Sunday, October 19, 2008

Live vs. Mostly Live

I’ve thought a lot about this issue over the years, and during the past few days on the SynthSights mailing list there’s been a discussion on live music being performed on laptops (and note that this post is a slightly longer and mildly improved version of a post I put up there a day or so ago).

I’ve seen a few live shows where I wasn’t exactly sure how much of it was actually being performed live. The most disappointing one was Tangerine Dream. My heros. It was still a great show, but one would expect that when Edgar Froese comes out from behind the keyboards to play guitar there would be a noticeable change in the music behind him. I realize it’s only three guys, or nowadays several people, but it seemed more like they were tending the music rather than playing the music. I suppose I’d prefer six people playing rather then three people and a tape. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy their shows, but there’s always something about it that makes me wonder.

Another example is Peter Gabriel. His shows are amazing, and I’m a huge fan. The early “solo” shows were just great shows, almost as if he were finally getting to do things the way he wanted them done. Larry Fast playing keyboards didn’t hurt either since for me seeing Synergy live was a total bonus (and note that he did a solo show, presumably with much computer help, at NearFest X back in June). The more recent shows, however, sometimes make me question what I’m hearing. There are a lot people with him and there’s a lot going on, but fairly often I find that my ears perk up and I’m unable to figure out who, if anyone, is playing something. Gabriel has some large screened device on his keyboard table, which actually I’m now wondering what it is, so it’s a bit up in the air as to how much of the show is not actually being performed live. In some ways I feel a little cheated when I see him. The music is so good, but there’s always that little voice in the back of my head questioning the veracity of what I’m hearing.

Then there’s Todd Rundgren. He’s done all sorts of shows, some with bands that had three keyboard players so he could do it all live, and some solo shows where he would introduce his Roland sequencer as his bandmate. Totally up front, you always know what was live and what wasn’t. However, there have been times (such as when I saw him live last week) when there was a small bit of the show which was a slightly awkward bit of pre-recording. Last week there was a moment in the middle of a song where they had a short sequencer break that intro’d a different section of the song. You couldn’t leave it out, but you also couldn’t really play it live. Me, I would have preferred it if they had brought in one extra piece of equipment rather than having it be something done offstage. Even if it were done offstage, at least trigger it with a keypress onstage. That’s what MIDI is for, after all. It was pretty amusing to see them all mill about for a moment during that momentary break before they started to play again. This isn’t a critique at all, it was just a little surprising to see them all stop playing for a moment.

The other extreme is something like Jordan Rudess at Moogfest a year or so ago. An amazing performance, but it was just a bit distracting to hear an entire prog band blazing away but to only have one guy up on stage. Also at Moogfest, although at an earlier edition, was Thomas Dolby. Very entertaining and a good show, but it was obviously one guy with his computer. In fact, he was having a bit of trouble with the software. That wasn’t a bad thing, though, as he’s such a good performer and kept up his chatting with the audience throughout. The problem with both of those performances, though, is that they were accompanying their CDs or their computers. For me, seeing these two great performers just sort of “playing along” to their music was just the tiniest bit of a letdown.

And then there’s Robert Rich, also. I’ve only seem him live once (so far). It was a really good show in a really good venue with a really good MOTM modular behind him. I had a bunch of his records, but I was wondering how he’d do them by himself in a live situation. Well, it took him two laptops but he pulled it off. A substantial portion of the show had him playing “effected” guitar or PVC flutes whilst being accompanied by his own music. However, I believe he was using Ableton Live, which allowed him to mix and vary things as the mood struck. It was a bit more interesting than a simple recording with him playing along. Was it fully live? No, not really, but it was interesting and entertaining. I appreciated that while the show contained pre-recorded music it was also under the control of the performer rather than simply being a “tape recorder” playback.

I want to make it clear, though, that I am in no way trying to slam any of these artists. In fact, I'm a huge fan of most of them and the rest I “only” like a lot. We’re talking about fully live vs. partially live here, not whether the music is good or bad.

Anyway, this is starting get way too long. My vote: I prefer live. I’d rather bring in a couple of extra people to help me out if I have something I can’t fully play on my own in a live situation. I’d also rather start a sequence with my own two audience-visible hands on a hardware device than to click a mouse. Same music, different perception.

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