On a bad day, live synthesiser performances emulate the experience of watching someone play fifa on their laptop, when you’d rather be in the stand. Or at least I assume so, I don’t really get football. Midway through Amsterdam Dance Event, I did get the appeal of modular synthesiser performances, having caught a documentary about pioneer Suzanne Ciani, who used these huge, complex switchboards to fashion rich garments of sonic fabric back in the 70s and 80s. Still high off the film’s enchantment (watch it next time you need a pick-me-up), I was delighted when I managed to sit in on a Fact ‘against the clock’ performance and found myself standing in a clean white room next to a massive modular synthesiser, which resembled a slice of a Star Trek command deck. The new friend and I had no idea how this object operated, or what kind of sound it would make, which excited me.
As it turned out, it sounded a lot like a pretty standard techno track. Once it was over, I made some inane comment to new friend, who bluntly replied ‘I don’t think it was very good.’ In all fairness we were hankering for vitamins and cigarettes, but still, I agreed with her. I imagine this performance was enormously satisfying to the performer, as he mentally delved into the complex machinery’s potential, but we just didn’t have enough of an interpretive entry point to render the music interesting. It was disappointing to see sense in cynical articles such as GQ's mid-club guide insistence that you should leave a club immediately if you see any kind of live performance, and Vice's 800 word tirade against 'boring' live techno sets. If you can't enjoy the creative process of dance music, is it possible that your love for the music is an illusion? Maybe I just needed a post-sleep Berocca.
A month later I collapsed onto a club’s backroom sofa, and found myself facing another modular synthesiser, this one operated by the Modular Gang, a trio including the brilliant Nina Kraviz-cosign Volruptus. It was their debut performance. Instead of clean white light, there were candles and cigarettes set amongst a swaying crowd. The low hum of conversation peppered with snapping, clicking, cantering beats made it feel like a Blade Runner open-mic-night.
It felt as if the extra hands on deck had suffused the music with more humanity, like they were sculpting it into a representation of shifting mental states rather than pushing it into a dancey direction. The three performers, respectively dressed in tracksuits, a black dress, and something like paintball gear, faced away from the crowd, into the twisted wires and flickering lights. At certain points one would calmly gaze for a few minutes before laying hands upon an exposed limb of machinery, slotting their input back into the mutating rhythm. At no point did any of them speak.
It was fascinating for the same reason that the documentary was; its insight into the mutual, exploratory interaction between machine and person. One of the theories about dance music that I disagreed with most when writing my dissertation was that - moreso than other genres like jazz - the music is about technology. It's important to remember saxophones are still essentially machinery, and jazz clubs don’t obscure them behind strobe lights. Dance music is about dancing, the people who dance and the scenes that facilitate their expression. But, at its best, live electronic performances can help fans respect and explore the human musicianship that goes into making it.