Going it alone

(Ulrich Schnauss at The Old Blue Last, 4 June 2011)

Despite having sung and various instruments in a number bands, and DJed both with decks and laptops, I've never performed live as a solo act. However, it's something I'm working towards - both as an electronic performer and (maybe more unexpectedly) as an acoustic singer / songwriter.

The latter is a well-trodden path. But few artists manage the former well - especially when you narrow it down to those artists that aren't traditional musicians and who perform their own vocals. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of a single example. (OK, Jamie Lidell. Or even the likes of Kid Beyond. But they're doing something a little different...)

So, I'm always looking for insights into why some performances work, and some don't. Personally, I think the key issue is the lack of connection between what an audience sees and what they hear. If you're watching an instrumentalist, that connection is usually self evident: when the performer strikes a key, plucks a string, beats a drum, or does whatever they do with whatever they do it with, the sound changes. And the audience instinctively connects the visual and the aural. Even with a traditional DJ, the audience can see them cue up, cross-fade, EQ, scratch, etc.

However, with many electronic artists, this connection is lost. Even if the performer's laptop screen doesn't physically prevent the audience from seeing what they're doing, there's often too much that the performer isn't directly controlling for the audience to tell what they are controlling. And when the performer is triggering new sections of a track, they often do so several beats (or even bars) before the audio changes, making it almost impossible for the audience to make the connection.

Recently, I've come across a couple of interesting articles that are particularly relevant to live solo performances. The first was "Design to Address Visual Performance in Music, Explained by a Giant Robot Face" (kindly send to me by Unlinked) which focused on a specific solution to the problem, but also made some good generic points. And the second was  What to do when everything goes dead (an article I spotted in DigitalDJTips Twitter feed).

So it was with all of this in mind that I went to see Ulrich Schnauss perform a live, solo set at The Old Blue Last...

Ah yes. Back once again to The Old Blue Last - the scene of last month's DeLooze gig, and where I'd previously DJed at one of Mr Sushi's "44" nights. (Coincidentally, this was a "44" night too, with Mr Sushi and Roxanne Roll also DJing.)

To be honest, I wasn't that familiar with Ulrich's back catalogue. I remember Eddy Temple-Morris introducing me to his music a few years ago, via a track he played on The Remix (Eddy's show on Xfm). And listening to more of his material online confirmed that this was a gig that I wanted to attend. So a little after 11pm, I was waiting eagerly as Ulrich took to the stage, removed, his jacket, and sat down to perform. 

Ulrich's hybrid of shoegaze and electronica (with an apparent Cocteau Twins influence) was accompanied by a stream of visuals (typically shot from moving vehicles) projected on to a backdrop behind him. OK, not exactly behind him, as he sat side-on to the audience. This helped to do away with the barrier that can be created by the tables used to support an electronic performer's equipment (as mentioned in the "Giant Robot Face" article). And being seated undoubtedly helped the audience to see the visuals too (which obviously gave the audience something to look at). But, while I can understand that some performers (such as classical pianists) may need to be seated, I felt that making a electronic performer even more static, and even harder for the audience to see, was a step in the wrong direction.

However, any issues with the visual side if his performance were outweighed by issues with the sound cutting out every few minutes, "kinda killing the ethereal vibe" (as Unlinked put it). Apparently, it was an issue with Ulrich's laptop (presumable failing to read from the hard drive) rather than connections or the PA. Maybe it was simply overheating on one of the hottest days of the year in a packed and sweaty venue.

So I had to empathise with what must have been a nightmare scenario. I have a particular CD that I planned to keep cued up in case of disaster whenever I'm doing any kind of laptop performance. I think that the specific track on that CD is very apt. But hopefully you'll never hear it...