Sitting pretty
Laptops aren't the new Stratocasters – but you'd better get used to them, because they aren't going away.

By Ken Taylor

OVER THE PAST five years, U.K. band Radiohead have proven to be just about the best available barometer of pop culture. But they're a controller as much as they are a gauge, cracking the gasket of the underground and letting its bubbling fluids spew into the mainstream until they seep into just about everything Spin or Rolling Stone has the patience to track.

There's always that cadre of protectors, however, who see Radiohead, for one, as polluters of vibrant and self-sufficient underground culture. And now that the band has turned on to laptop music technology, in performance and production, it could prove startling for digital music purists, academics, and programmers as their baby strides farther away from its abstruse beginnings and closer to pop.

Long before I'd fully grasped the nebulous genre of laptop music, its noisy progenitors Austria's Christian Fennesz and Pita (a.k.a. Peter Rehberg) were gigging in Europe and Japan with little more than overnight bags and notebook computers in tow. And while I'd culled from the Wire that their records truly carried with them the shock of the new, their tour stop in Detroit four years ago was, to say the least, an off-putting introduction to the minutely abstract art form. Fennesz's and Pita's PowerBooks blew out some of the screechiest white noise my eardrums ever had the displeasure of enduring, and within about 10 minutes they'd cleared the already sparse art-gallery crowd. Yet their deafening output was hardly the problem. The physics of the whole show just seemed so ... um, awkward. Take away the Sturm und Drang, and all that would've been left were 20 people standing perfectly still watching Fennesz and Pita, lit only by the bluish reflection of their LCD screens as they intently stared at their computers. Without actually surveying the other 19 attendees, I sensed from their befuddled looks that they too wondered, Is this it?

Apparently more occupied with their Inboxes than their sounds, the performers typified a horribly bad cliché (one that has become a bona fide section in some boutique record stores): e-mail music. But the tag is far more a comment on the artists' presentation than on their sound. The truth is, laptop performers aren't grouped so much by the noise they make as by the gear and style with which they perform. Intensely minimal Germans Carston Nicolai and Frank Bretschneider sound nothing like quirky Brits SND, who sound nothing like French clicky collagists Dat Politics.

Onstage, though, they're an indistinguishable row of blue foreheads behind upside-down Apple logos. The American laptop quotient, however, are the cheekiest of the bunch, and guys like Jason Forrest (a.k.a. Donna Summer) and Oakland's Miguel Depedro (a.k.a. Kid 606) and Cex, who – to borrow from Ashton Kutcher; pray I never do this again – punk'd the laptop both in sound and approach, are the ones putting a magazine face to the music. They're also responsible for morphing the performance style from the somewhat uptight European form to suit their DIY hip-hop and punk ethos.

Youth must be served

Depedro has, for a long time, been a thorn in the side of chin-stroking laptop wonks. He was hardly 20 years old when he took the electronic music scene by storm as he stripped bare the glitzy varnish of mainstream hip-hop and recycled it through a pair of PowerBooks, cackling wildly all the while. Using a two-laptop setup and boundlessly bouncing back and forth between the computers, looping, manipulating, sequencing, and raising hell, he upped the ante for not only the laptop set's stoic, stationary statesmen but also for techno DJs who were content to casually cue records and twist knobs to the delight of their drugged-out revelers. Therein lies the key: more important than actually being busy, the captivating laptop musician must look busy.

To be sure, Depedro is genuinely engaged onstage, but the potential for illusion draws the largest rift between laptop performers and audiences. No one wants to feel duped, and trust that a performer is diligently working to keep the party hopping, rather than hitting play and watching the scrub bar run over the waveforms, is usually all an audience has to go on – a difficult leap to make when the artists keep their cards so close to their vests.

The programs Ableton Live (used for on-the-fly manipulation of digital sound files) and Traktor FinalScratch(a package that can take all the guesswork out of matching beats while at the same time lessening the load of a heavy record crate) seem to be the software of choice for live shows. But despite the fact that in most cases the crowd can't see performers' screens, a lot of artists still tend to keep mum about their software. "It's so ridiculous because everybody is using the same thing," confides Forrest, who recently dumped his Donna Summer stage name at the height of Grey Album-era copyright policing. "I think they consider it to be (1) proprietary, and (2) ... it reveals their own conceit." Unfortunately, when the musicians are playing it safe, the audience's only surefire sign of spontaneity is when things go awry.

Forrest has had his share of midset crashes, and dealing with them is the true test of an artist's performing ability. "I like that the stakes are high," he says of inevitable computer disasters. Considering the work on his upcoming disc, The Unrelenting Songs of the 1979 Post Disco Crash, a mash-up of plunderphonic breakcore, arena rock, and disco due out April 16 on Sonig, Forrest has a humorous side that takes awkward equipment failure in stride. "I'm not that interested in the technology of the laptop performance. I'm interested in the performance of the laptop performance.... [During a crash] I usually just start talking to the audience, and I make a show out of it." Forrest's friend DJ Shitmat recently led his crowd in a "When I say 're,' you say 'boot' " call and response during a laptop freeze-up. Others keep a cued-up CD player handy.

Lap this

While she's all about promoting the form, Liz Dizon, the local organizer of San Francisco's first laptop battle, definitely aims to demystify – or at least crack open the door to – the laptop performance process. She and her Seattle-based cohorts from Laptopbattle.org have boiled it down to a skewed science in an attempt to level the competitors' playing field and give the battle's judges a bit more objectivity to work with. Their competition April 18 at Club Six pits local PowerBook performers against one another in an elimination-style tournament, a bit more akin to well-meaning poetry slams than to the insult-slinging raison d'être of 8 Mile. To keep things fair, Dizon and company have limited gear to one computer and no external sound-generating devices. They're also going to have a live video feed of each contestant's screen, allowing the crowd – and naïve judges like myself (in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you I'm a volunteer at the battle) – a glimpse into the process. After all, computer music technology is a language most of us just don't speak, and in this case, I fear we're pretty bad lip-readers too.

With the gradual addition of vocals into a few laptop performers' sets, however, North American audiences are starting to get over the barriers. And in this respect, Berlin's Antye Greie, who performs as AGF, is the genre's great white hope. Her two recent discs, Westernization Completed (out on San Francisco's Orthlorng Musork) and Language Is the Most (Quicksliber), find Greie toying with ideas – and sounds – of language and global politics, placing them in an abstract poetic context. My assessment may seem a bit esoteric, but for the laptop community, AGF is practically pop. And her shows prove even more engaging, as rather than using the computer as a karaoke machine, Greie sings and recites her broken-English poetics while chopping, sampling, and creating an entirely new composition. In hip-hop they might call it being ambidextrous – simultaneously scratching and rapping – but that only half explains Greie's elaborate live process. To prepare for last week's show at Recombinant Media Labs (and their limited jaunt through the United States), Greie and Orthlorng Musork chief video artist Sue Costabile completed a DVD commission for Asphodel to accompany Greie's audio performances.

Self-abused

The visual add-on is an idea Oakland's Bevin Kelley (a.k.a. Blevin Blectum) has played with over the past few years. Once a member of electro-absurdists – and Mills College laptop upsetters – Blectum from Blechdom, Kelley recently refocused her efforts on realizing the full multimedia project Sagan, which includes Bay Area laptop assassins Wobbly, Lesser, and Ryan Junell and whose debut CD is due out this summer on Vague Terrain/Bleakhouse. However, she admits the video element is probably more for the group's own amusement than the audience's. And her devil-may-care attitude also suggests that she won't lose any sleep if audiences can't adapt to the new form. "Extinction is a natural and not necessarily bad process, musically and species-wise. People want electronic music/laptoppery turned into a rock panty show," she laments via e-mail.

Contemplative music that's meant to be listened to rather than shown naturally doesn't lend itself to stage shows of KISS-like proportions. But in the void of rock star hyperpresence, the multimedia aspect goes a long way. And it's quickly becoming the standard at Montreal's Mutek Festival, a place where Greie and a number of the genre's European artists found their most dedicated North American following. After four successful years, Mutek has become an annual meet-up for abstract digital expressionists and the techno elite and is also proving a viable forum for Americans like Taylor Deupree and Richard Chartier, who work in the genre's more glitchy, minimalist tradition, to showcase their chops. In fact, last year's installment provided the inspirational spark for Dizon and her friends to start their series of laptop battles and their Decibel Festival, to be held in Seattle this fall.

Brave new laptops

On the final night of Mutek '03's five-day gathering, eight of the world's most respected techno artists took the stage under the name Narod Niki, a moniker cribbed from 19th-century Russian populists who spread the socialist doctrine from village to village, and proceeded to blow the doors off any notions of boredom. In unison, Akufen, Ricardo Villalobos, Dimbiman, Dandy Jack, Luciano, Cabanne, Richie Hawtin, and Dan Bell, each connected through a string of PowerBooks running a synchronized version of Ableton Live, bobbed their heads while Monolake helmed the main mix. With eight performers onstage at the same time, running through six hours of pummeling, soulful, abstract, ethereal, icy, dreamy, and intense music, and none of the thousand or so revelers knowing – or caring about – who was doing what, the trappings of the laptop show ceased to matter or even exist. Jon Berry, at the time the North American label manager for experimental imprint Force Inc., turned to me and enthusiastically proclaimed the moment "the most important thing to happen to techno in 10 years." With sweat dripping from my brow, I imagined him as Thom Yorke taking notes, and I nodded in agreement

S.F. Laptop Battle takes place April 18, 9 p.m., Club Six, 60 Sixth St., $5. (415) 863-1221, www.laptopbattle.org. Mutek takes place June 2-6 at various venues in Montreal. For more information go to www.mutek.ca.


April 7, 2004