Playing live electronic music II – Improvisation and audience

Follow Skinnerbox on their journey of discussing playing live electronic music.
Part 1: How to play your electronic music live: an introduction
Part 2: Structuring your live set (from the computer point of view)
Part 3: Below

Hello everybody. This time it’s Olaf who’s writing about playing live electronic music. When we perform live I’m the one who is playing a synthesizer the entire show. Almost every time it’s a Minimoog but I additionally played a Juno-106 or a Jupiter-6 in some special shows and I even had to spontaneously play a Roland Pro Mars, a Moog Little Phatty or a Moog Voyager when the airline managed to delay transporting my Minimoog by too long.

The reason why I could play the show without my personal instrument and without too much of preparation is that we always improvise our shows. This doesn’t mean that we are completely free – we are supposed to make the crowd dance, aren’t we – but we can be flexible…

The concept of improvisation

Let’s get started with the widely used term “improvisation” and let’s take it apart: The core of this word is “vision” which I don’t need to explain, I think. If we move one step out we have “provision” in the meaning of foresight. “Improvision” is the opposite of that, which means that it relates to the moments in life when you cannot predict what is going to happen next. Whenever someone deals with a new situation he has to improvise. In this sense, noodling diatonic scales is not improvisation, because the harmonic progression is known to the soloist and he usually can rely on his band members to supply a steady background for his solo. Everything is predictable so far.
 

 

Making mistakes, not making mistakes

The improvisation only begins when something goes “wrong”. And there we have the possibly most archaic and fundamental, but still controversially discussed concept in philosophy. When it comes to valuation or even judgment, the worst thing which can happen to you is that you have to decide between only two possibilities. Nothing is so simple to be either black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. If you are on stage and you intended to play an F but somehow played a G you first of all will experience the overall effect of adrenaline. Before you even know what exactly happened you feel that you are not where you wanted to be. Emergency! …….
……. But wait a minute… The show must go on, and what drives you crazy is only a G. And there you are – you have to improvise right now and it depends on you if you either leave the stage full of shame or the audience doesn’t even notice your “mistake”. In the best case, however, you make something out of it: You can repeat that G everytime there should be F and listen to the new melody – a new idea is born. If you are lucky to have aware and talented band members, those will start improvising along because something changed.

What we do on stage is exclusively what I described in the last two sentences. This has radical consequences:

  1. Unexpected events are desired – within limits.
  2. Wrong notes don’t exist anymore.
  3. We have a full time job on stage.

At its best, it’s a constant flow of new ideas or a successful struggle in handling fluctuations.

The needs of the audience

And now the most important thing: The audience. Don’t forget the people in front of you.

Those of you who have once witnessed a performance of an under experienced free jazz combo might know how hard it can be to empathize with musicians. If you don’t connect with your audience, they cannot connect with your music. In our case the contact to the people on the dancefloor is established via the ear. In most places an audience is not a silent bunch of people. They dance, they enjoy themselves, they have fun and they like to be entertained.

Entertainment is the cure for boredom, and music that is highly repetitive has a certain tendency to bore people, especially when it is presented in a careless way. When you play something that people have waited for and enjoy very much, they will make noise. When they anticipate the four-to-the-floor feeling they will make a different noise. Our experience with that gets us to the point where the audience actually joins the show by giving us constant feedback on how entertaining we are, and this has direct effects on what we will play the next moment. If the crowd wants an extended build-up, we will play one. And this build-up was not part of our live set – there are no such. It rather manifests in the moment when it is most craved for.

To conclude I can tell, that the most important thing is your ear. This might sound trivial, but your ear has more tasks than just to detect mistakes. This is because live music is more than a correctly played sequence of notes. Live music is so alive because it can react to multiple influences, and that’s why it is so popular.

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