It’s easy to be seduced by the words “(live set)” when they follow an artist’s name. They evoke something special and exclusive, but what do they actually mean for a performer and for the crowd? I’ve found that a lot of the indicators for a live set actually come from the visuals of a performance rather than from the sound itself; with artists communicating their presence through cues like dancing, gestures and equipment. Movements that fit with the music seem to authenticate that this is a live set, this artist is actually making that music here and now. But to what degree are we looking out for these cues? Do we even care about them, and do they have a place in the club?
Karenn is a pairing whose live set doesn’t need any authenticating. The collaborative act between Pariah (Arthur Cayzer) and Blawan (Jamie Roberts) stages music more as an activity that as a finished product. Improvising everything bar introductory loops. Anyone who has already witnessed the pair perform, will know how compelling their live act is. Aside from the raw industrial techno they engineer, there’s their impressive haul of gear. A candy shop display of drum synths, mono synths, samplers, midi sequencers (it goes on) that bring out all the childish excitement and wonder you yearn from a live set to make it feel like a one-off ‘had to be there’ experience. With both guys’ heads nodding in unison as they focus on a knob, fader or key, and Pariah’s arms mechanically mimicking the beat there’s little doubt that this is a live performance.
Now swap all their analogue hardware for a laptop centered setup and the one big change is the visibility. Everything that’s been laid out for us to see is suddenly drawn back and hidden behind a computer screen. As an everyday object we (nearly) all have at home, the laptop is often manifested with anxiety and suspicion in a club setting; “Is this DJ just checking his inbox?”/”Does the audience think I’m just checking my inbox?” It’s harder to see the cause and effect relationship between actions and the music that’s heard. It might be the last thing on some dancer’s mind as they pound the dancefloor but, for a number of us, there’s additional satisfaction to be had from knowing what an artist is doing and how they are doing it.
It’s not just the visibility of hardware that lends it to being so fetishised, it’s also out of arm’s reach for a lot of people so there’s the added wide-eyed desire for the Unknown, or the Untouched. A laptop is known, and it’s definitely been touched, but take software like Ableton Live and, with the right artist, it can be a heck of a lot more improvised and impressive than what we might expect. It’s just out of our sight. Some of the best live acts like Surgeon and KiNK include a laptop on the stage, so maybe it depends on how much trust we have in the artist?
We don’t need to see the DJ, the club is meant to be a place for sound to take the foreground but for many, a display of hardware seems to still validate and legitimise what a live set is all about. Perhaps it’s just a romanticised idea but with acts like Karenn the music seems to physically emerge and energise the room. Live for me means the studio has been brought to the stage, even if that studio is a laptop. With Karenn there’s definitely that masculine obsession with machines but there’s also this rare open window to how this stuff actually gets made that lures us in, an honest improvisation that’s met with full appreciation.