The trend of keeping the controller tilted towards the audience, or the woes of performing live with electronic instruments


I never really considered it from the angle of performance gimmicks before starting to use them several years ago now, but light CV controllers like the Koma Kommander are pretty nice eye catchers for an audience. They’re also really fun to use. I don’t tend to use the gates much … just the dual CV x 2 … Waving your hands over your table is good stuff and draws people in. The Blippoo has a light sensor built in. I wish more makers did this kind of thing as a standard feature.


I don’t really play in places where there’s possibility of fights or violence :slight_smile:


Wanted to share something that’s been on my mind for a few performances already…

As I go play live, I get a lot of people focusing on whatever piece of gear I bring, and I haven’t been really comfortable with it. It’s hard to know if people are connecting with my music or just being excited about some exotic hardware they could buy.

Today I tried to put the focus away from equipment by doing a laptop set. I simply brought the computer and a midi fighter twister (so, a simple knob based controller). As a result, I got the host of the evening asking me to explain what that controller was…

I realize getting an audience with other musicians doesn’t help (we’re all attracted to shiny new things right?)

How would you go about helping the audience engage with the music/performance instead of the gear?


While I totally get the feeling of wanting them to focus on the music I think that what a lot of them are actually interested in is the performance, not the gear in itself. I am not finding the right words but I feel that what they have experienced is a performance and not just a listening session, and their reaction and questions reflect that.

I feel like it is just part of the game. How many people do you think have gone to a Van Halen show and only talked about the guitar playing in the car ride home?


This is Tim Hecker’s sollution:


I recently saw a performance where the performer was using only a laptop, sitting with his back to the audience, making the laptop screen visible. He was about a meter away from where I sat and not on a stage. He didn’t use any controllers apart from his track pad on the computer.

He apologised to the audience for sitting like that and claimed that it was unintentional. I have no idea what the reasons might have been for doing that if the intention wasn’t for the audience to see the laptop screen.

I found that by seeing the laptop it completely changed the listening experience for me. It was living on some kind of edge and injected an uncertainty into the performance which contributed to the tension in the music. Knowing that he was excecuting decisions in realtime and sharing in the listening experience of the audience. If the laptop was facing in the other direction the performance could have felt like a playback session. I need to add that for me it was less of a performance and more of a shared listening experience between the audience and performer and I mean that in a good way.


I also experience the total opposite. Sometimes when I go to acoustic free jazz concerts I actually need to look at the floor or close my eyes. Creating some of those sounds demand such a complex move from the musician that it looks goofy and totally takes me out of the music.

So if I look it sounds like someone who just forgot to put on the handbrake when parking their band van on top of the mountain. But if I don’t look it sounds like a amazing loving organism of life itself.


The woes for me revolve around the heavy use of laptops in live electronic performance not tilting a controller to the audience. I will honestly say that when i see a laptop on stage as the main audio performance tool, i feel deflated and a little bit cheated. Subotnik does the same thing and i feel a little bit let down. Ciani doesn’t and i totally admire her for performing with a Buchla. I don’t want to see an electronic musician pressing clips in Ableton or flicking through presets in VCV with a mouse. I want to see a performance were you know the performer is actually playing something and making musically interesting decisions on the fly, live. I don’t want to hear the exact recreation of the album track but something close to it, that is never the same from gig to gig. How many electronic laptop gigs have you been to where there have been mistakes? I want to hear the mistakes, then you actually know the performer is playing live. I do play with the grid hooked upto the modular and got into modular to get away from laptops. Now I’m not sure i would play the grid tilted as its not the natural way i play and i think a bit too much like an ego driven lead guitarist. Playing sideways to the audience i think is a good idea. Playing on the floor or on a very low table in the middle of the audience were peple look down, i think would work really well, especially in small venues. People can get closer and see what you are doing - so camera projectors are good too. Audiences are inquisitive even though they may not know what you are doing. Live performance for me is all about trying to keep peoples interest sonically and visibly. Laptops are an instafail.
This is me playing from the side.


heck, yes! a performance should be interesting and dynamic, not a playback event. the problem is creating “trust” from the audience, that it’s for real. matmos are experts in this field.


I don’t see why playing back recorded sound files can’t be dynamic or interesting. A performance for me can also be about understanding the moment in which things are taking place and connecting with an audience by taking them on sonic journey with you. Being too concerned about how things look (like seeing a laptop vs. some kind of novel input device) can just as easily become as ego driven as spewing out guitar licks in order to make a spectacle.

The laptop performance I mentioned earlier was definitely a real time in the moment thing and listening back to recordings of such a performance doesn’t do it justice (it doesn’t function anymore). Now even though this person didn’t perform much in the traditional sense, there was definitely something happening between him, the music and the audience. Maybe it boils down to something other than the mode and style of performance, or knowing that something is happening but rather a sense of trust that the performer evokes from his or her audience.

Granted, seeing someone doing something can help towards creating that trust but at the same time it can also alienate the audience if the spectacle becomes too important. I don’t want my audience to say: We can see that you are doing something but you are not doing it with us.


keeping the controller tilted towards the audience

for when ordinary bad posture leaning over a table of gear just isn’t quite unergonomic enough


obviously there’s no rulebook on what works or not in terms of gear, it’s about craftsmanship and artistic talent/practice to make it work somehow. but in terms of “empiric” results, I’ve seen too many dull performances based on laptops. also, considering overall screen time, it’s quite nice to be able to make stuff that’s not dictated in the screen domain.

too me performance is about to create something with artistic value, rather than “selling” music.


I used to be of the mindset that laptop performances are boring, but that opinion has changed quite a bit in the past year. Seeing my friend Spednar perform helped changed that, he usually is accompanied by visuals or displays his live coding. Forest Management is also great - no need for a giant gear table. Seth Graham sits on a chair with an ableton push controller on his lap and actively plays it (triggering clips yes), but his laptop is off to the side.


I think there is a clear need for performers to have more physical control over the music that they perform in order for this to happen.

In my mind this need is one of the many reasons why things like the monome and other controllers exist.

I also think that it is not so much about what is seen or understood by the audience but also just to change the mindset if the performer and take them out of the world of concepts and ideas and into the physical world of acting and reacting. This for me sets up conditions for a performance. I still think there is space for both to be regarded as equally valid performance practises.

Regarding boring laptop shows, I must say that most of the performances I’ve seen people do on modulars have been quite dull as well. This is naturally a very subjective observation and limited to the small amount of these kinds of performances I have seen.


I’d rather be hearing interesting music than seeing uninteresting music. Theatricality generally is a turnoff - even if the music is great.

Ears > eyes.

Autechre - lights out/complete darkness other than the annoying glow of cell phones taking pictures of a dark room (huh?) - was more compelling on laptops than any overly theatrical hardware performance I’ve ever seen.


yeah, lights out is probably the best :slight_smile:
when I said artistic value, I purely meant in terms of sound, not in any theatrical meaning (maybe matmos was a bad example, because they combine it…)
however, again, how do you make the audience perceive that there’s some live sound sculpturing going on at all? (maybe by doing mistakes haha)


Oh my. I am starting to flood this thread, sorry about that, it’s just very exciting to see (for the lack of being able to hear) everyones ideas around this.

I am reminded of a performance I once saw where the performer didn’t move his body to the beat and didn’t smile or frown but merely played his music. He allowed space to exist for the music to occupy. It was a very moving experience. A performance in service of the music. Not entertainment in the general sense but a sonically-centered experience for the audience.

Thinking about it now, it was obviously a choice that the performer had to make. It could be read as a visual choice to not obscure the music. In the same way playing in the dark like Autechre is a strong visual element of their performance.

I think however one might look at it, sound doesn’t exist in a vacume and is essentially something we engage with through our bodies and not just our ears.

Maybe body > ears > eyes?


When Curtis Roads performs, he’s performing the spatialization. The space and the audio system are the things that vary from one performance to another, so that’s the part he performs. His composition process simply isn’t real-time. Far too many minute decisions at microsecond scales, no human could do that on stage.

If you ever have the opportunity to see him perform, take it. It’s a unique experience.


My wife and I were talking about this last night, and - being film people - it struck us that a focus on gear at shows could likely be an easy thing to fall back on in a predominantly visual culture – music, as an ephemeral thing with its own distinct sense of narrative is just a lot harder to talk about for many folks, including myself. The tyranny of the visual!


yeah, gear is one way to build the “trust” thing, it’s like crypto…
composition and performance are different animals as well, at least for me. but improving the process around composition enables more freedom for performance, and ultimately they can join at some level