So the inaugural performance of Illapse, the laptop ensemble of the University of Illinois, took place last Friday afternoon. It was an instructive experience, not least because we were playing at an open house for engineering and computer science students who were, by and large, unfamiliar with the aesthetics of free improvisation with live electronics. Only when we began to incorporate more evenly pulsed materials toward the end of our 30-minute opus did we attract a crowd of onlookers; until then, we were approached mainly by hackers with technical questions and presenters who wanted us to turn it down (no dice). It became clear that the American Bandstand Test (i.e. it has a good beat—I give it an eight!) was the most significant criterion among our audience for deciding whether or not we were actually making music. In fact, one well-meaning listener came up afterwards to congratulate us on having “really gotten going” at the end (when the beats came in)—apparently he thought that our first 25 minutes were a warm-up.
The listening public’s hang-up about steady meter and regular rhythm has been discussed before on NewMusicBox, but I’ve seldom seen it illustrated so vividly. Generate DSP screeches and granular clicks, and you’re a nuisance; run Fat Albert-esque Optigan drums through a multipole filter, and you’re a musician. I’m ready to buy into the argument that the need for a steady tactus trumps the need for consonant harmony among non-specialist audiences. In a sense, this is a valuable piece of information; now we know how to interest lay audiences in our laptop improvs. On the other hand, as a composer, it feels somewhat manipulative. A former teacher of mine once famously claimed that all pulsed music is march music, and therefore inherently militaristic: Obviously this is kind of an outrageous assertion, but I’m beginning to understand the thinking that led to it. If I can be convinced by a single looped breakbeat that I’m listening to music, my view of music—of the definition of music—is predicated on things that actually don’t have much to do with how musical what I’m hearing may be.
As a performer, however, it’s seductive to think that I can gain instant credibility with ordinary listeners by dropping some phat 808s. It’s natural to want to please an audience; is it unethical to take advantage of their ignorance (in the most nonjudgmental sense) and cultural conditioning (in the most judgmental sense) to do so?