism becomes, at best, obtuse.
Okay, but what does this alienation from action/response have to do with alienation in general?
If, having learned the sound of a saxophones via the official Berkelee team, you hear a saxophonist sound like a hair-dryer there’s a possibility of a terrible / unpleasant / joyous / mind-expanding / life-changing surprise. Someone turns a soprano sax the ‘wrong’ way ’round: you don’t know what to expect. On the other hand, someone moves a MIDI slider, hits a QWERTY key, taps on a trackpad, or any number of gestures, you have no (low-level mechanical) expectations, so how can you be surprised.
The problem, in a sense, is not that ‘what you see is not what you hear’, but that the relationship between what-you-see and what-you-hear is being reeingineered (arbitrarily?) before your eyes and ears. Which is all fine—a potential source of interesting and creative contradictions—but how can we, in this context, develop connoisseurship?

What amplifies (or, depending on you point of view, exacerbates) this alienation in laptop performance is that the audience is inanimate. Contrary to the club in which the ‘audience’ is in motion—in full-bodied dance—much laptopping takes the concert recital as its model (albeit with some of the visual trapping of the club). What does this model (captive/captivating) mean in the context of gestural alienation? What does it mean that the audience is (expected to be) disembodied (‘all ears’) while the performers arbitrarily re-map bodily actions to sounds (effortless, virtual exploration of sounds).
Since I’ve written elsewhere about bodies, performance and the ‘music itself’, I won’t go into much more detail here but to say that this dislocation of gesture and sound ultimately leads to the amplification in importance of the ‘music itself’.
As each discouragement draws the listener’s identification away from the physical, it directs it towards the imaginative mastery of all possible combinations embodied by ‘the music itself’. Socially mobile, freed from physical work, seeming to encompass all possibilities in a unified whole… a sonic experience of the middle-class self.
Cusick (1999), p. 495.
Too often in electro-acoustics practice is one of the last considerations; bodies are one of the least concerns; and audience is a canvas or recipient—an after thought.

To be continued…


Cusick, Suzanne (1999), ‘Gender, Musicology, and Feminism’ in Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (eds) Rethinking Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Schrader, Barry (1991), ‘Live/Electro-Acoustic Music—a Perspective from History and California’, Contemporary Music Review (vol. 6 pt. 1).


Dan said...

Interesting discussion. I remember the first laptop performance I went to, and being underwhelmed by exactly that: the lack of actual performance. I was particularly struck by one performer whose music resembled white noise and it was so quiet that I could hear him crinkling the aluminum of his PBR beer can over the sound of the "music."

I have a good friend who's a laptop performer who regularly performs alongside video projections he creates. It takes the visual focus away from him, adds some visual context to his sounds and creates more of a cinematic experience. I find it compelling.

the improvising guitarist said...

I remember the first laptop performance I went to, and being underwhelmed by exactly that: the lack of actual performance.

That’s a great formulation. I don’t know if you meant that to be funny, but the oxymoronic punch-line brought a smile to my face.

It takes the visual focus away from him, adds some visual context to his sounds and creates more of a cinematic experience.

Yup, that’s always an option: throw up visuals that amp-up the artifice of the performance… but this to some extent bypasses the problem of the lack of a action/response mechanism. Not that that’s a bad thing to do, but I stick by what I said in regards to this broken action/response mechanism—“a potential source of interesting and creative contradictions”—I do believe that. We may well be on the cusp of a different kind of performance practice—a redefinition of what it might mean to ‘perform’—but what disappoints me in this regard is that too many laptopiteers ignore that something odd is happening, and are consequently unable, or unwilling, to (self-consciously) engage with the socio-cultural dimensions of their practice.

Thanks for the comment.

S, tig

the improvising guitarist said...

BTW, Dan, do you use laptops on stage?

S, tig

Dan said...

That’s a great formulation. I don’t know if you meant that to be funny, but the oxymoronic punch-line brought a smile to my face.

Indeed I's always nice when the tone actually makes it through the text!

I agree with your thoughts on the performance aspect though. There's times when it almost seems voyeuristic.

Personally, I don't use a laptop on stage. I'm not against it I just haven't integrated it into my practice. I've gone from a huge setup with tons of effects to going straight into an amp, occasionally using an EQ boost. I've seen George Lewis use a laptop with the Voyager/piano system, but in his settings the the laptop was a musical equal, an improvising partner, rather than an instrument.

There's also a whole interesting angle and discussion about the future of organology relating more to software than to any physical entity identifiable as an instrument.