Thoughts on ‘risk’ and live performance – Four Tet, Jamie Lidell, The Now Now Festival


It has been a good fortnight for live electronic music in Sydney. I’ve been to a few shows and Luke Snarl and I were talking after the Four Tet show both about the performance we had just seen/heard and our where our own collaborative decks & fx things might head after all these years (all 15 of them). Obviously 15 years is a long time – I feel old just typing that – but I’m happy that we still get a kick out of effectively DJ/jamming together.

Luke mentioned the need for ‘risk’ in a performance. Its an idea that has bounced around in my mind since.

Risk is critical to engage an audience. But it can also alienate an audience.

The Now Now Festival this year was great. As an improvised music festival it is all about risk. The risk here takes place within a loosely defined set of rules created by the performers. If the audience cannot engage it understand these rules then the risk can be alienating for all but the most interested.

At the other extreme there is an act like Four Tet. I really like his a lot of his records, and his last tour with Manitoba in 2004 was interesting because he used motifs from his productions and twisted them it what sounded like improvised and spontaneous ways – ending up at distorted breakcore at one point. This tour, though, was different – although the gear was the same. This time Hebden stuck to the script – play the recognisable tunes, plug the new album – improvise in small, not too challenging ways between the recognisable bits. Coming after a live set from five piece Pivot it was pretty dull and unengaging.

Tonight I’m just back from seeing Jamie Lidell. Lidell’s shows have always been nutty and his live techno beat boxing and the way in which tracks are constructed literally in front of you makes his a performer that it is very hard not to engage with in a live setting.

Speaking to some other people at the show who’ve seen him before as well, it is clear that Lidell’s performance gives the audience the impression that the risk is high – one screw up and it will be very audible – but at the same time it is very controlled and the set structure has been refined over dozens of shows.

The sense of risk is therefore what makes a live show engaging or not. It is not about the gear used – laptop or not, or the perhaps even the skill of the players, but about whether the audience feels things could go wrong or not. This explains really polished band of stadium rockers, as Simon from Obscure pointed out, might be quite dull and feel hollow because each night it is the same set and the audience is fully aware of this (they might suspend disbelief through sheer fandom/starstruck-ness though).

Likewise a free noise ensemble might go beyond a sense of risk to a point where the risk becomes unrecognisable and seems too uncontrolled. If the rules aren’t recgnisable by the audience then the riskiness or otherwise is unable to be determined.

These aren’t new ideas by any means. But they pose lots of questions for interface and software designers for electronic music, as well as for electronic musicians.


About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.