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.


  1. It’s a shame I missed Jamie Lidell tonight. I utterly utterly hate the stuff on the Warp album, but I know his live shows are amazing. I just knew I wouldn’t want to see anything else on the bill tonight. Oh well *sigh*

    On the other hand, I’m surprised you thought the Four Tet show was dull! I did think that musically the Sónar show was maybe a little better, and he did that awesome breakcore bit in Spirit Fingers (wow… fuck yeah!)
    But I thought the performance last Thursday was brilliant. He was doing so much live in front of us – tweaking, fucking with things, both with his USB controller and his mouse – and he was so in control of things, it was both engaging and impressive. The beats were great – and often very different from the recorded versions – and so it engaged both the body and mind. Well, IMHO.

    (You don’t happen to have, or know of, er… a… recording of the Sydney show from last time round, do you? I very much covet such a bootleg, for the aforementioned insane junglisms and all. I have a very distorted MiniDisc of the Sónar one, complete with my screaming *heh* – basically unlistenable)

  2. I meant to add to this post some stuff about DJing, Traktor, Final Scratch, Serato etc.

    DJ technology has changed surprisingly little in terms of interface design – and its not just been because of a historical preoccupation with the turntable and the ‘authenticity’ of vinyl.

    The Technics SL1200 has remained such a popular DJ turntable despite being well over 25 years old and despite advances in turntable technology simply because it has an extremely usable interface – the feel and torque of the platter, the placement and smoothness of the pitch control slider, the tone arm construction and placement for scracthing etc.

    CD DJ units began by ignoring the turntable interface, instead opting to try to create a new interface for DJs using buttons and smaller dials, knobs, shuttle wheels. Some of us got used to them and use the difference of the interface to interact/perform with recorded music in ways previosuly unable to be done easily with turntables. (seamless loooping, stutter points, microsecond beat juggles etc)

    But the biggest breakthrough for CD DJ technology really was the Pioneer CDJ1000 and later the Denon follow ups. Both of these mimicked the SL1200 interface, a large platter which in the case of the Denon actually spins (thus emulating the torque of the 1200 as well).

    MP3 DJ gear is still in search of such a solution. The most successful are hybrids which use the turntable as the inerface such as Serato and Final Scratch.

    This got me thinking about risk again. And reminded me of something Richie Hawtin was talking about at Mutek 2003 when he was explaining his use of Final Scratch as a ‘mid point’ before an eventual shift to just playing files from a computer. The reason he hasn’t made the shift yet was because, he said, “the audience still likes to see something happening”.

    I think it is more than that.

    Obviously CD DJ decks and software like Traktor can already auto mix tracks of different tempos. Traktor can lock to a beat in under a second and thus make trainwrecks (where the beats of two different tracks play over each other out of time) a thing of the past. In theory this would free up time for the DJ to spend on other things such as filters, EQing, beat juggles etc – but in reality it means they end up spending more time chugging beer and ciggies.

    Watching turntables (and thus also Final Scratch and Serato) is exciting because of what can go wrong. Not just becase it is visual.

    The risk involved in hands on mixing is what makes turntable music so watchable, and why laptop DJing is so dull . . . . at least until there are controller surfaces that reintroduce a risk factor.

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