Making electronic music is a lot more like being a composer than playing in a band. In the studio, the producer designs the sounds, then arranges and tweaks the elements until they sit together just right. But instead of the more complex melodic and harmonic creativity found in classical music, electronic musicians tend to focus on innovating in areas like sound design, arrangement and rhythm. Unlike traditional composers, electronic musicians don’t have a conductor or orchestra to whom they can hand off the composition when it’s ready to perform. As a result, it can be a real challenge to turn music made electronically into a compelling live performance.
Back in the ’90s, electronic acts like Daft Punk and Roni Size/Reprazent performed live by bringing large swathes of their studios on the road with them. But the caravan approach was so cumbersome that only the biggest acts could afford to make it happen. It was much more common for electronic musicians to pack a bag of their favourite records – including their own productions – and tour as DJs, instead of trying to recreate their whole studio live.
Technology like Ableton Live changes the game
In 2001, the introduction of the computer program Ableton Live changed the game. It was the first easy-to-use software designed from the ground up as a hub for live shows. It possesses the capability not just to trigger audio elements for live performance, but also to rearrange them on the fly, and to act as a central brain for keeping multiple pieces of finicky gear playing locked together in time. Early adopters like Richie Hawtin and Akufen were among the first to put Ableton to use, employing it to do things like take songs in a different direction based on the mood of the crowd.
As is often the case with software, Ableton didn’t really become useful until several versions in, and only recently has it been joined by some well designed live performance controllers and competitors.
The end result of all this innovation is that we live in interesting times. Advances like digital DJ software and digital record shops like Boomkat and Beatport have made DJing easier to get into and more competitive than ever, raising the bar for compelling performances by dance producers. Technology has also opened up opportunities for electronic musicians to add more excitement and energy to their live performances via controllers that allow them to manipulate every part of a song at their fingertips, hybrid percussion instruments that can be played with the same visceral energy as traditional drums and next-generation light shows that are directly intertwined with the music itself. Our era feels a bit like the early days of jazz or rock ’n’ roll, when musicians were still experimenting and adapting their instruments to the sounds they had in their heads, and the template hadn’t yet been set in stone.
We’ve reached a point where the best electronic acts now rival traditional guitar-bass-drums lineups when it comes to putting on an emotionally gripping live show. Having myself witnessed live performances by Caribou, Azari & III and Machinedrum over the last twelve months that were as compelling as any rock concert I’ve ever seen, I’d venture we’re nearing a tipping point in the history of electronic music.
Maylee Todd, Neighbour, Nautiluss weigh in
To investigate further, I spoke with three performers who work with synthesized and sampled sounds in the studio, then translate those compositions into live performances. Toronto harpist and multi-instrumentalist Maylee Todd’s debut album employs more traditional instrumentation, but she started out making music by herself electronically, and her upcoming solo project Maloo is a return to those roots. Vancouver’s Neighbour incorporates live instruments into his DJ sets of disco, house and electro-funk, and he’s also part of a full live band called Red Light Quadrant. Montreal-to-Toronto transplant Nautiluss makes deep, tech-y dance music, and his live performances as a solo artist are a significant departure from his previous life in uptempo dance duo Thunderheist.
Nautiluss jumps on my hypothesis that live performance is significantly different from composing electronic music.
“Two totally different beasts,” he says. “The bottom line is not to try to perfectly recreate the songs, but rather to make unique live interpretations of them. It's almost like remixing my own music. I also think this adds a lot of value to the live performance, as it allows for a completely different experience. Case in point: my live version of “Bleu Monday” is actually better than the recorded version, in my opinion. I think it also speaks to the difference in how I write music versus a traditional band, where they’re pretty much configured the same way for both processes.”
Each of the artists I spoke with takes a markedly different approach to performing live. Neighbour’s skill with traditional instruments sees him playing live synthesizer and electric guitar – a type of performance that resonates with almost any crowd. Todd’s growing stage setup incorporates a looping pedal, sampler and synthesizer, but the core of her live show is a bright electronic instrument called the Tenori-on. She wields it as if it were a smaller, blinkier version of her other main instrument: the harp. While Todd’s singing, she uses the Tenori-on to trigger each section of the song in turn, a performance she likens to a pianist moving through the chords in a progression.
Nautiluss isn’t so interested in banging on drum pads or keyboards in his live performances. Instead, he prefers to alternate between tweaking the shape of his sounds in real time, directing changes in the arrangement and effects, and programming percussion parts on the fly.
As you’d expect in relatively uncharted territory, there are lots of ups and downs and lessons to be learned. Todd emphasizes that all her music benefits from having a foot in both worlds, because she learns things in each milieu that she can apply to the other.
Neighbour’s advice is more practical. He’s learned along the way that the KISS principle is in full effect: make sure your setup is easy to soundcheck, keep it compact, and “always have a plan B.”
Nautiluss has learned to thrive on the fact that the infinite possibilities of live performance mean there’s always a risk things will descend into total chaos.
“It's thrilling and terrifying,” he says. “And I think I miss that when I’m just DJing – the fact that some nights you can be really ‘on’ and the crowd is super into it, or you can totally bomb and people want to throw things at you.
“I think I totally get a some sort of natural high from that. To quote the late and great Kurt Vonnegut: ‘I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the centre.’”
Ian "Pho" Swain
on Apr 10, 2012