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Live Music and Technology

June 4th, 2012
contra, tech, music

I really like live music. I like to dance to it, to play it, to feel the excitement of the connection between the dancers and the musicians. Traditional music is at it's best live, and I love being part of a community where we have a thriving live music tradition.

But what makes music live? What is it that I'm enjoying? I think it's that music is live in as much as the musicians can change what they're playing in response to the situation. Which means 'live' isn't a yes/no question: music in a context has some amount of life. At one extreme we have a recording piped in, chosen in advance, no one has control over it. But if you have a person choosing what should come next, that makes it a bit more live. A DJ that modifies the sound of the music on the fly in response to the feeling in the room adds even more life to the music. Similarly a contra dance band that decides their sets and arrangements in advance and then plays them exactly as planned is 'live' in the sense that they're playing the music in person in real time, but their music will have much less life than that of a band that chooses tunes to match the dances and then adjusts their playing to what it feels like the dancers need for this dance.

Recently technology that lets musicians blend live and recorded music has gotten cheap enough that we're seeing some contra dance bands take it up. Perpetual Emotion is known for their use of looping to play along with themselves, building up layers of great dance music out of fiddle, guitar, digeridoo and a lot of well applied technology. Julie Vallimont, in Double Apex and Fire Cloud, mixes live synths with carefully chosen looped samples to make a well phrased highly dancable fusion of traditional music and electronica. Even though these groups use recordings, made on the fly or prepared in advance, their music still has a lot of life because they can control it on the fly. There's a strong feedback cycle with the dancers that you couldn't have with pure recorded music.

My mandolin is extremely versatile, and I love figuring out new things I can do with it, but as an acoustic instrument it's the outcome of a long process of design and compromise. As hard as I try, it's never going to give me the controlled sustain of a fiddle, the power of an organ, or the grit of an overdriven electric guitar. To a large extent this is fine and I'm happy with it. But it also means that there are lots of things I can't change as I play, being limited to it's native repertoire of sounds. Similarly, we play tunes. We try to pick the best one for the dance, we'll tweak it to match, but we're constrained by the tunes we know and the tune we've chosen. Sure you can go off into flights of improvisation, but it's very hard to improvise music as danceable as a good tune. We're limited in what we can change on the fly by our instruments, our tunes, and our abilities.

Electronic instruments or instrument-modifiers, such as synths, loopers, effects, and samples let musicians explore different tradeoffs of complexity and control. I see an expansion of the use of electronic musical technology as beneficial to the live music tradition because it expands the range of sounds available live. It takes a lot of work to get good at them, especially in a live performance setting, but then it also takes a lot of work to become a good fiddle player. The big difference I see currently is that if you want to learn no one has much experience in applying this sort of technology to contra dance music while there are many musicians with decades of experience playing great music with traditional instruments. You're much more likely to make bad or good-but-undanceable music with new technology and instruments because our community doesn't have the collective experience with them to know what works best yet.

(Music feeling live isn't the only thing, and it's not even the most important thing. You can still have a lot of fun dancing to good recordings and a lot of the work of becoming a great band goes into learning to sound good in context independent ways. As a live band, however, our comparative advantage is being able to play to the dancers and give them the best music for the moment.)

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