Playing well with others

The limitlessness of electronic music comes with the hazard that your musical forms may not be immediately recognized and extended by other musicians, especially in a live setting.

What kinds of constraints can we adopt to make our music more “jammable”? How do we preserve sonic reach and expression without isolating ourselves musically and culturally?

Are new forms required, or are we better off sticking with the established ones? Does something like 12-bar blues even make sense in electronic music? If new forms are required, how do we propagate them, increasing the odds that a chance encounter with another electronic musician will involve a shared frame of reference that leads to a jamming musical result?

Don’t get me wrong. I love bedroom producers and probably most of the music I listen to was conceived, performed, and recorded by solo musicians. But I’d hate to think that we have grown incapable of playing well with others.


I have other musicians that play alongside me, but they’re definitely playing along with what I’m playing rather than “jamming”.

I’ve played electronic music loops and samples for a band live, and had everything on a tap tempo and retriggered as often as necessary… it was loose, but it worked.

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there was a jam i went to with one modular, one guitar through ms-20, one feedback mixer through ableton, live programming in puredata, and i had a modular with monome. it worked really well and was really free flowing and bizzar. another time 3 of us attacked a few modulars together. that was fun and really different.

probably it will be a combination of a few different things, most will be dictated by how you use these elements, like using loops is extremely more time dependent (at times) then live triggering. but these things can still feel fairly organic, check out kieran hebdan and steve reid. in the end i think how well you mesh with others is a trait of musicianship in general. i’ve played with some people who were amazing guitarists but couldn’t play with a live drummer and bassist without a lot of struggle. keep practicing.


Mutability and flexibility, really. If you can’t change what you’re playing, or respond to what someone else is playing, you’re not really playing with them, you’re playing at the same time as them.

Hence: live performance with others pushing people towards simpler, more stripped-back setups or instruments, that afford that flexibility. (A single grid running an instrument; a single modular; nothing beyond what you can manipulate with two hands and two feet). That makes mutability - repatching, altering, changing your mind - a possibility.

But you also need to be able to respond to others: through copying, or adapting, or sampling. And hence: instruments where sampling and playback can happen concurrently; shared clocks, tap tempo, or no clock at all; enough control of pitch/timbre to be able to adapt (notes, velocity, pitch-quantization).

You also need to be able to communicate your limitations. I’ve slowly started to try and play with others, and would load up a set of pre-chosen samples as a ‘palette’ to pick from, with an array of effects after them to switch in - but my partner would often be seeking more specific sounds than I could conjour in real-time. I think having had a simpler tool - perhaps just a monosynth, or a single drum machine with external controls - would have communicated my limitations more clearly than the instrument I’d chosen.

[thinking out loud, not declaiming]


Communicating limitations (or constraints, as I’d be likely to say, because it also encapsulates capabilities in addition to limitations) seems especially key. I think that’s a major issue with including a laptop in a setup: only you can see what you are doing.

But even if you hide the computer and use a grid, to another band member not intimately familiar with your monome apps, any button press could conceivably unleash any manner of macro/arpeggio/sequence consisting of samples or synths, with any possible degree of realtime manipulation available, or not.

It’s the kind of thing that varies by degrees, and so every little bit helps. If I can make an aural connection with what I see you doing, I have that much better understanding of how you are doing what you are doing. I’m thinking that there is benefit to finding ways of making your techniques visually self-explanatory, to the degree possible.

Might even be possible to bring the laptop back into the equation if you had some kind of visualization running somewhere your bandmates can see it. Something that outlines the parameter space you are able to play in and shows where you currently are within it. I keep thinking about watching a cello player. I can’t play the cello at all, but I understand immediately what’s going on when I watch someone play.

I’m starting to want one really big obvious pad solely for tap tempo.

Mutable dynamics, pitch, timbre are also definitely key. Interestingly, I think this is a place where digital players in the band can help out some of the analog players, especially if they are relative beginners. Scales, modes, and progressions (not to mention polyrhythms, cross-rhythms, polymeter) are a couple of clicks for a computer, weeks of training for a human. (Of course there is a big difference between using these tools and deeply understanding them, but everyone starts somewhere.)

Thanks for the ruminations…

But even if you hide the computer and use a grid, to another band member not intimately familiar with your monome apps, any button press could conceivably unleash any manner of macro/arpeggio/sequence consisting of samples or synths, with any possible degree of realtime manipulation available, or not.

Right. This is the problem with a multi-purpose tool - but it’s also a useful motivation for instrument/app makers: what does it look like to perform with this? (The feature I’d design into an ebook, for instance, is a second screen on the back just to show the name of the book - an electronic spine - for the social clue of ‘what is that person reading’).

So perhaps another key is legibility: can other people work out what you’re doing without explaining it? Sometimes, just a head nodding where the beat is, even if the polyrhythms suggest otherwise, is clue enough for a band. (I’m always bewildered by electronic performers who seem detached from their current tempo). Someone playing more aggressively and the timbre changing as such - be it on a pad controller or a cello - gives a clue to tone, intent, mood, what might come next.

How can other performers read what you’re doing?

Scales, modes, and progressions (not to mention polyrhythms, cross-rhythms, polymeter) are a couple of clicks for a computer, weeks of training for a human. (Of course there is a big difference between using these tools and deeply understanding them, but everyone starts somewhere.)

But it doesn’t matter if you can’t tell this stuff by ear. A guitarist might just say “well, I’m starting in F and we’ll see where we go” - but the most interesting modulation will involve chasing that. Similarly, I solo on a piano without a mind really to what mode I’m in when - and I can’t pick them out by ear in the heat of performance at all (and I don’t have perfect pitch). So the above is fine if the electronics are leading, but otherwise it’s hard to follow.

Another thought; some of this is just experience. I’ve been thinking about The Necks recently, but one reason that group works is simply exposure hours: they know each other well enough to do this. So perhaps it’s not necessarily good to criticise an inability to drop into a scenario blind; perhaps more important is the ability to improve with time, to develop these ways of playing as a unit: the people are as important as the instruments.

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Probably far more important.

I’ll never forget a particular day from my youth. It was the holiday break and a friend who was a dance major in a distant private college had returned home for the holidays. I was sitting on a sidewalk with her and several of her classmates outside of a bar, listening to them bitch and moan about being artistically misunderstood by their profs and not being inspired by their overpriced education (much of their complaint seemed to center around their choreography being overly formal and composed).

As I started to get bored with this tedium I noticed an empty tin band-aid container sitting in the gutter on top of a pile of gravel. I picked up the container, scooped up a handful of gravel and tossed it inside, and started shaking out a rhythm, quietly at first so as not to interrupt the yammering. It wasn’t long before someone started tapping a stick on their empty beer bottle to accompany me. It wasn’t much longer after that that all 8-10 people were clapping and hooting and shaking and tapping and dancing and singing and laughing. Tedium banished, creativity restored.

When it all died down I suggested to the dancers that they introduce more improvisation to their choreography. Everyone seemed rather happy with the suggestion as a cure for their ills.

The funniest thing about that story is that the only thing that changed was an attitude. It didn’t require new equipment, skills, or technique.

People are pretty key. And I might add that dancing is, if not absolutely necessary for music, certainly potent enough for the way a musical event feels to those involved, not to be dismissed lightly.

So maybe the key (more than instrument design for visual cues, or mutability, etc) if experience with bandmates is so important, is time playing together, but I’ll add to that idea the importance of attitude. That feeling of “try it and see what happens”, and in so doing finding of constraints, together.

If other electronic musicians are like me, I think we avoid this interaction with other musicians out of fear of embarrassment. We’ve chosen especially difficult instruments to master (with an infinite palette of timbres and expressive capability “mastery” may be forever out of reach). There’s a part of me that’s always holding back from putting myself out there to play with others because there’s just one more thing I need to get the hang of…

There must be ways of helping each other feel comfortable with getting started together…


ad hoc network

ableton SYNC

monome TERMS-NOTES and -TIME
globally controlled by touchOSC or whatever

ready to jam in no time!!! pure fun

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Been thinking more about what is that I am really wondering about here.

I’m starting to understand that what I’m asking is whether music theory in general is keeping up with the practice of electronic music. I’m beginning to believe the answer is “no”. Given our new ability to access and control timbre, harmony, consonance, and rhythm in ways completely freed from the constraints of physicality, the old diatonic and chromatic forms are no longer sufficient for expression of the entire musical gamut now available to us, not to mention the richness of polyrhythm we are now capable of.

So, a lot of us are rightly focusing on practice sans theory, as @altoaiello is pointing to, “just do x and jam!” Which is fair enough. But I suspect we’re still missing some shared conceptual language that could take us further.

I’m (slowly) working on a few books that I hope will provide some pointers to new thoughts on the subject. On @rajaTheResidentAlien’s recommendation I’m reading the Musimathics duo.

I’m also reading Curtis Roads’s latest:

Fingers crossed that the fog begins to lift on what I’m looking at, at some point, because I suspect it might be a really big mountain range on the horizon behind all that fog. Something vaguely Himalayan in scale…


^good clarification of what the real conundrum is. electronic music keeps changing too.
much of music itself has changed away from a thing of set timelines and products to a set of algorithmic probabilities and processes(even outside of improvisation. in general, towards blurring the lines between listening and playing, observation and expression).

on a larger scale, seems to mirror the question scientists/physicists are asking of late, is there “any objective reality out there at all”?

perhaps the ‘music theory’ you speak of is like classical physics, and what’s happening in music lately is more like quantum physics: about detecting the ‘interference pattern’ which describe or guide probabilities that the classical theoretical properties of music might move along. in other words, music theory doesn’t need to ‘keep up’, it’s just at the root of what exists to help us decide which properties to include and exclude in our observations of changing possibilities.
we’ll still use music theory to describe pitch, rhythm, etc. but once we’ve decided on these things as properties and constraints to focus on, we might then let the ‘play’ be all about observing the patterns that can occur there.
and then to extend my amateur quantum-physical dreaminess to another maddening level: ‘playing well with others’ could be more a matter of observing the multiverse of dead-cat/alive-cat probabilities… a veritable ‘entanglement’ between each performer’s choices to interact with each other as embodied by sound or disembodied by silence Ψ

:scream: :no_mouth: :scream_cat:
(i’m not sure what i just wrote, but it felt right at the time, and now my brain hurtz :smiley:)


It’s a relief to know that I’m not alone in such thoughts. Makes the brain hurt more bearable.

I loved this!

In 2005, de Broglie–Bohmian mechanics received an experimental boost from an unexpected source. Physicists Emmanuel Fort, now at the Langevin Institute in Paris, and Yves Couder at the University of Paris Diderot gave the students in an undergraduate laboratory class what they thought would be a fairly straightforward task: build an experiment to see how oil droplets falling into a tray filled with oil would coalesce as the tray was vibrated. Much to everyone’s surprise, ripples began to form around the droplets when the tray hit a certain vibration frequency. “The drops were self-propelled — surfing or walking on their own waves,” says Fort. “This was a dual object we were seeing — a particle driven by a wave.”

Since then, Fort and Couder have shown that such waves can guide these ‘walkers’ through the double-slit experiment as predicted by pilot-wave theory, and can mimic other quantum effects, too11. This does not prove that pilot waves exist in the quantum realm, cautions Fort. But it does show how an atomic-scale pilot wave might work. “We were told that such effects cannot happen classically,” he says, “and here we are, showing that they do.”

That really blew my mind. Quantum effects observable at classical/macro scales. My mental attempts to draw a musical parallel at the moment are a bit too far a stretch, but I’m holding out hope that there’s some way to unify the fields, so to speak, that perhaps may yet be undiscovered…

Reminds me of this:

During the same period that Surrealism originated and flourished between the wars, great advances were being made in the field of physics. This book offers the first full history, analysis and interpretation of Surrealism’s engagement with the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and its reception of the philosophical consequences of those two major turning points in our understanding of the physical world.

After surveying the revolution in physics in the early twentieth century and the discoveries of Planck, Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, and others, Gavin Parkinson explores the diverse uses of physics by individuals in and around the Surrealist group in Paris. In so doing, he offers exciting new readings of the art and writings of such key figures of the Surrealist milieu as André Breton, Georges Bataille, Salvador Dalí, Roger Caillois, Max Ernst, and Tristan Tzara.


ooh, video:


Very apropos: