Music fans and technology have a tumultuous relationship. Purists called Bob Dylan a Judas when he started to play electric guitar. Any rock band with a synthesizer in the '70s was, at the very least, scrutinized more heavily than its synthless brethren. Over time these and other technologies have come to be accepted by most music lovers. And while most fans would never admit to harboring an aversion to technology, prejudice remains. Just ask any of the competitors in Holocene's upcoming All-Area Laptop Battle.
A host of musicians, or "button-pushers," as the luddites like to call them, will duke it out tournament-style to determine laptop supremacy in the region. Much like hip-hop's MC and DJ battles with one-on-one three-minute sets, the laptop competition stresses spontaneity and improvisation, two elements that don't usually come to mind when thinking about music generated on laptops. While the composers stare at their screens, the debate of whether pushing keys on a laptop counts as a live performance will rage on.
Contestant Paul Dickow (a.k.a. Strategy) calls the preconception that laptop music isn't really a live performance "a narrow, guitar-centric, rock-centric view."
"Because the majority of my musical career has been playing a stringed instrument 'live,'" says Meagan Johnson (a.k.a. Bllix), "I can easily say that a laptop music set can definitely be live performance. It all depends on how you do it."
There are, basically, two opposing positions on how to do it. One side argues that proper laptop performances should include more than some dude smoking a cigarette behind his Powerbook and pressing the "play" button on a pre-produced track.
"If audiences watch and listen closely," says Dickow, "they can tell who's improvising and who's just hitting 'play' on something that's essentially a fancy version of iTunes. I've opened for a handful of very well-known electronic artists who have not improvised very much and basically get paid big bucks to play prepared tracks. While I respect their work as producers, I think this is totally unacceptable."
The pro-"play" button side counters that as long as the performer brings something else to the table, it's OK to use pre-produced tracks.
"At first it was like, 'Whoa, that's kind of weird, he's not really making music in real time,'" says Jona Bechtolt (a.k.a. Y.A.C.H.T.). "But then I realized that it doesn't matter. Whatever's coming out of the speakers, if it's awesome and if it makes you want to dance, then it doesn't matter what's causing it to happen."
The All-Area Laptop Battle doesn't allow the use of external gear such as microphones or keyboards, so the onus is on the performers to avoid merely pressing the "play" button and utilize their laptops as instruments, precisely how Dickow argues laptop music should be performed.
The software used by laptop composers is basically a virtual collection of programs that mimic the drum machines, synths and samplers that an electronic performer would use in a performance, Dickow explains. "These 'instruments,' though not physical, can still be performed on the fly like their physical counterparts. They may play a pattern to a mechanized clock, but they still require human hands and minds to give them instructions. The idea that the laptop must be like a record player is completely wrong, because it's not the laptop that's the instrument, it's the software application the laptop is hosting that is the instrument."
Johnson describes her performances as "typically fully mastered tracks, with some improv and live keys."
Bechtolt tells of a more extreme take on this position: "Some people just press 'play' on a bunch of things and do more of a DJ set where they have a bunch of pre-composed things that they put together or mixing tracks in and out, and it's based more on their physical performance. I have a friend named Lucky Dragons who makes really amazing music, but his performance is based more on him dancing and going crazy while the music is played."
In the end, it's difficult to tell what, if anything, the performer is doing behind the laptop. Uptight concertgoers have to have faith that the performer isn't cheating them, sending emails and surfing porn while playing a prerecorded audio file.
The All-Area Laptop Battle takes place Wednesday, Dec. 17, at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., 239-7639. 9:30 pm. $5. 21+.