Dead Music, Live

As I’m sure we’re all aware, playing electronic music live is often fraught with difficulties and conundrums: how do I recreate studio tracks, yet remain spontaneous? Should I even bother recreating studio tracks? How can I balance the familiar with the improvised? How can I be more interesting, visually? And that’s just the choices that will be reflected on stage. Never mind the logistical nightmares of hauling half your studio, fragile laptops, hardware synths, keyboards, and equipment stands around a foreign city without injuring yourself or your gear, getting lost, or getting stuff stolen.

Up until this point I’ve been playing live with a laptop, a copy of Ableton Live, and three small Faderfox controllers. They do their job nicely enough; Live allows me to recreate and remix tracks to a fair competency, without (so far) glitching and crashing all over the place (even on my aging IBM R40). The controllers afford a decent degree of flexibility with effects, recording and loop-launching. Yet it’s not the greatest visual spectacle ever bestowed upon the stage---that holy pulpit of ritual communication and adoring/abhorring feedback. Plus, it’s increasingly dull for me---never mind those unfortunate to have to stand there gazing at the back of my laptop, while their arm aches with the weight of a slowly-warming plastic pint. But as a one-man act it’s all I’ve got, all I can currently muster, and certainly all I can carry.

But it’s not good enough, so I’m putting live gigs on hold for the time being. The kind of music I write these days doesn’t especially lend itself to live performance anyway; refreshingly hype-free it may be, but ‘downtempo electronica’ is never going set hipsters’ diaries alight for the weekend. What’s becoming clear is I need some sort of ensemble to help me perform, and something that I can actually be a part of, rather than uncomfortably knob-twiddle, hunched behind a laptop or similar techo-fetishised contraption (I’m thinking bass guitar, perhaps). And as a side note, since when did ‘all-hardware’ set-ups become some sort of audience draw anyway? Pressing play on your Machine Drum can’t be that much more exciting than eliciting a MIDI start command from your controller, can it? Or am I missing the all-important blinking LED factor?

I was pleased to go and see Stars of the Lid play, quite a while back now, when they toured a limited number of venues in the UK---all of them churches, I think. This careful decision to tailor their environment to suit the music was probably the most crucial part of the gig. Not to suggest that the music wasn’t great---it was brilliant---but actually being able to sit down and listen to music in an environment not built for the sole-purpose of drinking and wildly flailing limbs (itself a problematic combination at the best of times), was what made the event essential, rather than merely worthwhile. Clearly aware of the incompatibility of performing ambient music in a bar or club, their decision to use the natural reverb in a church, unfettered by beats, was a masterstroke.

So to continue this public musing a little more, what should I do? I can either attempt to put together a small ensemble of people who are willing to do this with little-to-zero financial incentive (it was just about worthwhile on my own), in a venue that actually suits the music, or I could take the route others have taken, and realise it’s just not worth playing this live.

© 2002–2023 Christopher Leary
Header image: Understory cover art, by Guy Warley.