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The Ongoing Evolution of Live Electronic Music

“EVERYTHING TONIGHT IS LIVE. THIS IS IMPORTANT. TOO MANY SEAMLESS ASS ELECTRONIC MUSIC SHOWS. FUCKING INHUMAN ASS SHOWS. WE KEEP THIS LIVE OR THE END RESULT IS DEAD.”

This declaration blared on a screen behind heady experimentalist Holly Herndon during a Los Angeles performance earlier this year, as a bleeping helicopter loop whirled through the room. The message was Herndon’s dislocated take on typical crowd banter, a sly disruption of what we have come to expect from a live show. This unruliness extended to the rest of her set, which incorporated hardware, software, vocals, dance, digital processing and manipulation of all sorts, and shapeshifting vaporware projections. It was anything but static. Sometimes it felt like pure video game sound design or ambient gallery music, other times it rippled with the intensity of a trap show. Neither a rock gig nor a typical live techno show or laptop DJ set, the performance inhabited an intriguing in-between space and showed why Herndon is one of the most now-thinking members of a rapidly growing group of dynamic live electronic artists.

For these vanguard acts, form and function don’t just inform each other—they overlap almost entirely. New technology acts as both medium and message, though it can be hard to tell where hardware ends and human begins, which is likely the point. Mistakes are inevitable and intertwined—and prized. These artists seek to push our expectations past the idea of someone recreating their songs in front of a crowd and go deep into an experience that’s both more memorable and more alive.

“The notion of what ‘live’ means is currently being challenged,” Herndon tells me. “As machines may be easily programmed to perform musical tasks, we have to ask ourselves: What part of a performance should be live? What new opportunities do we have to play with liveness once we are somewhat freed from mechanical aspects of performance? Is cerebral performance as compelling as motor skill performance, and will that change?”

Holly Herndon uses hardware, software, dance, and text-based banter to disrupt the traditional idea of a live show. Photo by Maria Jefferis/Redferns.

In one form or another, live electronic music has been around for as long as the tools have existed, cropping up in the popular consciousness in experimental, rock, and pop songs since the ’60s. Groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream helped lay the groundwork for live electro, house, and techno, which in turn influenced rave and acid house, which was exported to America as electronica in the ’90s, when acts like the Chemical Brothersheadlined arena rock-type spectacles. Things got a little stale electronically for a spell until Daft Punk’s 2006 Coachella performance and subsequent tour, which capitalized on the blog house crest, opening the door for the EDM and brostep explosion (and recent implosion).

But while EDM is fizzling out, the last few years have seen all manner of live electronic crossover successes—like CaribouDarkside, and Simian Mobile Disco—as the equipment required for pulling off such innovative sets has gotten more nimble. Right now, it feels like we’re in a critical phase of electronic music’s live evolution, at the foothill of a cultural shift toward a more definable movement in tech and music culture where anything is fair game, and audiences are open to radical shifts.

Holly Herndon photo by Chris McKay/Getty Images.

The most recent wave of live electronic pioneers is not without precedent. Detroit luminary Jeff Mills has been playing out for a couple of decades and is one of the more widely known practitioners of live techno; the way he works a drum machine can look like sorcery. “What makes something live is the usage of the musician’s intuition to feel what to do next—what to say with his instrument,” Mills explains. “It’s a reactionary gesture based on how the musician is analyzing the current situation.” Mills believes that the specific tools a practitioner uses are irrelevant. Though he sometimes prepares sections of his sets, after they reach a certain point, anything could happen.

Talking about whether audiences desire such musicality—or if they’re content with another decade of first-pumping brodude shenanigans onstage—Mills isn’t especially hopeful. “People have been doing many unique things in music for decades,” he says. “Unfortunately, these actions are often overshadowed by music sensationalism; throwing pies, crowd surfing, and all the things that mask over real talent in the music industry.”

Mills is not wrong: Main stage electronic artists often are only working from a predetermined playlist and favor cheap tricks over spontaneity and traditional talent. However, pre-recorded sets or backing tracks aren’t always terrible, and musicality or liveness does not make an artist better by rule; there are plenty of artists with decades of music theory in their brains who have no idea how to capture and maintain the attention of a room. So while there’s a certain whiff of rockism coming from Mills and other techno elder statesmen, it’s likely due to the fact that they’ve witnessed so many followers make millions off their backs.

Live techno master Jeff Mills is known for his drum machine dexterity. Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns via Getty Images

Octave One, another veteran Detroit act known for house and techno sets, has been playing live since 1999. The group is led by brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden, and their gear list is extensive, featuring both old and new machines. Though such an abundance of live tools leads to a higher probability that one of the machines will fail, it also allows for a huge amount of freedom. The Burden brothers have the ability to manipulate every sound coming from the speakers in one way or another. They can rearrange or program sequences, extend moments, play live or loop on the fly, and add effects. The infinite possibilities make each show unique.

“There is a certain satisfaction that comes from playing your own music and reinterpreting it in front of an audience,” Lenny says, talking about the difference between DJing and playing live. “Instead of two stereo tracks you have 24 tracks of various sounds to make something new from. Live isn’t better than DJing, however—there’s room for both things in the world of electronic music.”

Historically, the classic, purist view of club DJ culture considered the action on the dancefloor as the main focus of the room; instead of playing to the audience, like a rock group, the DJ played with the crowd. That idea was challenged in the ’90s and ’00s with the rise of superstar DJs, who often relied on pure spectacle, like a bunch of bass-addled Gene Simmonses.

But some of the more successful live electronic performers now seem to be having it both ways, borrowing tropes from both DJ and rock culture, creating sets that sometimes flow seamlessly like a DJ mix and sometimes have distinct breaks between songs to make room for applause and banter. If anything, these acts are akin to jazz artists or jam bands rejiggered with laptops and blinking drum pads, where what song you’re playing isn’t necessarily as important as how you’re playing it, how the arrangement changes, how long the riff goes on, how it will only be played this exact way once and only once.

With nearly two decades of live gigs in his rearview, Lenny suggests that novices should lean into the technical challenges of performing live instead of shying away from them. “One of the most important things is to be flexible,” he insists. “You will have bad sets. You will also have equipment failure almost every night. Don’t panic! Know your gear and setup well so you can troubleshoot and fix the problem, do it with a smile on your face, and keep playing. Chances are you’re the only one who knows that there is a problem. Sometimes mistakes make the best shows too.”

Veteran Detroit duo Octave One take pride in the improvisatory nature of their live sets.

There’s currently a whole crop of artists making music in the wake of Detroit techno’s first and second wavers, including the Amsterdam by way of Israel duo Juju & Jordash, aka Jordan Czamanski and Gal Aner. The pair is well-known on the European underground circuit, and they represent the jazzier side of the live spectrum. Armed with an extensive knowledge of musical theory, Juju & Jordash now play completely improvised shows—but it wasn’t always that way. After starting off doing gigs that featured both pre-prepared and spontaneous sections, they soon lost interest in the canned stuff. “We ended up only enjoying the parts that were totally improvised,” Czamanski tells me. “Having playback felt really stupid.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive to the way many musicians operate, preparation became their enemy. Their knowledge and experience with their gear, music theory, and—most importantly—each other gave them the courage to jump in the deep end, leaving many of their peers in the wake.

As a result, Czamanski believes that their brand of jamming has recently become more common. “Five years ago, more eyebrows were raised when promoters got our tech rider,” he says. “But now it’s way easier for them to get hold of the gear we need. It seems like many other live acts have more elaborate setups than a laptop these days, because all the new hardware makes it easier.”

Amsterdam-based duo Juju & Jordash’s live show slowly evolved into an entirely off-the-cuff affair.

Along with more durable, user-friendly hardware, the modern tool that has played the largest part in breaking open electronic music—both in composing, as a digital audio workstation, and performing, as a sequencer and live “brain”—is Ableton Live. In its 15-year existence, the German-based software has ascended to an indispensable weapon, an application that is both friendly to beginners and the gold standard for professionals.

There have been criticisms too, including what some considered to be a weak sound engine and a crummy warp function that bad DJs overused early on. A few years ago, outspoken producer Disco Nihilist said, “When you think of [Ableton], you think of shitty plip-plop techno. It’s easy, it’s cheap. [But] in a lot of ways Ableton can be more live than an MPC because you have more freedom and control in your set.” Almost every live performer I’ve ever met has used Ableton at one point or another, and the program itself continues to become stronger and more stable.

British purveyor of icy-hot house Jon Hopkins, who has been using Ableton onstage for about seven years, tells me that recent updates to the program have made it more vital than ever. Ultimately, it’s not about the technical specs as much is it about the user being freed of old linear hardware constraints. As attractive as old modular gear can be, such instruments are incredibly cumbersome on so many levels. Ableton frees the artist from all the uselessly complex facets of engineering electronic music and is generally affordable too. At this point, Ableton is the de facto choice as a stable sequencing brain for any sort of live set, and its applications are not even fully understood yet.

Jon Hopkins relies on the digital audio workstation Ableton Live to keep his sets fresh. Photo by Nick Pickles/Redferns via Getty Images.

Singer-producer Jessy Lanza had an Ableton-related epiphany a few years ago when she was on tour with Caribou, a band that is constantly blurring the line between organic and electronic in their shows. “It was really interesting to watch the audience respond to them,” she says. “There’s four people onstage—including two drummers—but so much of their set is reliant on Ableton as a brain. The most fun part was when the more acoustic-based performances and all of the sequenced stuff that people were changing in real-time met.”

Jessy Lanza photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns via Getty Images.

Lanza has a jazz background but she doesn’t play jazz music. The Canadian artist falls in a category of artists, like Grimes and FKA twigs, whose chief aim is to deconstruct pop music as we know it. She came to international attention when she began releasing music with Hyperdub, an imprint known for pushing boundaries of electronic music, and she has tried her hand at various vocal-driven styles: freestyle, R&B, pop. She began playing shows solo, working synths, singing, and triggering playback herself. “Playing live for me was really scary the first couple years,” she admits. “Playing alone, I always felt like I had to do a million things, but there’s only so much that one person can do.”

Inspired by Caribou, she hired herself a drummer and now revels in the newfound freedom onstage. “Having that energy and somebody to play off of has made such a huge difference,” Lanza says.

After starting her career playing solo shows, Jessy Lanza enlisted a drummer to keep her live sets more engaging.

As more and more electronic artists add live elements to their sets, and as the culture becomes more visible thanks to YouTube portals like Boiler Room, expectations for such spontaneity have risen as well. David August, a twentysomething from Germany who finds his musical center somewhere between house and classical, came under scrutiny a couple of years ago after playing a Boiler Room set—online commenters felt that, because his set was largely pre-structured in Ableton, he was not truly playing live; they had expectations for something more improvisational, so it felt like a cheat.

Since then, August has become more confident in his abilities, but he doesn’t use the word “LIVE” on the bill when he’s performing. He wants to avoid that sense of overselling what it is he’s doing, which sometimes involves extending synth lines and using effects or doing edits in-the-moment, but rarely playing with no preparation whatsoever.

I caught August last year at his first L.A. show. The set ran more than three hours. He was playing on the floor, and the place was packed, and most of the audience couldn’t really see what he was doing. From where I was standing, the most obvious crowd reactions came when he was improvising on his synthesizer or working on slow, long builds with gentle drops. It felt like a very cohesive DJ set with a few standout live moments, like August was still figuring out how his brand of melancholy, classical-tinged house should stand from the pack.

One possible conclusion came earlier this year, when August, who is classically trained, mounted a collaboration with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, playing in a palatial hall rather than a dank club. The event seemed to fit with the work of Mills, who has been trying such experiments for a while, and other current artists likeNils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds, who are spearheading a micro-scene that’s becoming more popular than perhaps anyone could have predicted, breathing life into classical music in the process.

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