As Child reinforced during our talk, live electronic performances too often fall into one of two traps. A familiar issue is mitigating risk. While it's understandable to want to minimise the chance of failure, this often results in an over-reliance on the safety measure of using prerecorded parts. This is a naturally tempting option, given the impracticality of recreating complex electronic music onstage, but it can sap a vital sense of danger from the performance. It can also render the performer a passenger to their own music, which chugs along seamlessly as if on train tracks, and offers only limited scope for shaping the music in a way the audience can intuitively understand. Then there's the other extreme: playing with a huge table full of gear that presents too much complexity for an artist to handle alone, leading to a paralysing overabundance of options.
Of course, these issues have existed since the days of musique concrete. But against this intimidating backdrop, Child was keen to share his experiences of the never-ending journey that is improving your performance technique, specifically with a mind to encouraging others to give it a go. He unpacked his improvisational approach and shared some of the realisations that have improved his sets in the last few years. As he rightly points out, these experiences and techniques are not the answers to your performance problems. What they do offer are ways to find an approach to performance that works best for you and inspires you to take greater risks onstage.
In what ways has your approach developed in these sets since you started?
Currently this Soma Lyra-8 synth is quite important. I've previously used the Buchla Music Easel and the Portobella Synthi clone I mentioned before for a similar task. It's about finding an instrument that is very individual and flexible but has a mind of its own. These are more temperamental, esoteric instruments that, if they're in a certain mood, won't work how you expect. This was definitely the case with the Easel. Every time I performed with it something would happen that I'd never heard before and you'd have to run with it, which is part of the magic.
That job now is being done by the Lyra-8, which is from a Russian company called Soma that's run by Vlad Kreimer. I really love their philosophy for this instrument. There's no MIDI, you tune it all by ear, there's no quantisation. You trigger sound with these touch panels. Kreimer was inspired by the theremin and other early electronic instruments. The whole signal path feeds back on itself in really bizarre ways. It has eight oscillators, you can cross modulate them. It really becomes something that's alive, it's a very organic type of machine. To a large extent, I have to surrender myself to it.
The Octatrack I use in the techno set is on the other end of the spectrum. It's a workhorse, it does what you tell it, you program it and it says, "Yes sir." Whereas the Lyra is like, "Sorry mate, I'm going this direction today."
All that cross modulation and feedback is making it sound like extended technique on a sax.
Yeah, along with the two LFOs, the frequency modulation and the delay—it can add up to strangely organic sounding timbres. It also produces properly bowel-churning low frequencies, too. I'm using it along with the baby version of the Roland SH-101, which does arpeggiated melodies. Right now the melodies are stored into the sequencer's memory but if I have space I'll take an Arturia KeyStep for playing parts in live. Both the Lyra-8 and the the Roland are fed into this Electro-Harmonix 45000 looper, which takes either four mono or two stereo loops. Given the steady development of these performances, it's quite effective to layer sounds up into the looper and let them slowly decay as you build in new ideas. It's like this constantly evolving story that you get drawn into.
Needless to say the looper plays a crucial role here.
Yeah it's vital, it's the centre of this setup really. Whatever else I was using with it, I've always used this looper. With this one I can clock the arpeggiator of the SH-01A so it seamlessly overlaps. I don't really need it when I play with Paddy and Dan but it's essential when I'm on my own.
How do you know something so abstract is going to work?
There's this story of when Duke Ellington went with his band to Japan to perform shortly after WorId War II. They went down amazing playing this new music that most people over there had never heard before. How can that be? They're bringing this new form of music to people who've never experienced it. It's very abstract and freeform. Ellington said the first point is that the audience has to have a sense of what's happening physically. They see a musician moving and expending physical energy with an instrument, they understand that's where the music is coming from. You don't have to understand how to play an instrument but you see someone doing it and you know that's where the sound is coming from. The next thing Ellington said is that there needs to be a sense of risk and the audience participates in that risk. It's not just playback. The musicians have to believe in what they're doing.
It's great when these artists who've thought at the deepest level about these things have an unlikely meeting with the dance music world and some of their experience rubs off and makes the place a little richer. Oliveros is an obvious recent example—dance music people now regularly namecheck Deep Listening, which is great.
These people are masters at what they do and there is so much you can learn. I learn from the approaches that David Bowie had but that doesn't mean I'm going to go and start a glam rock band. You shouldn't be thinking, "Well, that doesn't apply to me." It all does.
I learnt a lot on this front from William Bennett. There were loads of great books he turned me on to. He told me to read Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares, which is like the bible for method acting. At first I was like, "I'm not an actor, why would I read that?" Then I read it and it opened my head and really changed my opinion on performance more generally. I might not be the most performative performer but it all feeds into it. I learnt a lot from these people, philosophically, conceptually.
That's an interesting thing about improvisation. When you follow it to an extreme it brings on fairly weighty political and existential connotations. The British free improv scene was notoriously wracked by ideological conflicts over these topics.
I love the way that when you go so deep into a subculture or art form, you always end up at the same place. But it's dangerous when you get fundamentalist about it.
Yeah, once people start saying, "It's not like that, it's like this," things get unhealthy. Again, I really want to emphasise that everything I'm saying here is just where I'm at now—my ideas might change tomorrow but this is what I've learnt from actually going out and playing a lot.
If I had to boil down my take on all of this, it's about wanting to have people's boundaries expanded somehow. They would come in with a certain idea about things and leave with that widened. That's the aim of music and performance for me, to open people's heads up, to give them an experience outside their normal routine or life, to make them think there's something else out there. To reconsider the boundaries they set on the world they live in. Maybe these boundaries and ideas are not so fixed and solid? They're really very loose, I believe. That's the whole idea of music, to transmit that idea, to make them bend their idea of the world.
All the people wanted was for you to talk about modular synthesisers and now you've gotten all spiritual on us.
I did a workshop that was filmed at Schneidersladen that ended with some don't-be-afraid-style speech. It always ends up being some sort of quasi-life lesson.
You mentioned earlier that you're using preprepared samples in the Octatrack to add atmosphere to the techno set. How much trial and error goes into preparing these?
These backing beds have taken me a really long time to get happy with. It's quite a different discipline making these compared to other sorts of production.
Just landing on something that consistently works. Something that performs its function. It can't be too dominant but it has to actually contribute to the music. Does it fulfil its place in the mix? It's a fairly pragmatic thing. It needs to be long and evolving without being all-consuming but also work well with whatever else is happening. Getting the balance right has taken me a while. How much bass do I need in it? What sort of spread of frequencies? I found often with the modular that it was really powerful in the mid-range but lacked the real sub-bass and high frequencies that you get in digital music. I'd keep that in mind with the atmosphere beds—I'd scoop the middle frequencies out of them and let the modular fill that part of the frequency range. That sort of worked. But as always, it's an ongoing process.
What I like about these current backing tracks is that they were made with the Portabella, which has a very particular sonic palette that really comes out in a live context. It's very different from the other things I've got going on so they don't clash much.
I wanted to talk about what you might call "moves." I'm thinking of the sort of performance vocabulary that controls the tension and structure of a techno set. Something like: mute kick drum; change kick drum pattern while muted; unmute kick drum while muting the hats.
I guess you could call it live arrangement. I know what you mean. For me it's very instinctive. I've had this DNA of techno so ingrained in me that I know what is and isn't techno. I don't want to pin it down so much but the way that you mute and unmute, exactly like you're saying, it's like a vocabulary or grammar. It's like visual grammar, which I find fascinating, the visual grammar of films. The way a shot will pan this way and then cut and there's a certain way that it works…
A set of moves.
Yes, a set of moves that everyone knows unconsciously.
I think in techno you could basically count them on two hands. You've got opening and closing envelopes, mutes, filters…
Sure, I'm using that classic Jeff Mills type of vocabulary. But it's fun to consciously break those rules. I can start off following them and then purposely go off track later on and create tension that way. This could be as simple as making something go on too long. Obviously this stuff is so powerful. What I said earlier, the overall aim I have with these sets is a very positive one but you have to have a bit of discomfort in there. It can help you come out the other side.