Live Performance Investigations, Part 1

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After a night of experimental music, I find myself actively mulling over the direction my own next performance step will take. 

For the last while I’ve been intrigued by grid controllers, especially the Ableton Push, which allow for a great deal of live sound triggering & manipulation. Essentially, as I realize, these tools are a bridge between the studio and the stage, allowing producers to take their work to a live setting. Ableton has done a very respectable job in creating a tool that has some instrumental capabilities beyond simply triggering sounds, and I believe they deserve to be applauded for that.

What got the wheels turning for me this evening was a music performance featuring two incredible musicians - one of whom was using a grid controller and laptop, and the other one playing an acoustic guitar and analogue synth through an array of pedals and other processing wizardry.

I came away with the following:

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  1. The performative aspect is crucial to live performance. It may only be a matter of accepted tradition that we regard the pressing of metal strings or plastic black-and-white rectangles to be musicianship, but watching someone play even an incredibly repetitive part on a guitar has something in the way of a gesture which I find important. Turning knobs or touching coloured silicon pads doesn’t amount to much more than programming a computer in front of an audience.
  2. It’s important to have elements which can foster the unexpected. In the traditional grid controller model, sounds are preloaded and can perhaps be triggered and combined in an interesting manner, but the possibilities for improvisation are fairly limited. The guitar on the other hand is composed of 40 some-odd notes that can be strung together in unexpected combinations, allowing the musician to ride unexpected waves, as they appear. I suppose that having a repertoire of something at one’s fingertips is all that matters, and in my traditional guitarist’s mindset, having notes is a logical solution.
  3. Some sorts of music seem better suited for the studio, while others seem better suited for the stage. Just because there’s a blazing record made doesn’t mean it’ll translate to live performance, and just because something is incredible in a live setting doesn’t mean it’ll translate to record very well. I had this experience with an incredible showcase by Constellation Records recently. One of their artists has an amazing album, yet the show was a slightly boring. It felt canned. Another band had an absolutely blistering performance, but their album wasn’t quite the same. And unsurprisingly, the former was more of producer-taking-his-album-live, while the latter was band-getting-snapshot-of-a-live-show. I’m not quite sure where these two meet. I’m also not sure if the spot where they do meet, whether it’s a great one, or simply a mediocre one.

In any case, these are some observations I’ve made this evening, which hopefully can inform my next step in performing. I miss it dearly, but I also have challenges which I’m aiming to overcome with the technology, tools, and expectations we have at our disposal. We shall see and hear where this goes.