As the latest generation of live techno acts hit the road, we ask what defines ‘live’ electronic music. Is a backlash against lazy Ableton sets responsible for the most exciting live shows in decades? Kristan Caryl investigates.
Live electronic music is nothing new. Back in the late 80s acts like The Orb and 808 State were quick to spot the potential of taking their music-making machines up on stage. In the 90s live electronica became so popular that even the traditionally guitar obsessed Glastonbury invited The Chemical Brothers to headline their main stage. And in the noughties, although the medium had largely switched from hardware to software, hardly could you glance at flyer without that little word being splattered all over it, sandwiched between a pair of brackets to show that this was more than just a standard DJ set: this was live.
In 2013, those four little letters have never seemed more popular. A new generation of techno artists are embracing the old-school all-hardware approach, whether it’s the distorted purist assault of Blawan and Pariah’s Karenn project, the slightly housier techno leanings of Juju & Jordash or the stripped-down grooves of Skudge. Naturally, the proliferation of live sets also makes the definition of live even more ambiguous and sometimes even divisive. After all, a DJ set is technically a form of live performance, whereas many live shows are planned down to the last note. And what about the music itself? Hardware is the choice of all the coolest cats, but does banging a few beats out on a 909 really make for a better sonic experience? Let’s get to the core of the matter: why has the laptop-free live show come back into vogue, just what is ‘live’, and does it really matter?
“Shitty plip-plop techno”
Live shows are no longer the preserve of the underground: you’re as likely to find a laptop rocker turning up to the local superclub as you are a rave veteran blasting out his hardware hits from the side of a truck. As such, playing live has become a trend; something to which the young bucks aspire so as to stand out. Ironically, though, so many live sets end up conforming to the pseudo-live norm in which artists turn up, plug in and trigger a load of pre-recorded loops in a carefully programmed sequence, often recreating whole tracks verbatim.
One of the factors driving this trend is the emergence of new tools which allow artists to approach live performance in different ways. The most notable is Ableton Live, the software package which has had the single biggest impact on the way dance music is produced and performed over the last decade. Its clip-based approach makes it easy for samples, loops and pre-sequenced MIDI parts to be triggered on the fly, all in sync with each other. Its impact on the way we view the typical live set is undeniable. Speak to those in the know, though, and they point out that lacklustre ‘live’ sets are not the fault of Ableton itself, but weakness on the part of the person in control.
“Ableton got picked up by the shitty end of electronic music in the noughts,” says Delsin producer and hardware advocate Disco Nihilist. “When you think of it, you think of shitty plip-plop techno, like Minus stuff. It’s easy, it’s cheap. I think Ableton got a bad name from the people who used it early on, yet Legowelt was talking in a recent interview about the difference between using an MPC and Ableton: in a lot of ways Ableton can be more live than an MPC because you have more freedom and control in your set. It’s romantic to see hardware and say, ‘Oh, this is more live than a laptop’, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.”
Ableton got picked up by the shitty end of electronic music in the noughts. When you think of it, you think of shitty plip-plop techno.
Berlin-based duo and long-time live performers Exercise One are in a fine position to comment on the similarities and differences of both approaches. They started out performing with “a huge PC tower, two big screens, a bass and a Korg PolySix” before switching to Ableton for almost a decade and then moving on again. “We decided to come back to a very simple but powerful set up,” Marco Freivogel explains.
“Live shows in a club context became more and more of the same attitude, with everyone using the same methods. Technology can also breed some laziness and for me things get boring when everything is easily possible. So we had the feeling we needed to change and get back where we came from: being able to play like a band, truly live, where everyone has his instruments and you need to practice and rehearse regularly. Today we arrive at the club with a Moog Minitaur, Roland SH-101, Dave Smith Mopho, Elektron Analog Four, an MFB Tanzbär, an Elektron Octatrack, a Korg MX as sequencer for the Moog and Mopho, a couple of effects and some compressors. I have to say it is the most enjoyable set up.”