Upwardly Mobile: What we talk about when we talk about laptop music

When I was invited by NewMusicBox to write an overview of “laptop music,” my initial instinct was that this would be less an introduction than a requiem. Isn’t the phrase “laptop music” sorta “over”? Well, as it turns out, no. Quite the contrary: More people are making more music with more software than ever on laptops.

In the few days since the publication of “Serial Port: A Brief History of Laptop Music,” I’ve already begun to hear from people, some referenced in the story itself, others simply involved in the culture at large.

The core of the article uses a recent concert by the Kronos Quartet as a kind of emblematic experience of laptop music. Three laptops were involved in the performance: one played by a member of Matmos in that duo’s piece with Kronos at the end of the second set; one employed by Kronos’s sound engineer/designer, Scott Fraser; and one by Walter Kitundu, the composer and instrument maker who performed with Kronos at the end of the first set.

In the article, I noted, “If Matmos’s use of the laptop best epitomized the aural fact of laptop music, Kitundu’s came closer to an audience’s experience of laptop music: you had no idea what he doing.”

Well, to help clarify things significantly, Kitundu sent me an informative email, and he gave me permission to post it:

Just thought I’d demystify my laptop’s role during the Kronos piece at YBCA. I was using software that allowed me to play MP3s with a record on my Phonokora. The digital files were often versions of Kronos’ interpretations of Mingus collages that I’d assembled with turntables. They learned these elements and recorded them using their traditional instruments, and I reused them via the turntable to create some of the atmospheric sound of the piece, and to respond to what they played live during certain sections of the composition. (Mingus 3 or 4 times removed.) The Phonokora now has a USB crossfader… I was interested in mixing the old with the new, strings and bytes, naural/digital—seeing how refiltering ideas repeatedly via the process would affect the outcome. The composition was about memory (of a loved one passed on) and this was a concrete way to examine how memory transforms over time and through experience.

Another person asked me, subsequent to the story’s publication: “I do a lot of my music work on my iMac. My turntable is plugged into it even. Does this still count as ‘laptop music’? I mean, it’s Reason and Live and hopefully soon Reaktor.” (Those last three capitalized words are the names of different music-making software packages.)

That distinction was very much on my mind as I wrote the article. To me it comes down to what I describe in the article as a “continuity of technological experience.” The laptop has allowed people who both make music at home and perform in front of audiences to use the same equipment, and thus it has allowed them to develop a heightened sense of intimacy with their equipment. That’s what uniquely makes the laptop, among various computer-music tools, akin to an instrument.

So, no, an iMac doesn’t count as a laptop just because one makes music on it. But if that single computer becomes one’s primary apparatus, both as a studio unto itself and as a performance tool that one plays in various environments, then it certainly might as well be a laptop.

5 thoughts on “Upwardly Mobile: What we talk about when we talk about laptop music

  1. MrBiggs

    Hm, I see your point. I have a turntable from which I record my LPs and 45s to my computer for manipulation and mangling, but this doesn’t make me a DJ, does it? I like to play my accordions in the den when no one’s around, but I can’t really call myself a busker (hell, I wouldn’t even call myself an accordionist, but that’s another thing).

    I like the idea that making music on the computer doesn’t necessarily fit into this idea of “laptop music.” I have all my loops and samples safely squirreled away on a portable hard drive which I carry up and down stairs between the iMac and my MacBook Pro, and often to the university where I teach. Never once have I done anything remotely close to “performing” with the music, on any computer. I recently repurposed my four-year-old Powerbook for this new Intel MacBook and while, man, the speed is swell and this illuminated keyboard makes it easier to write in my dimly lit room, I do indeed miss the Powerbook and it’s “personality” (including the stickers and scratches on the cover). I’ve considered going back to it as my exclusive music machine, getting rid of all the iLifes and Photoshops and other software on it.

    Will that be enough to make me a “laptop musician” or do I have to book a gig somewhere to cross that line? If not “laptop music,” is it merely “electronic?”

    Reply
  2. Chris Becker

    I am not clear on the distinction being made here or why one does need to be made other than for academic/historical perspective.

    I think it would be interesting to talk about performance and the lack of nuance and dynamics present in laptops (and/or the musicians who perform with them). Perhaps recognizing and dealing with some of these drawbacks in a creative fashion can yield interesting more moving results.

    In live performance, I am a composer who uses a laptop as musically as possible. But I don’t consider it a musical instrument. I also always perform with at least one other musician on an instrument other than a laptop. For me, a more multi-dimensional sound results – I feel I am able to say more and (ideally) take people places they weren’t expecting to go.

    The Kronos piece sounds fascinating.

    Reply
  3. MrBiggs

    Wait. You’re saying that you don’t know why the distinction should be made, and that it would be better to discuss some of the ways that you find laptops limiting?
    I’m not Marc, but I would have a hard time pitching the idea that there should be an article about musicians who use guitars but who don’t really care about different guitar techniques and who actually find all those strings a problem.
    There are many musician who very much do consider the laptop an instrument. The first time I saw a “laptop jam” here in Philadelphia, I recognized the potential as an “instrument” immediately. I don’t use mine that way – but I can see the potential for what I want to do. Especially when it comes to dynamically and improvisationally controlling animation and video with the music in a live setting. Try doing that with an accordion.

    Reply
  4. Chris Becker

    Right on. Go ‘head with your bad self and do your thang with that laptop.

    Before the laptop, I worked with DJs (in New Orleans), and at the start of those collaborations I immediately heard limitations with the gear itself and often with the performers themselves operating the turntables (or later, running laptops). That was my initial reaction. But instead of throwing my hands up and saying turntables and laptops suck, I, like you, wanted to explore the potential that these tools had for composers. You’re exactly right in saying they can do things an accordion cannot do.

    But again, I think the limitations of the laptop as a tool in performance should be creatively addressed by the very community that wants them to be recognized as “instruments.” If a laptop musican cannot hear or refuses to acknowledge its limitations, maybe that’s the start of a debate.

    I actually like your proposed idea for an article on guitar players who find strings to be a problem…

    Reply
  5. devslashnull

    Responding to Chris Beckers comment that limitations of the laptop should be addressed by that community of laptop users… I can only say that this is a constant topic within that very community. Visit the “.microsound” list for starters to get some idea of the depth that laptop performers troll their collective creativity to develop new and interesting ways to work their “instrments”.
    With regards to the idea of guitarists who find strings to be a problem. I could qualify as one of them. Although not actually a “guitarist” at all, I have built a custom controller for a unique set of softwares, which I have assembled frankenstein style into the body of an old guitar… no strings attached…. only knobs, ribbon controllers, and a programmable keypad. The impetus for this was to establish a more physically expressive relationship with my performance and to give an audience something to see during that performance, a recognizable icon to ground an observer, to reconnect them if you will, to the acceptable “aura” of authentic performance. On one level there is an irony in that I sometimes will play “guitar” using an “instrument” which is clearly NOT a guitar, but sorta looks like one, and even sounds like one… begging the question “so, what’s the point?” To be honest I don’t really know the point… except that I don’t just play guitar sounds with it at all… I can easily controll virtually anything within the digital domain with it, including video. On another level, in some small way I hope to point out the difficulty of establishing the aura of authenticity in a “laptop performance”.

    Reply

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