I had the perfect city date-night on the books. One of my besties, Lori, and I had reservations at a restaurant I’d been wanting to try, dessert plans, and tickets for a show at The Doug Fir, a hip Portland music venue. It was a beautiful summer day and, being someone who doesn’t go out much anymore, I was feeling very cool.
Dinner was delicious, dessert the same, and by the time we arrived at the show I was excited to grab a drink and dance. The headliner was Chad Valley, an artist I’d never heard of, but Lori was a fan. She’d promised fun and dance-y, and that’s my kind of music for a concert when I don’t know what to expect. For some reason I had it in my head that she knew him from high school, but it turned out they had connected on Instagram and that’s how we came to be chatting with a man named Hugo before he took the stage.
Because his name, it turns out, isn’t Chad at all. Or Valley. It’s Hugo Manuel, and he’s the loveliest teddy-bear of a guy from the UK. An electronic solo artist, he was part way through a North American tour. In his undeniably charming accent, he talked about touring, taking the train in America, and the job he has back home from time to time in his family’s paint factory. As the opening act was finishing up, Hugo excused himself to get ready and I was left still having no idea what to expect. He was, after all, just one guy.
On stage he was even more charismatic. From what I could tell, with my limited electronics knowledge, he had a drum machine, keyboards, and a synth. The only thing resembling the classic idea of musical instruments was the one drumstick he used to change the beat tracks throughout his songs. Or, at least, I think that’s what he was doing with it. Regardless, he tapped his drumstick and pressed buttons with flair, while singing and looping his high melodic voice on a variety of microphones.
I enjoy electronic music to an extent, but primarily I encounter it when I go out dancing. A DJ’s remix of a favorite song, that sort of thing. It’s not what I listen to during my day to day, and I don’t have much of it in my music catalogue. I tend to go for music with more, well, instruments. And in the past I’ve always marveled at the idea of paying money to go see a show when it was just a dude on a stage with a laptop. That doesn’t really constitute a concert in my mind. Chad Valley though, isn’t an EDM act, no laptop needed, he’s a songwriter and I’d consider him to fit the mold of musical artist. But it got me thinking about the element of performance in these electronic shows.
It turns out live electronic performances have recently taken off in the genre. An article in Pitchfork titled “Keep it Alive or Die,” quotes electronic artist Holly Herndon: “EVERYTHING TONIGHT IS LIVE. THIS IS IMPORTANT. TOO MANY SEAMLESS ASS ELECTRONIC MUSIC SHOWS. FUCKING INHUMAN ASS SHOWS. WE KEEP THIS LIVE OR THE END RESULT IS DEAD.” The irony being that this was displayed on a giant screen behind the performer, which I’d argue has more of a Powerpoint presentation feel, rather than an element of performance. But it’s a popular sentiment. That until recently, a lot of electronic artists were simply hitting play on their tracks and letting their Ableton do the the work. (Ableton, by the way, is a German software program. I use the term with confidence, but really I have no idea what I’m talking about). But now there’s a movement in the music world to rebel against that.
The article goes on to elaborate just what goes into a live techno show, using the duo Octave One as an example:
...their gear list is extensive, featuring both old and new machines. Though such an abundance of live tools leads to a higher probability that one of the machines will fail, it also allows for a huge amount of freedom. The Burden brothers have the ability to manipulate every sound coming from the speakers in one way or another. They can rearrange or program sequences, extend moments, play live or loop on the fly, and add effects. The infinite possibilities make each show unique.
And that, in reality, isn’t always an easy thing to do. As Connor Jones explains in Magnetic Magazine:
The emphasis on traditional instrumentation is reduced in electronic music, as the producer utilizes the full range of studio trickery from synths and drum machines to MIDI devices and sampling to create their material. [...] The means to create electronic music didn't happen in real time; it was well thought out and calculated, finely detailed and labored over in studios for countless hours. Replicating this material in a live setting is a challenging task, and most electronic artists have historically been happy to stick to DJing as their method of performance.
It’s easy for a guitarist or drummer to throw in a solo, riffing on whatever is happening with the rhythm of the song. But it’s harder when your song consists of finely calibrated tracks and beats carefully fused together. It’s hard to imagine an 808 drum kit solo (again, I am definitely googling all these terms), though I suppose it might be possible.
I think, however, no matter how “live” your show, or how talented the musicians, other elements will always be needed to make an electronic show feel like a concert. The show at the Doug Fir was backdropped by a wall of lights that changed color and flashed bright with changes in the beat. It added an ethereal, sometimes ecstatic feel, and complimented the music perfectly. And it seems that every electronic artist supplements their music in that way – with lights and colors and visual stylings. Though I suppose a lot of rock bands employ that as well.
So, Chad Valley, just one guy and his simple electronic kit, was pulling it off. He had defined songs and stopped between each to banter with the crowd, even complimenting us on our dancing (thank you very much, Mr. Valley). So, maybe his music falls more toward indie than electronic? I’m not sure. But there I was, dancing my ass off because a good beat is universal. I didn’t need to know the songs, because that wasn’t really the point. I wasn’t thinking about the details. I was just letting the music, the beat, the lights, amplify my perfect night.