“Was that Really a Performance?”: Laptop Music and its Specters
Melvin Backstrom May 2010
“Even without trying, the very existence of laptop music (particularly in the context of live performance) manages to generate a storm of controversy. The laptop functions as a spectre, standing in for other structural tensions and controversies, its novelty making it far easier to attack than other arguably more complicit and compromised forms.”1
In the mid-1990s a new form of musical performance practice, laptop music (for want of a better term) began to take shape as the processing speeds of then still relatively new portable computers increased to the point that they could handle the real-time manipulation of digital audio. At first such practices remained somewhat of a novelty on account of the relatively high cost of laptops and the intimidating complexity of the existent audio processing programs (most notably Max2) that allowed for such manipulation. But with the commercial release of the easyto-use, real-time music sequencer Ableton Live in 2001, 3 along with the development of ever more powerful, and inexpensive portable computers (exemplified by the introduction, also in 2001, of Apple’s Powerbook G4), the use of laptops as a core element of musical performance has become commonplace. For in contrast to many older forms of electronic music performance (e.g. acousmatic, electro-acoustic) in which the only real-time sound manipulation possibility involved the live mixing of pre-recorded multi-track sound files, 4 most laptops sold today are capable of extensive real-time sound processing capabilities (sampling, changing of tempo
Alexei Monroe, “Ice on the Circuits.Coldness as Crisis: The Re-Subordination of Laptop Sound,” Contemporary Music Review 22, no. 4 (2003), 36.
2 3 4
See http://cycling74.com for details (accessed April 14, 2010). See http://ableton.com for details (accessed April 14, 2010).
Bob Ostertag, “Human Bodies, Computer Music,” Leonardo Music Journal 12, special issue “Pleasure” (2002), 12. For an extensive discussion of the issues involved in electronic music performance prior to the proliferation of laptops, see Bruce Pennycook “Live Electroacoustic Music: Old Problems, New Solutions,” Journal of New Music Research 26, no. 1 (1997).
independent of pitch, processing of live audio) that would have been nearly unimaginable 30 years ago even with the bulky and enormously expensive computer systems then available. Not surprisingly, the consequences and meaning of the simultaneous development and proliferation of laptop music has been the subject of no shortage of commentary ranging from utopian celebrations of its liberatory, transformational potentialities, to worried expressions of what is lost with its practice in comparison to the ostensible virtues of music that is fully “live,” i.e. uses traditional instruments. 5 This essay will therefore explore the practice of, and discourse surrounding, laptop music in order to interrogate the assumptions and hierarchies that constitute them. But first some history. Electronic musical works involving live interactivity are of course by no means new. Stockhausen’s “Mikrophonie I” and “Mikrophonie II,” for example (from 1964 and 1965 respectively), use microphones actively in order to pick up otherwise inaudible sounds during the performance.6 And Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room” (1969), though commonly thought of as a fixed work, crucially depends on the many-times repeated interaction of a short voice recording with the room in which it was originally recorded.7 Trombonist, composer,
I am well aware of how problematic “traditional” is given that electric guitars, a de rigueur element of rock music authenticity and its concomitant celebration of “liveness,” are only sixty years old. But given their continuation of traditional performance styles and roles—individuals creating music through obvious bodily engagement with instruments—they are arguably of a far more traditional kind than laptop-based music. For the most extensive discussion of the history of the electric guitar see Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Karlheinz Stockhausen, "Mikrophonie I, für Tamtam, 2 Mikrophone, 2 Filter und Regler," in Texte zur Musik 3 (Cologne: Verlag M. DuMont Schauberg), 57.
Christopher Burns, “Realizing Lucier and Stockhausen: Case Studies in the Performance Practice of Electroacoustic Music,” Journal of New Music Research 31, no. 1 (2002), 60.
improviser and historian George Lewis developed one of the earliest interactive computer-based music systems in the latter half of the 1980s. Entitled Voyager it enables a computer to engage in dialogical improvisation with instrumentalists. “ I conceive a performance of Voyager as multiple parallel streams of music generation, emanating from both the computers and the humans—a nonhierarchical, improvisational, subject-subject model of discourse, rather than a stimulus/response setup.”8 Through the use of pitch-followers (devices that transmit acoustic sound into MIDI data9 ) or MIDI equipped keyboards and guitars the computers running the program are able to respond in real time to up to two improvising musicians’ playing. The degree of relation between the content of what the performers and computer play, however, is at the discretion of the performers as in the program there are settings that range “from complete communion to utter indifference.”10 Yet read in relation to Lewis’ bifurcation of post-1950 improvisation into Eurocentric and Afrocentric spheres, his development and promotion of Voyager seems, at least slightly, odd. To summarize briefly, Lewis defines the Eurocentric by its desire for artistic autonomy and musical objectivity. Believing that what stands in the way of achieving this is the repetition—either conscious or unconscious—of ingrained patterns of behavior, aleatoric/stochastic methods are its preferred modus operandi in order to overcome such subjective determination and thereby create music that is truly “new.” Lewis points to John Cage as its archetypal representative. Afrocentric improvisation, by comparison, celebrates political engagement and the expression of
George Lewis, “Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in Voyager,” Leonardo Music Journal 10 (2000), 34.
MIDI being an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a industry wide protocol that allows different machines involved in musical production to communicate with each other.
subversive subjectivities in interpersonal dialogue as a form of resistance to unjust, dominant social orders. Charlie Parker is, for Lewis, its ideal exemplar. Although these labels have more than a whiff of essentialism around them, Lewis is quick to qualify them as “historically emergent” tendencies, and thus able to be used equally by anyone regardless of background, rather than “ethnically essential.”11 As a long time member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) whose motto is “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future,”12 Lewis is certainly more on the side of the Afrocentric. Indeed he strongly critiques Eurocentric improvisers such as Cage for their exnomination of improvisation because, he argues, of its inseparability from jazz and the wider African-American musical tradition that the Eurocentric practitioners have been so eager to disavow as an influence—or even as music of any serious importance.13 But despite his “historically emergent” qualification and own partiality, Voyager seems to transcend the very division between Afrocentric and Eurocentric that Lewis posits as so fundamental to contemporary improvised music: the necessary existence of emergent, un- (or at least not entirely) foreseeable interactivity between performers and possibly audience members as well. My pointing out this paradox is not at all meant to accuse Lewis of hypocrisy—on the contrary. After all, “[a] foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson so wisely wrote.14 It is rather to point to how the very promise of electronically mediated
George Lewis, “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” Black Music Research Journal 16, no. 1 (Spring 1996), 93.
Sam Ottenhoff, “The Sixties, Chicago, and the AACM,” http://www2.kenyon.edu/projects/ottenhoff/ aacm/paper.htm (accessed May 5, 2010).
Lewis, “Improvised Music After 1950,” 99-103.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson in One Volume (New York: Blackʼs Readers Service Company, 1925), 102.
interactivity problematizes and undermines conceptual distinctions applied previously to interactive musical practices; even those strongly held as Lewis’ Afrocentric-Eurocentric binary is. This is because of what results from its extension and amplification of the senses—indeed of the body itself—into increasingly vast webs of informational awareness, thus calling into question the plausibility of arguably the most fundamental of such distinctions: that of the mind and body. McLuhan puts it, if rather cryptically, thusly: “The new electric structuring and configuring of life more and more encounters the old lineal and fragmentary procedures and tools of analysis from the mechanical age. More and more we turn from the content of the messages to study total effect.”15 And this turn to “total effect” from a simple attention to “content” requires forms of conceptualization broader than older distinctions can handle. But though this is the case, a surprising amount of discourse surrounding “[t]he new electric structuring and configuring of life” remains trapped within “procedures and tools of analysis from the mechanical age.” Particularly fascinating in this regard are the ways in which contemporary debates over laptop music parallel earlier ones over the changing nature of the aesthetic practices due to cultural and technological evolution, addressed so powerfully by Benjamin in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Here too the “aura” of a putatively organic older practice is challenged by the development of new mechanical technologies that are able to fulfill the same cultural need but in a far more efficient and mass-produced manner than before.16 As Jonathan Sterne points out, however, this process is not nearly so simple as it is
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 26.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in IIluminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 219-51.
often made out to be; if the essay is not entirely misconstrued in terms of Benjamin supposedly mourning aura’s loss.17 For rather than an understanding of “aura” or “authenticity” as preexisting attributes that are then diminished (or lost altogether) through the supposedly dumbing effects of mass media distribution and the mechanical (and increasingly digital) reproduction on which it depends, Benjamin argues that these concepts only come to be in retrospect when the status of the old comes into question with the advent of the new. “[A]t the time of its origin medieval picture of the Madonna could not yet be said to be ‘authentic.’ It became ‘authentic’ only during the succeeding centuries and perhaps most strikingly so during the last one.”18 Or, in Sterne’s pithy words: “Aura is the object of a nostalgia that accompanies reproduction.”19 Only by comparison, through a view back into history, do these concepts come to be or, indeed, could they have any meaning at all. 20 Such nostalgia is certainly at work in the discourse surrounding laptop music. Despite the pronounced “gearism” that pervades the musical instrument-production industry— characterized by a rabid technological fetishism that, in league with the demands of capital, results in a constant proliferation of “new” commodities 21—lamentations at what is lost in the
Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 220-21.
18 19 20
Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” f.n. 2, 243. Sterne, The Audible Past, 220.
Since, as Saussure demonstrated, language is an interdependent system in which meaning only arises through difference, a sign (i.e. word) can only come to be in terms of an opposition to what it is not. See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger, trans. Roy Harris (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1991), 8-17. Ludwig Wittgensteinʼs argument against the possibility of private languages is also relevant in this regard. See his Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed, trans. G. E. M Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, ed. Hacker and Schulte (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 98-103.
Paul Théberge, Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997).
use of laptops is by no means uncommon. Rebekah Farrugia and Thomas Swiss document a particularly ironic example of this discursive process in relation to the introduction of Final Scratch, a software program, introduced in the summer of 2002, that together with two “specially manufactured vinyl records” allow a DJ to manipulate MP3 files as if they were tracks on regular vinyl records. 22 Following the announcement of its release in early 2002, they followed discussions concerning it in an online forum dedicated to electronic/dance music (E/ DM) music.23 As they point out, perhaps more than any other musical grouping “E/DM genres are deeply invested in technology. Indeed, when the broad term ‘techno’ is deployed to describe this music, technology defines them.” Yet even among these techno partisans the purported purity and organicism of, as well as skill level necessary for, turntable-only DJing were repeatedly heralded in opposition to the ease-of-use and efficiency of Final Scratch and its necessary enablers: the MP3 sound file compression protocol and the laptop.24 The aforementioned program Ableton Live has come under particular criticism from many quarters. Unlike Final Scratch it can be entirely operated with the most common hardware interfaces—QWERTY keyboard and mouse—although the addition of MIDI controllers to facilitate its use is extremely common. As its name indicates, it is promoted as a way of making computer-based music live by enabling the real-time creation of music through the use of a loop sequencer within which “clips” of sound can be individually processed and inter-mixed with
Rebekah Farrugia and Thomas Swiss, “Tracking the DJs: Vinyl Records, Work, and the Debate over New Technologies,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 17, no. 1 (2005), 31-32.
This is the 313 listserv that began in early 1995, originally focused on the (sub?)genre of Detroit techno, but has since expanded to include discussion of a wide range of DJ-based, electronic/dance musics: http://music.hyperreal.org/lists/313/index2.html (accessed April 27, 2010).
Farrugia and Swiss, “Tracking the DJs,” 30.
others as well as live and MIDI audio.25 An excerpt from its initial public announcement in 2001 perhaps says it best: What is Live? Live is the world's first audio-sequencer conceived for live music. Not only can you record, arrange and process audio with Live, you can jam with Live!...Live's time-warp engine temporally stretches and shrinks audio...Loops, phrases and entire works play in sync with your tempo or with external sync-sources. The pitch can be independently adjusted. Audio becomes as flexible as MIDI. Live turns any normal Mac or PC-notebook into the perfect mobile solution for everybody who makes live music, whether in clubs, on the stage or in the living room...Live frees-up creative energy: if you produce remixes, work with singers and instruments, edit music or post produce films, you'll need less time and have more fun. Live slides effortlessly right into a DJ-set. Open the notebook; cable in the DJ-mixer; ready to go! Live's loops and tracks play along with the tables. You just "tap in" the tempo. If you don't want to drag vinyl cases, do the whole gig with Live. All the records will fit in the Notebook; you never have to stop to reload.26 I quote this at length because it touches on so many points crucial to the discourse around Live —work efficiency, liveness, fun!—and of laptop music more generally given Live’s status as arguably the most popular software interface for real-time music creation.27 The phrase “you’ll...have more fun” is particularly revealing of Live’s position within the broader field of laptop music as this appeal to hedonic desires places it for the most part outside the respect and
Live in fact has two different “views”: Session and Arrangement. The former is what I here describe as it is the one designed for spontaneous music creation in a “live” environment. The latter, by contrast, is based on the same time-line basis as traditional digital audio workstations (DAWs) such as Pro Tools, Cubase and Logic.
http://web.archive.org/web/20010623072909/www.ableton.com/web/english/products/ (accessed April 20, 2010).
Although somewhat anecdotal Pedersen and Hornbæk interview three electronic musicians all of whom use Live as their primary software musical interface. See their “mixiTUI: A Tangible Sequencer for Electronic Live Performances,” Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Tangible and Embedded Interaction (TEI ʼ09), Feb. 16-18, 2009 (Cambridge, UK), 224. And Michelle Irving in her thesis on laptop music practice writes that “over the past 5 years, Ableton Live has become so wide spread that one is often surprised not to see it as the software of choice at a performance. At the Live! Festival, which I performed at in Zurich in 2005, and was dedicated to live electronic music performance, every performer at my stage, roughly 12, were using Ableton Live.” See her “Interpretive Practice in Laptop Music Performance” (masterʼs thesis, Simon Fraser University, 2006), 86. Also, Mark Zadel, “A Software System for Laptop Performance and Improvisation” (masterʼs thesis, McGill University, 2006), 8.
serious consideration of the ascetic aesthetic demands that largely define the academic discourse around musical creation and innovation. For despite the many challenges such elitism has faced within the scholarly community over the last 30 or so years this artistic perspective remains dominant within academic music composition and music technology programs. Defined, on the one hand, by a resilient Cartesian dualism that celebrates the ostensible purity of the mind versus the decadent messiness of the body and, on the other, by an avant-garde position taking that eschews mainstream popularity and its attendant economic capital in order to accrue cultural capital and justify its symbolic capital privileges,28 those within such contexts have, for the most part, seen little of value in Live in contrast to the well-established acceptance of Max/ MSP and the increasing popularity of command-line programming languages such as SuperCollider and ChucK.29 Ableton is critiqued for its structural limitations and built-in assumptions such as default settings of a 4/4 time signature and 120 beats per minute tempo. Compared to Max/MSP, SuperCollider and ChucK (among others) that are radically open in terms of starting assumptions, Live’s Session view, though breaking with the linear timeline of traditional DAWs, still structures music in terms of collections of channels and “clips”; tacitly assuming the creating of music through the creation, mixing and manipulation of loops. 30 Such structuration is often considered a mark of its lack, but David Zicarelli notes that perhaps one of the most
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production,” in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Colombia University Press, 1993), 29-73.
See, for example, Nick Collins, “Generative Music and Laptop Performance,” Contemporary Music Review 22, no. 4 (2003), 67;
For an analysis of Liveʼs interface see Matthew Duigan et al. “Metaphors for Electronic Music Production in Live and Reason,” Proceedings of the Sixth Asia Paciﬁc Conference on Computer-Human Interaction 28 (Dunedin, New Zealand, 2004). It is important to note, however, that Live is now able to be incorporated with Max/MSP dramatically extending its sound processing capabilities.
valuable aspects of Live is the “recognition that fluency was a fundamental goal in an interface for creative work.”31 And it is precisely the structures, or conventions, of Live that enable its fluency. Howard Becker points to this in his discussion of the importance of standard practices to the formation of an “art world.” “Conventions known to all well-socialized members of a society make possible some of the most basic and important forms of cooperation characteristic of an art world. Most important, they allow people who have little or no formal acquaintance with or training in the art to participate as audience members—to listen to music, read books, attend films or plays, and get something from them.”32 On this account, the limitations that conventions enforce are, in their own way, productive rather than mere restrictive conditions on artistic creation and reception; an idea often lost in the unblinking celebration of radical “newness” that pervades much of the discourse around laptop music. Alexei Monroe usefully points out that on account of its relatively recent history “laptop music” has become a generic name for a type of music even though it describes a variety of musical styles related solely by a common instrument. 33 But he also provocatively argues that the common critique of laptop-based musical performance—that it is dehumanizing on account of its lack of overt bodily expressivity—is an expression of a fundamentally reactionary ideology that refuses to recognize the liberatory potentials of this new, highly technologized medium. Its true potential is therefore far too commonly “re-subordinated” to the demands, parameters and expectations of traditional music practices.
David Zicarelli, “My Perspective on Integrating Max and Live,” http://www.cycling74.com/story/ 2009/1/15/112631/799
Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), 46. Alexei Monroe, “Ice on the Circuits.Coldness as Crisis,” 35-36.
“The archetype of laptop sound at it’s most abstract is not human creativity, environmental sound or any other natural source but the hard drive and the software it runs (with varying levels of efficiency). The sounds are direct machinic expressions from the systems that make them possible, stripped of any user- friendly interfaces such as help icons. The archetypes of raw data are cold, impersonal and harsh, everything the dominant system and its machines are not supposed to be. Such productions go too deep and reveal levels of reality that can disturb technophobic consumers (and regressive musicians). Error-based “glitch” variants of laptop music privilege system errors and crashes in a manner at odds with the corporate image of friendly efficiency and reliability assigned to such technologies.”34 Positing laptop music as realizing a radical break from past practices Monroe echoes Futurist manifestos from the early 20th century in celebrating its “machinic aesthetics,” “lethal energy” and “cold, impersonal and harsh” qualities;35 all the while attacking the infinite sale-ability of aesthetic warmth, collaboration by laptop musicians with traditional musicians and use of “funky,” presumably overtly danceable, rhythms as the actual realization of “dehumanizing and authoritarian agendas.”36 But though passionately argued and therefore of importance in questioning standardized forms of thinking as to what our interactions with machines mean, nowhere does he acknowledge the significant dangers of lauding “coldness as crisis” and forthrightly rejecting older humanist values rather than attempting to make sense of them in terms of history and artistic evolution. What is needed is not an absolute negation of the past, but instead a sublated negation that preserves the truth of the past within a higher unity that it itself is an immediate component of.37
34 35 36 37
Alexei Monroe, “Ice on the Circuits/Coldness as Crisis,” 39. Ibid., 36-39. Ibid., 42. G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller (London: Routledge, 2002), 106-08.
Within the discourse on laptop music one of the primary concerns is the audience members’ lack of understanding of the nature of its performances. That is, because laptop music lacks many, if not all, of the expressive physical gestures that have traditionally characterized live performance, individuals are often confused as to the relation between what laptop performers are doing and the sounds they are experiencing. Since, as Nick Collins writes, “An artist using powerful software like SuperCollider or PD [or any other software interface for that matter] cannot be readily distinguished from someone checking their e-mail whilst DJ-ing with iTunes,” the entirety of the performance is put into question.38 Are the sounds being created live by the performers on their laptops or have they merely hit “play” on a recording during which they are doing something completely unrelated? How can the audience tell the difference? Indeed, does/should it even matter? As Caleb Stuart points out, audience’s lack of “a visual signifier to connect and explain their aural experience” is problematic primarily because of their expectation of witnessing the “work” of the performer. But if, as with many musical interfaces, the gestures involved are indistinguishable from nearly any other laptop-based actions, then the question of how audience members are supposed to make any kind of aesthetic judgment of the performance separate from the experience of the sound becomes of crucial significance. For it is, of course, precisely the performative dimension of music that is foregrounded in its live (re)creation and the primary reason why most people go to see musical performances even though in many cases the songs
Nick Collins, “Generative Music and Laptop Performance,” 67.
are performed as identical as possible to their studio recorded, multi-tracked version.39 Stuart relates how at the end of a “performance” by Pimmon (Paul Gough) at the 2000 Big Day Out in Sydney, Australia “the MC told the audience that during the performance Pimmon had lodged his tax return electronically and had instantly been refunded seventy five dollars.”40 Whether this was actually what occurred or was instead a continuation of the performance, a rhetorical tactic used to force audience members to question their assumptions about what they had just experienced, is less important than what it reveals of the yet-unresolved insecurities attendant to laptop music that continue to haunt its practices. Kim Cascone, undoubtedly one of the most important thinkers on the meaning, practice and dilemmas of contemporary electronic musical performance,41 has explored this specter in quasi-Benjaminian terms through a critique of the “artificiality” of aura in popular music. “The media’s use of spectacle, which has little to do with the value of music, conspires to capture and maintain a constant focus on the artist, to establish a singular omnipotent presence. This omnipresence produces a demand for records containing the artist’s aura. This system forms the basic apparatus by which the political economy of pop media operates: the production of demand by
Indeed, if they are noticeably different, then this, for many people, is seen as an aesthetic fault. Theodore Gracyk explains such an attitudes from both musicians and audiences as reﬂecting an ontological commitment within a great deal of popular music that sees the locus of the musical work in a studio recording rather than a score or performance. See his “That Wild, Thin Mercury Sound: Ontology,” in Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 1-36.
Caleb Stuart, “The Object of Performance: Aural Performativity in Contemporary Laptop Music,” Contemporary Music Review 22, no. 4 (2003), 61.
This is based on my own review of the literature of this ﬁeld in which his article “The Aesthetics of Failure: ʻPost-Digitalʼ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music,” has attained seminal status. In Computer Music Journal 24, no. 4 (Winter 2000), 12-18.
counterfeiting aura.”42 He contrasts such illusory ephemera with the depth and lack of expectation for “the social rituals prompted by the interaction of stage performers(s) and audience” that, by comparison, characterizes the electro-acoustic music genre that remains almost entirely ensconced within the academic music community. Not burdened by the expectations for spectacle or performer-audience interactivity “the aura this type of music presents is located in the musical content, not stage sets and costumes…[it] is achieved via a different set of codes that seem unnatural to audiences imprinted by pop music culture.”43 The problem for laptop music, he argues, is that it sits in a liminal space between the auratic demands for spectacle, interactivity and artifice of pop music and the purely musical aura of the acousmatic realm. But given the popularity and commercial weight of the former, the radical nature of laptop music finds itself continually compromised by, either, pop musicians’ appropriation of the surface trappings of laptop music in order to burnish their cultural capital (what Cascone calls “trend surfing”), or laptop musicians making use of pop music codes in order to provide audiences with a familiar interpretive framework (“recycling signifiers”). Cascone therefore advocates “a recuperation of codes that move away from the use of spectacle, that establish aura, and show the audience how to differentiate ‘representation by the machine’ from ‘repetition of the machine.’”44 That is, rather than an understanding of laptop music in the same terms as traditional musical performance in which the aura of score and performer(s) combine yet remain conceptually distinct, Cascone advocates a radical break reflecting its very
Kim Cascone, “Laptop Music: Counterfeiting Aura in the Age of Inﬁnite Reproduction,” http:// www.itu.dk/stud/speciale/auditorium/litteratur/musik/Kim%20Cascone%20Laptop%20Music%20v2.pdf (accessed May 3, 2010), 3.
Ibid., 5-6. Ibid., 7.
different ontological presumptions: “the [music’s] score has no obvious origin; the performer does not serve as an animated conduit for it, and does nothing to reassure the audience that a score exists.” Therefore, what is in fact an entirely new type of performance seems far too suspiciously like a mere transmission of some occurrence elsewhere. Yet far from thinking this is a problem to be overcome, he polemically states that this is as it should be because “In the 21st century, music will not be performed it will be broadcast” (my italics).45 One must admire the audaciously modernist manifesto-like quality of Cascone’s rhetoric. There is something undoubtedly appealing about such a neat division of good from bad. Yet although his prophecy seems far from coming true at this point in the 21st century its truth or falsity is arguably less important than the need to interrogate the very assumptions upon which his argument rests. Although much of what he says is, I think, true (his critique is wonderfully polemical) but, in not recognizing his own positionality within the field of cultural production and concomitant replication of mind-body dualism with its very questionable hierarchy of values, IT is ultimately insufficient as critique. In simply negating the value of popular music and its supposed artificiality in contrast to the profundity of electro-acoustic music, Cascone is unable (or simply refuses) to recognize their necessary mutual dependence. They are not simply opposites, but rather two sides of the same “coin.” To therefore adequately understand them, as well as their interrelations with laptop musicians, requires not polemics but a synthesis of relations as, in the words of Katherine Hayles, “the dynamic flux from which both the body and embodiment emerge.”46 In other words, neither do the body or the mind (for Hayles, our
N. Katherine Hayles, “Flesh and Metal: Reconﬁguring the Mindbody in Virtual Environments,” in Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information, ed. Robert Mitchell and Philip Thurtle (New York: Routledge, 2003), 229.
experience of being embodied) pre-exist as entities which only later come into relation with each other. Instead, the relations themselves come first and out of them body and mind are then abstracted. The value of such an understanding applied to laptop music performance lies in its potential to overcome the dualist thinking that has, as I have shown, so plagued its surrounding discourse. This is particularly ironic because despite the frequency of its dualist-based debates laptop music is among the practices most promising in overcoming the legacy of Cartesian dualism on account of the very liminal space in which, Cascone argues, it sits. As Hayles writes concerning three virtual reality art works, but equally applicable to laptop music: “If art not only teaches us to understand our experiences in new ways but actually changes experience itself, these art works engage us in ways that make vividly real the emergence of ideas of the body and experiences of embodiment from our interactions with increasingly information-rich environments.” For it is precisely because of the manner in which the body-embodiment axis is put into question by laptop-based musical performance that it is most valuable. As the realization of the hypertrophy (of sorts) of our senses, and thus of our bodies, laptop music both denies the involvement of the body in rendering superfluous overt physical gestures, and simultaneously insists on its irreducibility and foundational importance in radically extending it through its always already, but now exponentially extended, constitutive relations.
Becker, Howard. Art Worlds. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In IIluminations, translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt, 217-51. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Field of Cultural Production,” in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Edited by Randal Johnson, 29-73. New York: Colombia University Press, 1993. Burns, Christopher. “Realizing Lucier and Stockhausen: Case Studies in the Performance Practice of Electroacoustic Music.” Journal of New Music Research 31, no. 1 (2002): 59-68. Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music,” Computer Music Journal 24, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 12-18. ———. “Laptop Music: Counterfeiting Aura in the Age of Infinite Reproduction.” http:// www.itu.dk/stud/speciale/auditorium/litteratur/musik/Kim%20Cascone%20Laptop %20Music%20v2.pdf (accessed May 3, 2010). Collins, Nick. “Generative Music and Laptop Performance.” Contemporary Music Review 22, no. 4 (2003): 67-79. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” In The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson in One Volume. New York: Black’s Readers Service Company, 1925. De Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger; translated by Roy Harris. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1991. Duigan, Matthew et al. “Metaphors for Electronic Music Production in Live and Reasong,” Proceedings of the Sixth Asia Pacific Conference on Computer-Human Interaction 28. Dunedin, New Zealand, 2004.
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