Stop Believing Your Eyes

The laptop musicians re-imagining live performance

Text by Ian Maleney

Illustrations by Kimberly Rabbitt

People always talk about going to see a band perform live. For many, the visual element of a live show can be just as important as the musical one, partly because they want to see what artists are capable of in the flesh, stripped of any potential recording studio trickery. To see an act live is to witness them at their most raw and authentic. You see the musician’s limbs move, hitting keys, strings or drums; you see their mouths opening and the words coming out. Each movement has a sound, a direct result and consequence.

When tape machines first began to appear on stages at the end of the 1950s, they heralded an erosion of this simple audio-visual relationship, as electro-acoustic composers tried to bring studio creations to life in public. Since then, the decline of traditional live instrumentation has accelerated exponentially with the advent of portable, powerful laptops, now used as a matter of course for all kinds of live music. The link between visual and aural stimuli has become less intuitive than ever: we simply cannot believe our eyes any more.

In the digital era, there is no way to repair the broken trust between eyes and ears; but might we be able to use this severed intuition to reimagine what the experience of live music can be? Technology has changed how we write and record: we may also need to redefine the standards by which we measure a performance. The question of what constitutes an “authentic” performance is especially fraught – and thus perhaps especially productive – in electronic and dance music, where the classic notion of the virtuoso has never held much sway.

Holly Herndon is a PhD candidate at Stanford University in California and an electronic musician who places the laptop at the heart of her music, both sonically and ideologically. Her music is rooted in an academic tradition, working at the cutting edge of computer composition. Offsetting this is the influence of club-ready techno, from which she draws hypnotic repetition and controlled blasts of chest-rattling beats. The human voice is key to the balance, allowing Herndon to create a cloud of shifting electronic noise around a personal, identifiable constant. The centrality of advanced technology to people’s daily lives – now that we spend most of our waking hours with laptops and smartphones – marks a new era, and our relationship with computers is what Herndon aims to explore.

“Often the first adaptation of technology tries to mimic the past,” she says. “It begins to get really interesting when it breaks from the past and develops a paradigm of its own. I’m interested in taking things wherever that might be.” Herndon’s calm stage presence is more in line with her classical education than with raving. She tries to subvert traditional expectations of performance, especially within a club environment. “Controllers are becoming more sophisticated, but more importantly people are questioning what it is that they want out of a live performance,” she says. “Perhaps gesture is overrated? Perhaps our needs as an audience are changing?”

The Sheffield-based musician Mark Fell seems to be asking similar questions; he has removed gesture from his performances entirely, refusing to interpret any element of the sound physically for the audience. Both in his solo work and as one half of SND with Mat Steel, Fell has generally concentrated on producing an unapologetically digital sound, a polyrhythmic assault of fragmented sonics: techno in shards. The rapid attack of the sound is at odds with Fell’s appearance on stage – an image of icy composure behind his laptop.

“Mat and I made a definite decision never to nod our heads on stage in time to music,” Fell said in a recent interview. “When we first started doing it, you kind of get into it, you start nodding your head, and it is a bit of a signal to the audience that the performers are enjoying it. But what’s going on in that kind of relationship? It’s like prompting the audience to respond in a certain way, or to have some assumptions about how we’re relating to the music.” Instead of delineating the experience for the crowd, Fell makes his performance exclusively aural. He deliberately inhabits the cliché of the laptop artist who appears to be checking his email – emphasising the impossibility of ever translating the computer’s hidden digital processes for an audience.

Unlike Fell, with his sharp sounds and static presence, the German producer Kassem Mosse arrives at his skewed version of classic techno by integrating vintage hardware with modern software to create an expansive, genuinely expressive stage setup. Improvisation is crucial to Mosse’s performances. His off-the-cuff jams, often using whatever combination of equipment is available on the night, resist the rigid, predetermined structures often associated with laptop performance, instead proving just how flexible and open-ended computers can be in a live setting.

In a 2011 interview, Mosse outlined his approach to improvisation in clubs: “I try to structure my live set in such a way that I can respond to what is happening and to each situation, because you never know what crowd you will get and what the space will be like.” Mosse’s improvised sets undercut prejudices on both sides of the hardware/software divide: they are as organic and spontaneous as anything achieved with hardware alone, yet they avoid falling into the well-worn tropes of overtly retro sounds or structures. Any notion of authenticity becomes irrelevant, as Mosse draws on the legacy of artists (and technologies) who have always sought to circumvent limitations. “Personally I’m so bored with the notion of authenticity and realness in electronic music,” Mosse says. “Please, leave that to rock.”

Most importantly, laptop performance engages with contemporary technology and frequently attempts to push the limits of what is possible today, rather than relying on a set of traditional values and easy reference points that help make the audience feel comfortable. There is the risk of creating confusion or alienation but, as in the case of Herndon, Fell and Mosse, the payoff can be immense. In abandoning pre-existing ideas of what counts as performance, artists can explore the new, unmapped areas where technology and expression meet. §

  • Stop Believing Your Eyes