Artful Deception

Sometimes I like to think of musicians as stage magicians. There is a kind of artful deception that’s a part of performance, but it’s rarely acknowledged and often downplayed, especially in the concert music world. I mean this in a literal sense—e.g. the rock star moves or Liberacean flourishes that are decried as flashy or ridiculous—but also in a more abstract sense. There is never perfect communication between artist and audience, so there must always be a disconnection between how the trick looks (or sounds) and how the trick is actually done.

This is most painfully obvious to me when I am working with live electronics. The laptop is a black box. Sounds mysteriously emanate from it, but the means of their production are obscured. If performance didn’t require magic, this would actually be a huge boon to musicians and listeners alike. Finally, we can dispense with superfluous showmanship and focus on the substance of the music! But in real life, the effect is curiously the opposite. If anything, electronic performers are more exposed than their acoustic counterparts because they cannot easily demonstrate their methods. Attempts to make the black box a little more transparent, like live coding or gesture following, to name a couple, aren’t terribly convincing on their own. Instead performers must rely on affective tactics (i.e. schticks) like stoic immobility, or the enthusiastic headbob, or various fader manipulation shenanigans.

Maybe my anxiety about this kind of performance is partly what’s kept me focused more on electroacoustic music (and lately I’m especially aware of how quaint “electroacoustic” sounds as a genre descriptor). With live acoustic instruments as the focus, I am free to be invisible, a presence felt but not known. I don’t think of myself as a performer when I run electronics for these pieces, though I am undeniably performing. Instead I feel more like a technician or a midwife, guiding the music into being.

But maybe this feeling is obsolete, a throwback to a time when people were more naturally suspicious or scornful of electronics. Something substantial has happened in the last 5-10 years, and all of a sudden everyone knows that any kind of live music can be faked. In theory this is kind of scary, but in practice it gives us an enormous amount of freedom: all people expect is a good show.

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