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Songs in the Key of F12   ]

First software turned the laptop into a musical instrument. Now who's in control: the machine or the musician? - By Erik Davis

It's Sunday night at Open Air, a small, sleek lounge in downtown Manhattan. A couple dozen musicians, DJs, and bedroom hackers huddle around the bar or relax on couches. Many are toting computers. The atmosphere is trendy but soothing: Exposed wood conjures a California vibe that counterbalances the space-station chill; sunsets and moonscapes float across a wall of flat-panel displays. Everyone's paying more attention to their laptop screens than to the art on the walls - making the scene more home-brew computer club than East Village bohemia.

Everybody's here for Share, a weekly gathering that began last summer as a swap meet focused on the applications, macros, and plug-ins available to musicians working with PCs. Most of the goods were soon traded, and the party evolved into a combination jam session and mutual support line. Share co-honcho Rich Panciera, a scruffy Brooklynite who records under the handle lloop, explains: "The music people play here is a prototype for the music of the future."

The music, as you might guess, is electronica. And though the stuff at Share sounds rather avant-garde, with its edgy textures and squirrelly beats, it's also strangely familiar. After all, electronic music is ubiquitous these days, the sonic backdrop in restaurants, retail shops, and TV commercials. Its signature moves are used by everyone from Timbaland to Radiohead, Björk to Moby.

Keiko Uenishi jams at Share, a weekly software swap meet in NYC. Photo by Lucas Thorpe.
In a larger sense, nearly all of the music you hear today, both recorded and live, is electronic. This doesn't necessarily mean that it's digital - many studio engineers and artists remain fervently attached to analog hardware, with its arguably greater warmth and richness. But the computer is inextricably woven into all stages of the modern recording process: Even acoustic music such as string quartets and bluegrass is spliced and diced with all-purpose mixing software like Pro Tools and Logic. The wandering tones of mediocre (but marketable) singers are routinely treated with pitch-correcting programs like Antares Auto-Tune. And no one balks at drum machines anymore.

No one balks at sampled voices anymore. These days, Milli Vanilli seem like prophets, not cheats.

An explosion of scattershot beats emerges from the next room. The sounds belong to Geoff Matters, a slight 24-year-old who sports a wispy Fu Manchu, earrings, and long blond hair stuffed inside a beige stocking cap. Besides helping to organize Share, Matters is one of the lead programmers for GDAM, which stands for Geoff and Dave's Audio Mixer. An open source digital DJ rig that's "perpetually in beta," GDAM cuts and mixes MP3s like a vinyl DJ gone cyborg.

Matters unfolds a 4-foot-square mat that looks like a ticktacktoe gameboard and has the phrase STAY COOL! emblazoned in the center. Officially, the device belongs to Dance Dance Revolution, the PlayStation version of an insanely popular Japanese arcade game that leads players through hyperactive dance routines. Instead of dictating moves, Matters' rejiggered pad lets him drive the music. Stepping on different squares controls an array of beats and effects, allowing him to scratch virtual records with his feet. "It's not about re-creating vinyl," Matters explains. "It's about performance."

As Matters hops around in his fat, floppy socks, the evening's featured performer settles down on a nearby couch and pops open her PowerBook. Keiko Uenishi, aka O.blaat, is a Japanese artist best known for wiring up Ping-Pong games with mikes and modulating the resulting audio. Without fanfare, she begins unleashing an enchanted sea of sound: Fuzzed-out birdcalls flit through submarine drones, and scratchy beats crackle like a thousand records skipping as one.

Uenishi's set is great; however, like most laptop musicians, she's boring to watch. Calling up audio files and filters with a QWERTY keyboard lacks the visual punch of a guitar solo or a drumroll, and often there isn't even a visible link between a keypunch and a specific change in sound. Is it live or is it Memorex? No one at Share seems to care, and for all I know, Uenishi might have spent her time playing The Sims.

The question about the "liveness" of the show conceals another,more difficult one:

Monolake's Robert Henke performs an ambient set. Photo by Alexander Kurz.

Who exactly is responsible for the music? Both at the club and beforehand, Uenishi made any number of decisions about audio files and sequences. But the PowerBook and its software brought it all together and unleashed the flow in real time. Who's in control? The machine or the musician?

Twerk, aka Shawn Hatfield, onstage.
We should be used to this sort of ambiguity by now. Remix records regularly outsell the originals, rap music rules the charts with repurposed samples, and Black Sabbath uses TelePrompTers onstage. These days, Milli Vanilli seem like prophets, not cheats. As the musicians adapt the computer, the distinction between the instrument and the music the instrument makes begins to break down. Uenishi wasn't joking when she suggested to me that, in the future, the pop chart would become a software chart.

There are loads of digital instruments available, but most don't create new sounds - they emulate old ones. Techno kids who once drooled over rare or expensive hardware like Prophet-5 or DX7 can now download "soft synths" from the Net (legally or not). A popular Swedish product called Reason serves up a bevy of virtual machines in an old-school package: Boot the program and you see a rack-mounted stack of rectangular boxes equipped with the old knobs and sliders. If you want to reconnect the devices, you can just spin the simulated machines around onscreen and switch the patch cords.

You can make a song today, or make a new tool to make a song tomorrow. But that can keep you from ever doing music again.

Twerk, aka Shawn Hatfield, onstage.

The hardcore, however, use more flexible applications that let them design their own instruments directly. The most legendary of these modular programming environments is Max/MSP, which got its start 20 years ago at Ircam, a highbrow music research lab in France. Max allows users to design data-flow networks that, among other things, can generate music. MSP is an extension to Max. It synthesizes and processes the sounds sluicing through those networks. Max/MSP creates these networks, called patches, mostly by drawing links between graphical objects that represent different processes. "It's like a musical Erector set," says Joshua Clayton, a Max programmer who records under the name Kit. "From simple building blocks, you can build individualized musical machines."

A lot of what passes for experimentalism in popular electronic music represents an obsession with the big lever:
Whether it's Reason, Max/MSP, Reaktor, Live, or something even newer. The desire to constantly reprocess material, and to release the results as finished products, is only amplified by the constant turnover of software. "There's a new piece of software every day," says Oakland, California's Miguel Depedro, who runs the Tigerbeat6 label and records whacked-out sampladelic electronica under the name Kid606. "By the time you've learned how to use something, there's already something else. I would love for everything to just pause right now - no new advances, no faster computers, no new Max. And then we'll see what we do for the next two years."

Joshua "Kit" Clayton prepares for a gig. Photo by John Mendez

Depedro's reaction to the infinity of options is to largely ignore them. Instead of geeking out over new software, he goes punk rock, injecting bratty-ass fun into a music dominated by tech talk of fast Fourier transforms. His live shows unleash dense hip hop and R&B from the twin-barreled plunderphonic bazooka fashioned from two PowerBooks and a multichannel DJ mixer. And a recent Kid606 bootleg EP, freakbitchlickfly, features Depedro mangling unauthorized snippets of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" into a Ritalin stomp. The turn away from process-heavy hermeticism represents a rejection of the technological futurism of the '90s, which mindlessly embraced the latest upgrade as the avenue toward fulfillment and success. As Depedro points out, "You don't even need a computer to play live electronic music."

Even a few programmer-musicians echo some of Depedro's concerns. Joshua Clayton programs for Cycling '74 and remains captivated by the nitty-gritty processing available in environments like Max/MSP. Clayton also has concerns about the aesthetic attitude that such programs can produce. "I find that people who use Max and similar programs often aspire to be the god behind the universe, to come up with a formal system that's completely under their control. Some people can't wait to get everything inside the computer so they can generate some kind of utopian music that's all contained within the machine." For Clayton, who still loves to sample the analog world with a hand microphone, music that just plays itself is anathema. "We are at a confusing point in time," he says. "These mechanical processes are the only things the culture can latch onto, but at the same time there's something unpleasant about them, something a little weird."

The party is Joypad, the place is San Francisco, and local laptop wizard Twerk is playing one of the most engaging live ambient sets I've ever heard. Oddly processed sounds build up shimmering textures as feedback loops envelop one another and beats slowly unfold like a flower bud in a time-lapse film. Along with working his PowerBook, Twerk twirls a set of knobs on a small controller. Next to me, a punkish brunette explains to her friend that the knobs are controlling various parameter values for the algorithms that make up Twerk's live patch.

This is clearly not rock 'n' roll.

Neither is Twerk's home studio, which takes up the living room of his apartment in San Francisco's Western Addition. The space is frighteningly neat, the dust-free computer desk bare except for a handful of CDs stacked in a crisp brick.

Kid606, live in Berlin, plays dual PowerBooks and a crossfader instead of the traditional wheels of steel. Photo by Alexander Kurz

Twerk, aka Shawn Hatfield, is recognized as one of the leading programmer-musicians on California's laptop-techno scene, but the 28-year-old native didn't even own a computer a few years ago. Originally a hip hop DJ - "spray cans were our technology" - Hatfield began making straight-ahead techno records in the late '90s. On a whim, he bought a copy of Cool Edit Pro and started playing with it on his girlfriend's Sony Vaio. He was hooked. He plunged into Reaktor and then upgraded to Max/MSP, and his techno records began to mutate. "My music started to get more experimental because the tools themselves are experimental." Eventually he sold all his analog gear. "I'm not even trying to emulate analog. I'm trying to make new sounds, computer sounds."

All musicians who use computers must come to terms with the peculiar situations created by software. Some, like Depedro, turn toward showmanship, while others, like Clayton, balance digital control with analog sounds and sensibilities. Hatfield, however, represents another way: into the machine. His latest record is called Now I'm Rendered Useless, which runs techno conventions through a giddy but decidedly alien beat percolator. The title refers, in part, to Hatfield's feelings after being dumped by his girlfriend, who got sick of his geekish ways. It also refers to his increasing reliance on virtual music machines that, in a sense, do his work for him. "Building these sequences in Max, I could tell the machine to do everything that I do. It was like building human replicators to copy the way I would make music."

To keep his sounds from growing predictable, Hatfield introduces randomly fluctuating values into his patches. "I'm never able to get the sounds that I hear in my head," he explains. "So I just play with randomness and let these things happen naturally. The networks of sound generation I set up are just spewing out all of this chaos, and from that I pull out the pieces that are worthy. It's like a garden that you're constantly trimming and manicuring."

Like many electronic musicians, Hatfield divides his time between building patches and making tunes with those patches. After amassing a library of them, he decided to release one - which he dubbed drool_string-ukulele - to the online community of music phreaks. "At first I was afraid of giving away my style," he says, noting that, unlike Reaktor fans, a lot of Max-heads are rather cagey about their work. "But when I started to get back all these crazy random tracks, I was very inspired. They were so different than I expected. Now I get off stoking people out with cool shit."

For Hatfield, building virtual machines is at least as engaging as making tunes. He's learning C++ and contemplating a potential career as a music software developer. His girlfriend has come back, yet he continues to embrace technology. "Computers have given me an amazing amount of fulfillment and joy," he says. "If I don't have a computer, I almost feel like I'm only half of who I am. I think at some point, when technology is ready, I will become the machine that I'm using."