Human Machine Music: A Musical and Ethnographic Analysis of Creative Practices among Australian ‘Live Electronica’ Musicians
This Movie is a part of aa large-scale, multi-media LE performance by LE ensemble Cyberbass (directed by the author) that took place in Lismore, New South Wales, in 2008 and was also live-streamed. The performance was built around a series of seven linked improvisations by a four-member LE band, and combined musical performance with audio-visual material recorded on previous LE tours by the author. The overall performance has a narrative structure built around the views of representatives of the Australian LE community. Videotaped interviews were edited by the author and then triggered and processed live by video artist Cicada (Kirsten Bradley). The interview audio was processed by a Max/MSP patch by one of the performers and replayed in surround sound. In this way the LE performance was integrated with interview ‘mashups’.
This article examines links between contexts and creative practices amongst a group of contemporary Australian musicians working within the field of ‘live electronica’. For the purposes of this article, ‘live electronica’ (henceforth LE) is defined as electronic dance music (henceforth EDM) performed for an audience in real time by a group of musicians, without the aid of machine/computer-controlled sound generation sequences on drum machines, samplers or loop machines. Defined this way, LE stands in contrast with other forms of performed EDM that incorporate pre-composed or sequenced music triggered by a computer-interfaced performer.
Australian LE emerged in the 1990s and went through a period of development and consolidation during the first decade of the twentieth century. This article sees Australian LE musicians as inhabiting a musical ‘subculture’ (Hebdige 1979) and ‘scene’ (Straw 1991) – in which musical practices interact and cross-fertilise. Huq’s (2006) description of a ‘neo-tribe’ as a loosely-affiliated group formed as a “a response or solution to prevailing times” (28) can also be applied to Australian LE musicians. Illustrating what Brown, Eldridge and McCormack (2009: 11) describe as ‘the changing roles of composition, performer and instrument in contemporary creative practice,’ this article examines evolutionary processes and transformative factors that have impacted on the creative practices of Australian LE musicians. Within this discussion, digital music technology and changing economic, cultural and social contexts are seen to impact strongly on the emergence of new musical processes and forms.
On a broad scale, Australian LE musicians, interacting on tour and via the internet with other global musicians, have taken part in a transformative cultural process that Toynbee (2003: 110) describes as ‘code shaping’. Toynbee’s discussion implies that certain genres (such as music concrete, minimalism, and electronica) generate innovative creative processes that challenge existing musical conventions. LE is one recent sub-genre in which significant musical code-shaping has taken place – using creative processes that have been as yet little documented. Although in recent years the currency of the generic LE term has begun to recede – as live ensemble elements within EDM become more common-place, and as music classification terminologies (web tags) become more and more specific within the digital download environment – the LE movement of the past two decades can be seen to have played an historically-important role in ‘humanising’ EDM.
The article presents a participant-observer documentation and analysis of Australian LE practices, drawing on the experiences of one of the authors as an LE performer in Australia and overseas, as well as on a range of unstructured interviews with LE musicians conducted when opportunities arose (often while the author was on tour). The author’s position as a member of the LE community frames this article as a perspective from within the community. The article discusses the specific musical skills, techniques and creative processes employed by LE musicians to produce live, largely improvised music performances influenced by EDM – an area previously dominated by DJs/music producers using pre-composed or sequenced material. Endorsing the idea that music ‘emerges out of the enabling framework of society’ (Butler (2006: 15) – that the creation of musical works involves not only the intentions of auteurs, but also the dynamics of a surrounding community and wider culture – the discussion also examines a range of contexts associated with the music-making process. The overall aim of the article is to provide insight into creative practices among a group of Australian musicians whose original music-making represents an innovative response to technological, social, and economic changes that have altered the contexts of their creative lives.
 Performances of EDM that feature musicians playing along to a sequencer and/or drum machine are sometimes described as LE – but these ‘hybrid’ performances involve both live and non-live elements.