Rewire 2019: Looking for live inspiration in a world over saturated with records. Part 1

From 29 to 31st of March happened in Hague, Netherlands, the 9th edition of the Rewire festival, which annually brings groundbreaking music performances and enriches the Dutch public debate about what they call adventurous music in a world each time more over saturated with what can be called “concrete music”, “carved in stone”. What has been typically known as the record, invented in the early 20th century. At first, massively reproduced in vinyl phonographs, it has been followed by cassettes tapes and CDs. Music has become digitized as everything else, stored on “clouds” and digitally distributed to consumers via streaming, free and paid downloads. Nowadays music is part of the famous big data. Some critical theory abstract institutions like mass media or industry of culture, are here represented by the music industry, which changed a lot in one century, as much as the whole music experience itself. Though music itself remains the same. Either it’s a church chorus, a group of drummers playing on a broad avenue’s corner or the 80s pop song playing inside your local grocery shop.

Nicolas Jaar and Group, performing on the 31st of March, Rewire Festival. Grote Kerk, Den Haag. Photo by Rewire.

This year, Rewire sought to answer questions such as what characterizes liveness when most of the music we listen to come through the means of communication. Where the music experience also aims to fit a capitalist demand to generate profit in large scales, selling records or attracting big crowds to live concerts in stadiums. Therefore, some of the questions are: What is the artist’s role in the contemporary music live performances? In contrast to the music composed, recorded and produced in a studio. How can artists face these rapid shifts of new music instruments, methods of creating and processing sounds into music? How can those new techniques impact our experience of watching live music?

Visual music by Cornelius Cardrew.

The whole pop music scene is marked by a concrete musicality that can only be performed in a few specific ways, such as dance or visual elements, such as pictures, videos, DJ sets and playback singing.

Those are some of the questions I also tried to answer myself when I first started to compose and produce my music back in 2015. For example, if I learned how to play a traditional instrument, such as acoustic or electric guitar, how could I ever perform electronic compositions made by MIDI technology on a laptop, through a DAW? Specially not having a band or group that could aid me in that process.

My attempt to answer those questions only brought me more questions about music-making and performance in the 21st century. It seemed to me that watching a live concert of electronic music where the so-called DJ/producers would merely stay in front of the crowd mixing their own tracks with other famous hits, while a massive public would appreciate their music exactly how it’s been produced in studio, without any type of flexibility, shown improvisation or music skills being deconstructed to the public. A scenario extremely opposed to that one of jazz.

Where would all the jams go? That would not be the kind of concert I wanted to make myself. Certainly, associating DJ sets with a poor live performance over simplifies everything, as also DJ sets can change and adapt songs to a crowd, which is something characteristic to pop and dance music. Some stunning performances can also result from DJ sets, just imagine all the underground techno and dance clubs out there that take this experience to its limitations every week all around the world. The whole pop music scene is marked by a concrete musicality that can only be performed in a few specific ways, such as dance (contemporary, ballet), visual elements, such as pictures, videos, DJ sets and playback singing.

The good thing about arts is that all the possibilities are open to experimentation. There are no limitations for artists’ creations and each individual is unique.

My 2016 me refused to accept what could be a live performance of concrete music, I would not just press play on my singles in a one hour long gig, so I started to learn Ableton Live and how to deconstruct my songs into small samples that could be applied to live improvisations. Realistically, all those singles played in a row would not last longer than 20 minutes. I incorporated to my live set some other pop-elements typical of DJ sets, such as Björk’s vocals and synthesizer saved with pre-sets that I could improvise with, while playing my drum loops. Ultimately, it was a live PA with DJ set influences.

After all, the gig was not successful, due to a lack of public and experience on my side, but it taught me how it is possible to overcome the limitations imposed by producing music on studios and how to perform them alive. A lot has happened since then, for instance, my latest album has just been released. Which has has been performed, broadcasted and recorded in less than one hour on 20th of March, which forced me to work fast, on a limited amount time, making use of a drum machine and an electric guitar containing three different pedals, not more than that. Two weeks after releasing “Nada Como Um Dia Após o Outro Dia” and attending Rewire, I could not be more certain about the existence of multiple possibilities for music performance in the 21st century, from a more concrete type of performance to a more flexible and improvised one. The good thing about arts is that all the possibilities are open to experimentation. There are no limitations for artists’ creations and each individual is unique.

Portrait of Walter Benjamin, 1928. Akademie der Künste, Berlin.

“One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements”. Walter Benjamin, The Work or Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935. Pt. II

Moreover, music experience is something much broader than a single record or live performance. Liveness itself, as a concept, can be found everywhere and there are dozens of possibilities for liveness to occur. Which brings me to Adam Harper, author of Infinite Music, and some of his considerations presented at Rewire. Liveness consists of four different elements: 1. The Sound, 2. The Stage, 3. The Moment and 4. The Body. Music can happen in expositions, for example, marking the importance of the stage for liveness. For that, he presents cases such as the Philips Pavillion, happened in 1958. Or merely as graphic content, such as Cornelius Cardew‘s notations or the French medieval book Roman de Fauvel. These are cases where people interact with music without necessarily attending to performances, but merely as reading and interacting with visual information. Summing up, music experience is all about aura, as explained by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, essay from 1935 (quotation above).

Many things can happen after the performer press play on his music, just like with pop music artists, nothing unusual…

Philips Pavilion, Brussels, 1958.

During his talk, Harper mentions the role of the body and how it is an essential part of liveness. Which I could verify watching John Bence’s (from Nicolas Jaar’s label Other People) performance that happened minutes after that debate. Bence makes concrete music by definition, his performance happened in Hague’s old catholic church and visitors arriving to watch him perform could immediately notice the lack of music instruments. In the churche’s altar we could identify a laptop, two concert sized loud speakers and nothing else. His performance started with him bowing down to the audience and pressing play on his laptop, which caused ambient music to start playing while he would warm up starring seriously at his laptop’s screen. He later stands up and reacts to the sounds of his own music, singing the vocals on a playback, moving his arms on the rhythm of sounds. It was a truly ritualistic performance of his music inside a church. Which was aided by other non-auditive elements, like the lighting effects behind the altar, causing the colours to change, illumining the usual catholic paintings in the background. Confirming what Adam Harper mentioned about the body’s role in music. Many things can happen after the performer press play on his music, just like pop music artists, nothing unusual…

(to be continued in the second part)

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