Four Tet at work. Photo (CC-BY-ND) Jonathan Fisher/fishplums.

Four Tet at work. Photo (CC-BY-ND) Jonathan Fisher/fishplums.

Playing with laptops can become performative in conventional ways, just by adding instruments – voice, guitar, live drums, ukelele, or whatever it is you play. But it becomes more mysterious in the hybrid performance media that emerge from “playing” the arrangement directly, manipulating the larger bits of a track in the form of stems and samples. That can be really boring – the “press play” approach – or it can begin to embody an artist’s musical imagination. They can improvise with the composition.

You’ll want to make sure you don’t tune out early in this video with Four Tet, shot recently at Red Bull Music Academy in New York, or you’ll miss the good stuff. The UK artist begins in a conventional-enough way: he has his pre-made tracks divided into stems and triggers them in Ableton Live. If you’re a singer or instrumentalist, that would work fine as backing tracks; it’s when it becomes of a way of playing tracks back verbatim with nothing else that the “live set” can become bland.

But then things get a lot more interesting. Using some simple techniques for sampling loops, Four Tet uses external hardware to extend and transform the arrangement as it plays. There’s an unusual little loop sampler: a Cycloops / Red Sound C-Looper He makes heavy use of a BOSS Dr. Sample SP-303 (not the newer Roland SP-404 that I mistakenly saw originally. The SP-303 sees a button creatively misused as a gate. And finally, he also spends tome clicking around the UI with an old Windows laptop running CoolEdit. Nothing is terribly complicated, but these simple techniques make all the sounds more malleable, and it’s the way Four Tet plays them that makes them distinctively his.

If you keep watching, what may make Four Tet fans crack a smile is that the results become almost magically the sound of his productions – only improvised in live form.

A little secret, Mr. Tet: no, there isn’t actually this stuff hidden deep in Ableton Live, even when you do know how to use it. So, there’s no need to apologize for not looking deeper into Live. Yes, you could make something with Max for Live and the like, and actually, I imagine some Max patchers may be inspired by this setup. I’m not certain that matters either way, though; what does matter a lot is being able to have physical controls that externalize each of these techniques, whether that’s in the form of a controller or a netbook or a stomp pedal or a patch running on a Raspberry Pi.

But I imagine a lot of people will be inspired watching this video to try their own experimentation. And toward the end, he gets to why this matters: he needs this flexibility to respond to a crowd. That detail is what will always make performance human, whether they respond as a DJ, as a traditional musician, or as the new hybrids of composer, conductor, DJ, remix artist, and performer that computers can allow.


More sounds from Four Tet: