Live from the Rockin’ Air-Laptop World Championship!

Thursday 26 July 2007

First, I want to thank whoever it was who once perfectly described laptop performers as having the stage presence of “bored men checking their email”. This is one of the more important reasons why I have avoided giving live performances with computers – up until now.
Of course, experimental musicians mostly being awkward, poorly-socialised geek boys, your typical undergorund new music gig wasn’t much livelier before computers became affordable, but at least the equipment available at the time enforced a certain minimum of onstage activity.
The role and aesthetics of the theatrical* element of new music performance don’t get discussed much. I was on a panel talk with several other musicians a few years ago, which drifted onto this topic and stayed there for the rest of the session. Nothing much was agreed, except that there are no real models to work off, and everyone has to pretty much work out their own methods for themselves. And, more importantly, that VJs are a blight upon the earth.
What was most interesting to learn was that so many musicians, even though you wouldn’t think it to watch them, are conscious of the visual aspect of their gigs. They may also, however, be at a loss as to what they can do to help it.
Is there a way to be theatrically engaging while using a laptop? I don’t necessarily mean dramatic gestures or histrionics, I’m talking about the performer affirming a physical presence in relation to the audience. This weekend I’m going to make my first attempt at a live, public performance on laptop. Without using any additional equipment, I’m working with a simple interface designed to focus both mine and the audience’s attention away from the screen, onto what performance gestures I might make.
My gestures emphasise how little movement or exertion is needed to play on a computer. My role in the piece is cast more as a listener than as a performer, so my interface setup needs only very small, infrequent actions (any more spoils the music), and has been intentionally saddled with a very slow response time, so that any action I take has to be very deliberate and carefully considered. If I have to sit still for half an hour, I want to imbue that stillness with concentration, not passivity.

* Theatre, not drama.