Always Insist on Live Music

Now that I’ve started composing and recording again in my computer, I’m wondering anew what to do with the music once it’s finished. I can put mp3’s up on my website, and I do, but of course nobody ever visits my website. If they do, they don’t send me emails thanking me for the music. Posting your music on a website is like dropping a stone down a well.

Also this month, I’m playing in two community orchestras. This is fun, not only because I get to hear some great music from the inside, but because there are concerts. People come, and listen, and applaud! My part in the affair isn’t very creative — I’m basically just showing up and playing the dots on the page. But I do enjoy getting out and playing in front of an audience. It makes the process much more meaningful.

I’d love to be able to do some sort of gigging or concertizing with my new computer music, but I just don’t see a way to manage it. The question that always stops me dead is this: When people go to a performance where I’m playing my computer compositions, what will they see? An old guy hunched over a laptop, pressing the start button and then doing nothing for five or six minutes while the music plays?

It’s hard to imagine that that would have much appeal.

It’s an interesting sociological and psychological question why people go to hear live music. There are several components. They go in order to have a shared communal experience with other audience members — but more centrally, they hope or expect to be dazzled by digital dexterity. One of the most important components, in a live performance, is that the performer appears to be doing something difficult, something that leaves the audience saying, “Wow!” That’s why we look down our noses at singers who lip-sync along with recordings. They’re not really doing it. They’re faking it.

There are other factors: A folk singer with an acoustic guitar doesn’t need to amaze us with fancy fretwork, and doesn’t even need to sing in tune (remember early Bob Dylan?), if the songs are delivered with passion, and if we can perhaps identify somehow with the performer. If the singer is sexually attractive, that helps too. As Bob Dylan proved, sex appeal isn’t essential. But if people are going to sit and stare at you for an hour, it gives you an edge if you’re the sort of person they can enjoy staring at for an hour.

As a computer soloist, I would have none of these factors working in my favor. The music might actually be quite sophisticated; a single piece might require endless hours of painstaking work. But the work isn’t visible. It would appear to the audience that I was sitting there doing essentially nothing. Nor would I be conveying, through my body language, any sort of passion. And my sex appeal … well, I didn’t have much when I was 21, and now I’m 61. You do the math.

I’ve thought about trying to put together some sort of ensemble. A trio, let’s say, in which I run the computer while two other people are doing something or other that involves wiggling their fingers and making pleasant noises. Unfortunately, starting any sort of band is incredibly difficult. More important, perhaps, it would change the nature of the music. The computer tracks would now be backing tracks. They would be the accompaniment for the real musicians, the guys wiggling their fingers. And that’s kind of not the point. The point is to let the computer synthesizers be heard as instrumental voices in their own right. I don’t much want to make the computer tracks subservient to a more traditional form of music-making. I don’t want my composing and arranging to be constrained by the need to put together, let’s say, 32 bars of backup for the guitar solo.

After the guitar solo, would the computer get a 32-bar solo while the guitarist sits out? I’m trying to picture that, and what I’m seeing is that psychologically, the audience would be looking at the guitarist and waiting for him to come in again with his next part. The computer, being an invisible, incorporeal musician, would be unable to take center stage.

A lot of guys DJ with Ableton Live. I’ve thought about that, but there are problems. First, I have no interest in playing in dance clubs — and that’s probably a blessing for all concerned. Nobody wants a 60-year-old DJ, okay? Even more central, though, Live is a looping program. Performing with it is all about triggering a new loop every four bars. But my music is not based on loops. In point of fact, I hate loops.

If I were a church-goer, I’m sure I could sneak a nice meditation piece into the service now and again. That would mean writing less interesting music, but maybe I could deal with it. What’s standing in my way is I have no use whatever for organized religion. Sitting through a church service of any kind gives me the creeping willies. Even thinking about it gives me the creeping willies.

I’ve also thought about doing some kind of multimedia performance, mainly with a projector putting up big images for people to gaze at. This would work in a psychological sense, I think, because the old guy hunched over the laptop would no longer be the visual focus. (I saw Robert Rich do this once, and I think it worked pretty well, though he did play some flute, which would be cheating, wouldn’t it?) But designing a multimedia show is a lot of work — work that would take me away from composing and recording music, since I’m not a multimedia artist. I’d have to invest quite a lot of money in equipment. And the need to work in a darkened room would eliminate most of the venues where I might otherwise be able to perform. Outdoor street fairs, for instance.

Yeah, I love the idea of sharing my creative work by playing it for an audience now and then. It’s a great idea. I’m open to suggestions on how to manage it. Right now I’m not seeing any sparks.

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3 Responses to Always Insist on Live Music

  1. Linda Ashworth says:

    Okay Jim, Not only am I visiting your website, I’m leaving a message! It’s so nice to connect with someone else who has kept music in their life. I see you arrived back in Livermore the year I left. Quelle dommage. What community orchestra’s are you playing in? I played in LAS until I couldn’t stand it any longer. But I’m an oboe/EH player these days instead of a clarinetist. Lots of wonderful opportunities to play down here on the central coast. Maybe we should get together and play some duets next time I’m up in Livermore to see my mom.

    • midiguru says:

      I’m in the Livermore-Amador Symphony at the moment, though I’m planning to take a break after next week’s concert. I’m also an occasional member of the Silicon Valley Symphony (not to be confused with Symphony Silicon Valley, which is a different group.)

      I can understand the “I couldn’t stand it any longer” comment. The music-making in LAS is somewhat variable in quality. After a concert, I sometimes find myself saying, “That was pretty good.” I don’t expect it ever to be better than “pretty good.” But if you approach it with that level of expectation, it is possible to enjoy it quite a lot, and I’m pretty sure the audiences are less critical than I am. At any rate, they seem to keep buying tickets.

  2. Yonatan says:

    The best solution, IMHO, would be the band solution, since I think too that it would be awkward to only see a man with a laptop on stage.
    Some of the things that I look for in live shows, aside from the music itself, are the reverberation of each instrument in the room/club/hall, the interaction between the musicians and the “small mistakes” (intentional or unintentional) they produce which makes things interesting. Also, every time the version of the piece may differ. Personally I wouldn’t want to be in a show which has exactly the same version note-by-note as the original tunes.
    I think it could be interesting to see a band of musicians (mostly keyboardists?), each playing one of the parts.
    The only downside I can see is that it may be difficult to assemble the band, but who knows?

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