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Ok Computer: Mobility, Software and the Laptop Musician

Nick Prior,

University of Edinburgh



"I became obsessed with my laptop and my laptop speakers: I was trying to make a bubble you could exist in, a paradise" (Björk) [1]

In this paper I’d like to address some images, categories and open-ended notions of the laptop in music production. I am interested in the relationship between music and mobile computerized space, in the way the laptop intervenes in the sites of music - in its environments and (un)foldings. Implicit in the paper is the claim that, despite its increasing importance in various spaces of music, from cyberspace to live venues, as well as in mobile infrastructures generally, the laptop is a neglected device. This neglect, I will argue, is primarily down to a status ambiguity – the origins of which I’ll explain later. Yet we need to account for the laptop’s presence in urban networks and relationships, in everyday settings and virtual environments. Getting at some of the deeper issues revolving around the laptop’s ambiguous status in music is one way of examining the complex entanglements and layerings of mobile space. It will also hint at how practices of music production in its widest sense are changing, giving rise to a set of anxieties regarding what is being left behind.
Making and playing music with laptops is becoming a regular feature of music fields, both at their avant-garde and commercial poles. From the Kronos Quartet (who recently took to the stage with four laptops) to local rock guitarists using them as effects boxes, the laptop is moving inexorably into the spaces of music. In its most visible guise the laptop takes centre stage. Indeed, the glowing Apple logo has itself accrued enough symbolic value in experimental and electronic music to signify a challenging set of glitchy soundscapes or bursts of white noise (or indeed to signify educational capital at academic conferences). In high-profile mainstream rock concerts, it is often a cluster of laptop computers that co-ordinate the lights, video footage and pre-recorded audio sequences (von Seggern, 2005). In less visible form, the laptop is the unsung mediator at the side of the stage running the backing track or making a novelty appearance in one or two songs.
Even outside of live environments, musicians are now composing straight onto their laptops, moving beyond its utilization as a quick sketchpad for ideas. At once a means for recording audio, generating drum patterns, hosting software synthesizers and mixing down to a single file, the laptop encapsulates technological convergence. Indeed, with the right software it replaces the function of a host of hardware devices, including multi-track portastudios, hardware synthesizers, mixing desks, samplers, channel strips, compressors, guitar amplifiers, effects units and sound modules. Add to this the in-built digital connectivity of the laptop and the possibility of uploading songs to the Internet after production, and one has an all-in-one production unit that meshes composition with dissemination. If conventional production chains are, indeed, being bypassed by the digitalization of music, the laptop turns the agent of circumvention into a moving target.
I’m going to start by identifying two inter-related features of the laptop in music – its portability and its reliance on particular forms of software. Whilst these features feed into broader tendencies in late capitalist societies towards mobility and flexibility, in music they translate as discomfiture over the amount of musical agency given to the laptop and its ambiguous status as a multi-purpose machine beyond music making. Unpacking this claim will form the third part of the paper.

THE DIFFERENCE IS…MOBILITY


Very much a device that fits descriptions of contemporary society as “fluid”, “liquid” and “mobile”, the laptop is one of a number of nomadic machines of the digital age, from mp3 players to mobile phones, personal digital organizers to digital cameras (Bauman, 2000; Urry, 2003; Scheller and Urry, 2006). Allied with prospects of unfettered International travel and promulgations of a flexible capitalism zipping around the globe in networked circuits, the laptop is the image of the quick, mobile and efficient device. In a perspective of relationality, it is yet another node in a network of hubs, flows and networks, representing a new technological paradigm organized around powerful but flexible information technologies and information processing devices (Castells, 2000). From the perspective of spatiality, it is emblematic of socio-technical practices inherent in a new urban metabolism that drives mobile communications.
The laptop’s portability is, of course, its distinguishing feature. Designed to travel with the user, the laptop frees work from fixed working environments whilst inserting the user into mobile computer networks and dispersed spaces. [2]  For musicians, the popularity and portability of the laptop opens up a series of possibilities for music that sends it beyond spatial anchorages such as the recording studio or domestic space. Gone are the days when bands (Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream come to mind) are forced into taking their whole studios with  them on the road to recreate the sounds of their recorded work. Today, something similar can be packed into a small bag, carried to a venue and plugged into the PA without incurring the costs and glitches of labour-intensive equipment. Moreover, the untethering of music production from fixed locations has significant implications for both the everyday practices of musicians and the interrelationship between music and what the Spanish sociologist, Manuel Castells, calls the “space of flows” – that is, a spatial logic governed by the informational, global economy organized around a “fluid network of exchanges” (Castells, 2000: 429). [3]
    Like the walkman and the mp3 player, the laptop raises a set of questions regarding the folding of spatialities as they intertwine with new cultural practices. For instance, consideration of the interface between space and the everyday routines of laptop users raises a number of issues about the personal uses of mobile devices. On the one hand, as Björk’s opening quote indicates, the laptop is insinuated into the mobile individualisation of technologically-rendered space. It becomes a “bubble” organised around a privatised desire for withdrawal - a kind of utopic hike into introspective technoculture. Here, the laptop becomes a dwelling, shelter or boundary. It separates the inside from the outside and functions as a nest through which creative output is hatched and nurtured, transposing the personal and affective relationship musicians have with music into an inner technological space rendered by Graphic User Interfaces, projects and folders. In many ways, this echoes the way the traditional recording studio seals itself from the outside world, both acoustically and creatively. As the French sociologist, Antoine Hennion argues, removed from the real world by sound proofing, the studio becomes an “idealized microcosm of creation” in which trial and error testing and sonic experimentation takes place (Hennion, 1989: 408).
On the other hand, the representation of the laptop as a detached and cocooned space smacks of caricature, for it fails to address the device as both porous and a generator of new forms of communicative sociality and spatiality. According to many musicians, open-ended collaboration is fundamental to the appeal of the laptop. Mirroring flexible work and leisure patterns in late-modern capitalist formations at large, the laptop supports planned and unplanned jams, spontaneous gatherings and modes of composition. The disposition, here, is towards short bursts of intense creativity rather than hard week-long slogs in the recording studio. For professional musicians on tour, mobile music making is an essential way to test out new ideas and collaborate with others, filling up commuter time with the production of music in “non-spaces” such as cafes, trains, buses, airports and cars. For amateur musicians, similarly, making music happens with others in the spatial and temporal interstices of life, on a little and often basis:

“I really enjoy packing up my little rig, going to someone’s house for a day and making new music” (SongCarver, musician, in Delaney, 2004: 5)
 
“It’s really nice to be able to set up two, maybe even three to a table, and all be working on tracks, and all be able to flip a laptop around, ask for each others’ opinions, and be able to mess with it or change it” (Printz Board, musician, in Delaney, 2004: 39)

Connecting movements of people with movements of music data supports a re-positioning of the laptop as a box of mobile delights that can be opened in a range of unexpected spaces, from warehouses and abandoned silos, to alleyways and (in one case according to the musician John von Seggern) the Mohave desert. In this respect, the laptop offers a number of unforeseen possibilities beyond the studio or the home, in principle linking musicians in the kinds of ephemeral encounters desired by 19th-century Parisian flâneurs – the urban idlers who drew on the sights of the urban spectacle their poetry. Like the flâneur, the laptop musician reacts to their environment by mining the crowds and ambiences for creative input. They are “travelling players”, passing semi-anonymously through rapidly accelerating cultural contexts in moments of mobile fantasy, catching things in flight:

“In theory, a quiet studio or room at home should be the ideal creative environment, but it doesn’t work out like that. Sitting at a table in a café – surrounded by people talking and moving around…can be more of an inspiration and less of a distraction than all those things to do around the house/studio” (Delaney, 2005: 126).

As a result, one ends up with a complex layering of spatial domains – both virtual and traditional, local and global, coded and material, individual and collective – all thickened by the intensification of computer clock speeds and an acceleration of cultural stimuli in everyday life. Here, a scrambling of energies, speeds, scales and proportions forces us to attend to the intersections between the physical mobilities of people and the way technologies invite forms of “virtual” mobilities of communication, especially with the advent of the Internet. The image of musicians composing MIDI code on superfast laptops whilst whizzing through train stations in Wi-Fi enabled train carriages captures something of the complexity here. [4]  An interlacing of spaces takes place that updates the classic study by Schivelbusch (1979) on the significance of visual culture to the undertaking of train journeys in the 19th century. The 21st century folding of practice and rapid movement points up the need for a new cartography of music, essential to which is acknowledgement of the material context of spatiality and the interrelated locales in which the moments of production-text-consumption are made (Swiss, Sloop, and Herman, 1998). Such a re-mapping extends from globalised networks of commodities and dataspaces to the mundane micro movements of “musicking” bodies. After all, music and technology do not just act on the body, but are recruited into its daily rhythms, routines and affectations (DeNora, 2000).
So, just to sum up this section: despite being rooted in structures of global capital, commodification and productivity, the laptop remains a dynamic and emergent device open to inventions and rearticulations in moments of practice. Just as it drives the formation of new music, so it moves music production into myriad spaces and locales, reinforcing a suppleness in functionality and use. Indeed, we might even say that it is this mobility that leaves a trace in new genres such as “glitch” and the “microsound scene”, where the music often takes the form of chaotic, rapid, digital sounds redolent of the global metropolis. [5]   In any case, though mobility looks, at first sight, to be a somewhat subtle additional quality to the desktop computer, its impact on creative practices is significant, both in terms of what it makes possible in music and how it transforms the scenes of contemporary urban landscapes.

THE DIFFERENCE IS…SOFTWARE


Yet, the laptop’s hardware capabilities are only enacted in music by the software used to make it. This is what separates the laptop in music from its function as a business machine, word processing device or means for sending email. It is the functionality and properties of music software and its use by musicians that transforms the laptop from a generic personal computer to mobile studio or live performance instrument. In fact, for some scholars, software is what “writes mobility” in that flows of objects (information, money, people, commodities) are mobilised by software-driven virtual environments and applications.
The use of software applications is particularly popular amongst laptop musicians, of course, not only because subcultures of collecting and swapping applications (legally and illegally) is central to laptop collaborations, but because software is already portable. Software, we might say, writes mobile music production. By focusing down on one of the most popular and renowned software applications for mobile and live performance, Ableton Live, I want to follow through the idea of software as a “technoscape” or techno-cultural script. The concept of the “technoscape” comes from the work of Arjun Appadurai (1996) whose definition points to its relation to technologies and spatial forms as both representations (as in landscapes) and material relations between physical objects and bodies. Using this concept, it becomes possible to scrutinize the kinds of spaces represented in the Graphic User Interface as well as the distinctive cultural practices they give rise to.

Image
Ableton Live began life in 2001 as a performance tool designed by two German electronic musicians, Robert Henke and Gerhard Behles (a.k.a. Monolake), who were frustrated at the lack of software dedicated to live improvisation. It is therefore marketed as an application primarily designed for live performance and music on the move. Stylistically lo-fi, with retro fonts and crudely-rendered buttons and knobs, Live’s interface comprises semi-discrete sections dedicated to local functions, such as browsing files, selecting tools, navigating through clips, adding effects and routing signal paths. It is particularly suited for laptop use because it has the ability to conceal sections of the interface, thereby saving on screen space.
The operations available to Live’s users are a hybrid of conventional “cut and paste” tools, navigation commands and more local information behaviours particular to Live’s environment. Indeed, in conjunction with users’ own actions, Live takes on a plasticity and variability befitting its own origins in play. Along with the laptop, it has altered our idea of what music consists of, setting new standards for what can be achieved with a single piece of software in multiple environments. For instance, it foregrounds the function of “elastic audio” whereby audio, like MIDI data, is treated as flexible and mutable. In real-time live situations audio files can be non-destructively mutated and re-coded to change the placement of individual beats, correct pitch or stretch the length of particular phases. In itself this is a technique that has led to the stylistic “mashing” of genres. As one DJ explains:

“Everything fit[s] together; categories like Techno, Trance and House did not seem to matter anymore. Speed differences of 30bpm did not create audible problems – and pitching whole tracks over three semitones still sounded great. When I found out about the possibility of syncing a whole track by using Live’s Warp Markers, I immediately loaded about 150 songs onto my G4, warp-marked them and tried to find matching combinations”
(Mijk Van Dijk, DJ, in Delaney, 2004: 68-69)

Live hints at a new generation of software applications that are distinct from the studio emulation. Indeed, Live appears relatively indifferent to hardware precursors. For instance, there are few faders and knobs and the GUI is stylistically “flat” or “lo-fi”. Its technological form of life refers less to an original referent but to itself, to its own reality. This is particularly important as a new generation of musicians with little or no experience of the hardware studio is learning to make music in software environments, displacing the referent further from its image. [6]
    Typical of the constraining and enabling features of technology at large, then, software both shapes the user’s modes of composition, but also enables a series of new practices central to the production of new forms and styles. Software is active and transformative, but only in relation to users’ manipulations. This balance of agency is something the makers of Live are themselves at pains to stress in the face of criticisms of the overly-automated nature of contemporary music. In some respects, however, they are fighting a losing battle: even amongst some musicians, the laptop and its applications are seen as suspicious imposters, whose automative capabilities render them out of place in music.

THE ANXIETY IS…CYBORG PERFORMERS AND “MATTER OUT OF PLACE”


The fact of automation unsettles a particularly powerful sense that performance is or should contain a signature of bodily dexterity. Hence, Roland Barthes’ distinction in the essay of 1970 “Musica Practica” is between a music one listens to, and a music one plays. Even before MIDI and computer automation, Barthes laments the fact that “playing has ceased to exist; musical activity is no longer manual, muscular, kneadingly physical, but merely liquid, effusive, ‘lubrificating’” (Barthes, 1970: 149-50). Laptop music intensifies and radicalises these anxieties, because the signs of bodily involvement are subtle and minimal. Typically, the laptopist will stand, sit or crouch behind the open lid of the laptop, scarcely displaying any overt connection between the production of sound and the movements of the body. [7]  This all feeds the suspicion that, at best, the black or titanium box is doing most of the work, with the musician-technician having minimal input, at worst that they really are just pressing play and checking their emails. The ambivalence is evident in audience reactions to laptop sets, where there is often a radical uncertainty about dancing or clapping. So much more creative agency is being attributed to the machine than the musician that it becomes difficult to hold together the hegemonic idea of music as having a human author with an unambiguously positive relationship to the performance.
Indeed, the presence of automation and lack of physical index disturbs precisely because music is so heavily coded with ideas of unfettered human agency. A line is drawn between the domain of the human and its non-human context such that creativity is often seen as an exclusively human attribute, distinct from technology. For the sociologist Bruno Latour (1993), this purification ignores the fact that humans are always already mixed up with their technologies – from fabrics and spectacles, to buildings and jewellery - and that we actually never see a “pure human”. Even classical music, which is often considered an expression of “pure humanity” is saturated with human/non-human relations, from the musician’s own instruments, scores and notations, to microphones, mixing desks and acoustic treatments (Hennion, 1997). [8]
And yet the anxiety over performance persists, playing itself out not just in the reactions of audiences, publics and reviewers, but with laptopists themselves. Many are responding to the ambiguity by giving the audience a peek at their craft - projecting live relays of their desktops onto large screens or displaying the frequency bands of their music in real time. But they are battling against a potent mix of often contradictory attitudes swilling around the performance of laptop music sets: the computer is inanimate but is powerful enough to warrant critique, the musician becomes a technician but is still present as a figurehead, the audience laments the lack of gesture, but nevertheless is still interested in knowing what the laptopist is doing.
The laptop is what the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1970) calls “matter out of place” – an object with qualities that interact with certain expectations regarding its place in the world. [9]  It doesn’t “belong” to the stage in the same way as other instruments because it retains a surplus of meaning as an amplifier of work. It is believed to perform a greater amount of work than the operator. Hence, in the majority of live performances it will be the only piece of visible kit not purpose built for music, there being no onboard sounds in the usual sense. This reinforces the suspicion that it is an impostor tainted by its proximity to business and, hence, more a management device than an instrument. At the very least, it’s position in music reveals a status ambivalence over its increasingly dominant place on stage and in music culture. This makes it a place-holder for conflicting meanings about what belongs in music: productivity and creation, reality and virtuality, play and work, the cybernetic and the organic.
Attitudes may change, of course, in that infiltration may shade into normalisation. After all, conventions of listening are not immutable and a century’s worth of recording and experimentation has already transformed our expectations of the way music is created, how it sounds and the spaces and formats through which we hear it (Thompson, 2004). Yet, these transformations are dependent on accumulative and subtle changes in values, including a gradual alignment between traditional norms and new practices (Pinch and Bjisterveld, 2003). For the time being, the laptop remains something of a liminal rogue, betwixt and between, the odd one out, the stranger. As such, there’s something to be said for using it as a powerful prism through which contemporary and traditional norms around music are revealed, unsettled and dismantled. When one adds the laptop’s links with questions around space and performance, its analysis attains a significance beyond music to illuminate current trajectories of late modern societies. There’s clearly much to be gained, then, from taking it seriously.

Notes

1  “Beat Manifestos”, Wired, 10.05, May 2002, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.05/manifestos.pr.html
2  This emphasis on the laptop’s mobility in music has the danger of cleaving it from historical antecedents, including early magnetic tape recorders, four track studios, early music computers and personal desktop computers (see Taylor, 2001; Théberge, 1997; Chadabe, 1997). Indeed, a full and adequate account of the laptop in contemporary music would need to trace its lineage back to the history of recording in experimental and military industrial contexts during what in technological terms was a long 20th century (Kittler, 1999). In recent history, it is also true to say that musicians have been using semi-portable hardware in the form of MIDI set-ups, sequencers, synthesizers and sound modules since the 1980s. The claim of the present paper, however, is that these devices were never really portable beyond their transportation by vans, buses and planes and that the total portability of the laptop underpins a subtle change with some less than subtle consequences.
3  Price is still an issue, it must be said. At around £1,000 for a mid-range unit we are still talking about an expensive piece of hardware beyond the means of most of the working population. Whilst a techno-romantic rhetoric claims the laptop to be the folk guitar of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the claim is too casual to hold water. This isn’t to say we can’t still scrutinize its increasing visibility in music fields, however. Nor can we ignore the fact that, like desktop computers, laptops once belonged to a business elite and were unaffordable to most musicians and amateurs. Today, this is no longer the case, with budget laptops already available for around £300 or so.
4  “There is nothing better as a performer than to be able to just jump on a train with your laptop and a few wires and just plug in to wherever you happen to be playing” (Ergo Phizmiz, musician, in Delaney, 2004: 59).
5  The problem with this exercise is that it too readily “reads off” the social context in the music, collapsing the filtering effects and agency of musicians themselves and returning to a crude base-superstructure model of music and society. A more convincing approach would be to put Bourdieu’s category of field to use in understanding the position taking of “glitch” musicians in the sub-field of cultural production. This is an approach I have taken elsewhere (Prior, 2006).
6  It is, of course, Jean Baudrillard who writes of the coming logic of simulation under conditions of postmodernity. Simulation, here, is a concept designed to capture the way images cease to correspond to a real referent: “The real is produced from miniaturised units, from matrices, memory banks and command models – and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational” (Baudrillard, 1988: 167).
7  If the musician died on stage, or fell asleep, there might be some disquiet among the audience, but as Toop notes, “the computer would simply keep on playing” (Toop, 2004: 224).
8  This is an argument that is associated with a perspective in Science and Technology Studies known as Actor Network Theory. ANT theorists extend the analysis of the “social” to non-human actors and refuse to construct hard and fast boundaries between matter and society. This is because humans always comport themselves to technology, so to separate creativity from technology fundamentally misunderstands the folding of the two. We can’t “opt out” of technology because, like the image of the Mobius strip, we are intertwined or folded into its locales, spaces and materials (see Latour, 1993).
9  In the case of hygiene, for instance, dirt is placed in a system of cultural understanding through which ideas of contamination, germs and illness are constructed. These ideas cement a wider cosmology around morality and moral purity based on certain categories and assumptions about the material world.
 

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