Hey nerdboy, you suck! A brief consideration of laptop gigs.

Monday 31 August 2015

(The original version of this text was written for the Collected Collaborations show at Monash University Museum of Art in 2011.)

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 avoided giving live performances with computers for many years.

Of course, with most experimental musicians being awkward, poorly-socialised geek boys, your typical underground 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 (but not dramatic) element of new music performance don’t get discussed much. I was once on a panel talk with several other experimental musicians, 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 from, 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 flailing or histrionics, I’m talking about the performer affirming a physical presence in relation to the audience.

String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) was the first piece I performed live on a laptop computer. My gestures in playing this piece emphasised how little movement or exertion is needed to play on a computer, moving attention instead to concentration and decisiveness. Since then, I’ve treated the computer as a “black box” which performs autonomously. My contribution as a performer is through an analogue component of the performance setup.

I’m now learning to use a MIDI controller to have some input with this autonomous, computerised system. The trick is for me to make it a reactive interface: instead of determining the attributes of the music, I can only respond to situations presented by the computer. The intention is to make the performer’s role closer to that of a listener.

There is also the question of how the performer may interact with the controls. This is a major consideration for Tom Mudd’s Control installation, to which I have contributed a composition and which opens next week. I’ll talk about this issue in my next post.