SXSW: In Annie’s opinion…

Some things change, and some things stay the same:

One remarkable aspect of SXSW is, of course, the unbridled havoc it wreaks on any sense of equilibrium with which you may have arrived in Austin. As much as you feel compelled to do so, trying to plan any sort of agenda in advance feels intractably challenging. Somehow though, when you’re finally in it, you manage to create discreet experiences in the throes of what often feels like a timeless, endless loop of days and nights, stages and voices and bright flashing lights. Unsurprisingly, it’s the point at which you acquiesce to the cacophony of it all that things begin to come together. Trends become noticeable, for example.
One of those trends that I ran into repeatedly, and one I’ve been trying desperately to wrap my brain around and come up with something cohesive to say about, is the mindful, willful integration of electronic music that, for instance, comes out of some form of a computer, with live music that comes out of instruments that have existed for centuries. Most of the more notable contemporary artists whom I watched play at SXSW use this kind of prepared music (beats, samples, their own previously recorded voices) as an instrument onto itself, whether they are composing it all on stage and looping it over live music, or playing along concurrently with electronic music they’ve already created, or creating more improvised moments by extemporaneously feeding the sounds their instruments make through any handful of new and crazy effects.

 To put it more simply: it seems that the line between let’s say, indie rock and experimental electronic music is becoming increasingly more obfuscated by things like rapidly-evolving new technology. However, there’s something else to it; When I watched folks like Washed Out perform–while yes, they utilize cutting edge music recording technology on stage as as a band member in and of itself (like when Ernest Greene stepped up to start singing, he waved his Ipad at the audience in silent acknowledgement of that of which I speak),  I also sensed an abiding evocation of decades-old ideas (heralded by the likes of Roxy Music and the Talking Heads, to name just a few) about the boundaries live music can test and trample altogether.

 Washed Out perform “New Theory”
Attending live music used to mean going to see a group of people (usually men)  showcase their technical proficiency, if not virtuosity, and play for you the songs you love listening to on albums at home (hopefully, if the band is at all decent). These days, you can find many of those people behind the counter at Guitar Center ready to talk your ear off about their favorite Jimmy Page riff.
But things are changing dramatically. And what it all seems to indicate, if not reveal, is that live music has taken an almost defiant step away from what it has formerly endeavored to achieve–namely the presentation of specific musical talents –and toward something entirely new, possessed of a markedly different morphology that usually includes a glowing Apple logo. I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on the pulse of this transformation, but I know that it’s due to the convergence of the following: The rise of Apple and thus the proliferation of increasingly advanced music editing software, the disintegration of the record industry, and a shift in musical zeitgeist toward a movement that has been put on hold since the late 70’s and 80’s.
I’m not saying it isn’t exciting to watch musical virtuosity on display. Now though, watching live music–at least in this new iteration I’m describing (one that seems to be pervading so many different genres, rather than continuously spawning new subcategories of electronica as it did in the past) –is compelling due to a myriad of other performative aspects besides the technical expertise of whoever is playing.
Someone like Shigeto is a perfect example of this. While he’s a great drummer in his own right, it’s not his musicality that exhilarates those who watch him, nor is it necessarily the electronic components of his sets, which are also quite good. What’s amazing about him, is the way in which he jumps back and forth between the electronic and live aspects of his work, juxtaposing these two different (potentially opposing) styles of music. And he toys with the opposition with brilliant fluidity, at times underscoring tensions between the two and at other times resolving it or showing how each can coexist with the other, all the while exhibiting to the audience the process he uses to compose his music. It’s almost like watching a chef prepare a meal on cooking show.
Shigeto, live on Drums and Turntables, SXSW 2012
Lindsey has a great video of this performance, methinks.
So much more can be said, but for the sake of brevity I’ll leave you, for now (over the next few days I’ll be posting on my top ten shows from SXSW, the content of which will extrapolate further on all of this), with a video of Matthew Dear performing “Headcage”, which I think encapsulates perfectly the ideas I’m attempting (and perhaps failing) to formulate. This is a band whose sound hinges on the use of new recording and editing technology. However, there is no absence of talented musicians on stage here. This stuff is technically considered electronic music, but I think that kind of categorical imperative truly sells it short. Enjoy please!


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