For many of us, there’s a special pleasure to seeing someone play live – and dancing to someone playing live.
And by “live,” I don’t mean “a bunch of your tracks cued up as scenes in Ableton Live or on an Elektron.” I mean genuinely improvised.
Electronic dance music naturally lends itself to on-the-spot creation. A rigid grid, easily-understood conventions around instrumentation and form, and the fact that styles like techno are built around machines all add up to natural experimentation.
Yet, oddly, it seems there’s a lot more discussion around DJ technique than there is around live technique, especially when it comes to playing with machines. And that’s not to say DJing can’t be performative, creative, and spontaneous. But there is some logic behind labeling certain sets “live” – and expecting that they won’t feature pre-recorded track materials in the same way.
With that in mind, I’m constantly on the hunt for good live acts. A lot of these are experienced in the dark, with no cameras in sight. Even audio recordings often suffer from glitches. (Batteries died. Levels were set wrong. Someone forgot to hit record.) And maybe that’s a good thing – electronic music and acoustic music alike benefit from some awareness that you had to be there.
But we do need some evidence that this is going on. And I think music made for dancefloors and clubs deserve that awareness as much as music made for concerts and experimental venues. (Indeed, whereas these once catered to very different audiences, now the interests go increasingly hand in hand.)
So, I hope this will also be a frequent feature on CDM (experimental-ish to dance-ish to whatever). Here are some recent finds – all of them people I’ve had the pleasure to see (and sometimes know) in person, too.
With shows like Boiler Room focusing more on DJs than live, it’s actually hard to find a whole lot of this stuff – harder than I thought. But that’s slowly changing, and I’m indebted here (and got on this kick) thanks to a great video series from RA at Dimensions this year. I could do without all the crowd shots, but that’s just me.
Who: Underground Resistance
Hails from: Detroit
When and where: Dimensions in Croatia, this year
Gear: Easier to list what isn’t there than what is. Synths, keys, machines… saxophone!
Takeaway: Don’t believe dance music has some of its roots in jazz? Just listen; it’s better than anything I could write. And wow, is it great. More like this, please. (My father played the sax, so I can say it’s part of why I got into music, listening to him play in the pep band in college basketball games. And it’s part of why I love loud, too.)
Who: Milena Kriegs
Hails from: Warszawa, PL
When and where: Two here, since they’re short – Nowa Jerozolima with BTS in 2013, Brancaleone in Rome earlier this year.
Gear: Laptop + controller here (APC40).
Takeaway: I love Milena’s dark, moody sound – it’s a creepy place that’s somehow pleasant to hang out. Hope we get some better video of her soon.
Hails from: Birmingham, UK
When and where: Dimensions again
Gear: Laptop plus modular
Takeaway: Surgeon is just a master, as evidenced by his cool stage demeanor. His live sets take the shape of DJ sets, but there’s quite a lot going on apart from playing records, and he is pretty much a benchmark for how to use modulars live convincingly – not just as stage dressing, but as integral to the music.
Hails from: Den Haag, NL
When and where: Dimensions one more time
Gear: Laptop, monome, Novation – and as always, signature ElecTribes.
Takeaway: I like this Legowelt set, but I even loved more his (and other) grimy KORG ElecTribe-powered acid sets at Studio80 at 2014’s ADE, among other locations. His dirty, very Dutch, no-holds-barred sound is fantastic, and I love the raunchy KORG sound in there.
Who: Dasha Rush
Hails from: Berlin (originally Russian)
When and where: Boiler Room Berlin, 2014.
Gear: Lots of controllers, laptop. Dasha’s an Ableton user but a lot of her live set focuses on a self-made Reaktor patch – hope to sit down with her soon and see how that works, as I haven’t been able to tell clearly from looking over her shoulder.
Takeaway: Dasha is amazing – she can do chin-scratching ambient all the way to four-on-the-floor club music. It’s been more of the latter lately on her tours, so it’s nice to go back to the cat mask-wearing ambient Dasha, even if (or maybe especially because) it’s unusual Boiler Room fare.
Hails from: Cuba, originally; now based in Berlin
When and where: Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, London, May 25
Gear: Modular. Lots of it. “DPO and shapeshifter for the main Oscs, cwejman MMF-1 and WMD Synchrodyne for filtering, Echophon and Erbe verb.” Plus Elektron: “Octatrack and RYTM”
Takeaway: Joey’s unforgiving, industrial-hypnotic approach is still danceable. I can’t wait to see him at the infamous Gegen in Berlin, on the anything-goes “drone floor.”
Who: Shawn Rudiman
Hails from: Pittsburgh, PA
When and where: Tresor Berlin, 2012 – though with Tresor, I don’t think the year actually matters. Like a wormhole, that place.
Gear: All hardware, 909 taking center stage, though I believe Shawn has a pretty regular rotation of stuff.
Takeaway: What I love about Shawn’s playing is how he never breaks the flow – but stays spontaneous. He’s a real musician, not just someone pressing play on some pre-sequenced stuff. Catch him, hipsters, at Bossa Nova Civic Club and get schooled.
Hails from: UK
When and where: Boiler Room London, 2014, and with the incomparable Neil Landstrumm for a bonus video at Boiler Room Scotland from the summer.
Gear: Hardware. Dave Smith Tempest looms large, and then a massive modular rig. Got to watch these guys play up close a few times, and it’s a pleasure – those machines seem alive.
Takeaway: Arthur Cayzer & Jamie Roberts, Blawan and Pariah, are great on their own and even more fun together. As it happens, they’ve also done a nice interview about their work.
Now, as far as saying it’s “impossible” to do what they do with a laptop – well, gentlemen, I think you’re absolutely 100% wrong there. There’s nothing stopping someone from cleverly recreating those things in software mapped to controllers, and some do just that. But I absolutely understand the hardware thing, too, and frankly, it doesn’t matter – if you play this well, play with whatever equipment you like.
Who: prcdrl, aka Stanislav Glazov
Hails from: Another Russian who’s now Berlin-based
When and where: studio rº, the “thinking man’s Boiler Room,” in January
Gear: Ableton, controllers (Novation!), some outboard gear (Alesis AirFX).
Takeaway: Stan’s grimy-dark music can go all sorts of different directions, from pounding techno to ambient reveries.
Hails from:Japanese, moved to Berlin
When and where: studio rº earlier this year, in Berlin.
Gear: Everything here centers, surprisingly, on a Roland Phrase Lab MC-09, which Kyoka has warped into her own, glitchy, quirky style.
Takeaway: Kyoka is actually one of my favorite artists to play, full stop. She’s a bit of an outlier on raster-noton, with an unpredictable edge to everything she does. She really doesn’t know what she’s going to do with a live set – and that’s refreshing.
Oh, yeah, I do this, too. Guess I’ll throw myself into the mix, just to put my money where my mouth is.
Who: NERKKIRN (me, with Benjamin Weiss)
Hails from: Kentucky and Germany, respectively, now here in Berlin
When and where: Gießen, Germany, in May
Gear: One laptop running Ableton, dual Maschine controllers, outboard gear (JoMoX drum machine, MeeBlip, etc.), iPad running ModStep
Takeaway: Benjamin is on the Maschine team and develops a nearly-ready-for-release step sequencer on the iPad, I make MeeBlip, both of us are interested in making tools for live performance because, well, they’re fun to play. And we’re not afraid to make mistakes; this is about fun, not perfection.
Now, if you’re looking at this list and saying, hey, how could you leave out [artist x] or or [this whole video series] … that’s the idea. As I said, I want this to be a regular series. So send us videos that inspire you. Record your own videos. Send us thoughts about how you play – or questions about what holds you back. And let’s do this more often. Live for live.