Liveness

Controllerism is simple. It’s about making music with new technology. Right now controllers are where it’s at, and so that’s the name for the movement. Button-pushers, finger drummers, digital DJs, live loopers, augmented instrumentalists; we’re all controllerists. The beautiful thing is that it’s still new, it’s still raw, and it’s not about this or that style. It’s about musical freedom.[1]

Throughout the history of hip-hop and electronic dance music, the process of mixing and manipulating vinyl records between two turntable decks has become standard practice for DJs, imbuing the performance with a sense of improvisational spontaneity, and enhancing the perceived “live” presence of the DJ. Especially within hip-hop communities, a certain “pay your dues” approach to turntablism has furthered the canonization of DJ techniques. Joseph Schloss explains the justifications for the “vinyl is final” aesthetic thusly: “on a pedagogical level, the most practical educational approach is to recapitulate the form’s musical evolution to ensure that each important technique is mastered before moving on to the next one.” While this process of tradition-making in the technological practices of DJing has allowed for a broader cultural understanding among both producers and audiences, the increasing use of digital software and the presence of laptops in the DJ booth has thrown into question what “performance” and “liveness” means within electronic dance music communities. DJ John Devecchis summarizes the anxieties surrounding laptop performance as he asks, “How do you know the DJ is even playing? How do you know he’s not playing a pre-recorded set? How do you know he’s not playing Pac-Man while he’s supposed to be DJing?”[2] In a 2013 blog post titled “we all hit play,” Deadmau5 added fuel to the debate when he claimed “we all hit play. its no secret. when it comes to “live” performance of EDM… that’s about the most it seems you can do anyway.”[3]

Against this backdrop, the “controllerist” movement emerged as an attempt to simultaneously remediate the sense of improvisation and “liveness” imbued by turntablism, and to distinguish themselves from “DJs who just play records.” As Moldover defines primary motivation for “controllerism”: “performers who use computer technologies as musical instruments needed a way to differentiate themselves from people who ‘check their e-mail’.” [4] Extending Ragnhild Brovig-Hanssen’s concept of “opaque mediation”—which includes the “direct exposure of editing tools or processing effects, the ‘musical’ use of technological glitches or side effects and the obvious deployment of samples”—this chapter will examine both the performance techniques and embodied technical practices that have been employed as a result of the shift from “turntablism” to “controllerism,” as well as the specific phenomenology of technological experience and rhetoric of subjectivity that has emerged from the discourse of “liveness” among contemporary DJs and producers of electronic dance music.[5]

On a practical level, the emergence of “button pushers” reflects a demographic shift from DJs who grew up playing around with their parents’ record collections, to DJs who grew up playing video games. For many electronic musicians, the status of being a “button pusher” is not necessarily a denigrating term, but a general metaphor for the convergence of a gaming logic within digital music production and performance. Speaking of his own musical influences from video gaming, Flying Lotus states “I love that shit. For the most part I grew up an only child, I was 10 or 11 when my little sister came round. I was a little boy and didn’t have too many friends, but I had Nintendo. Those sounds are part of my youth, part of my history.”[6] Images of his studio attest to this phenomenon of media convergence, what LA Weekly writer Jeff Weiss describes as “a mess of keyboards, DVDs, video games, computers and a drum kit.” Bass music pioneer Rustie has talked about how his production styles emulate the way gamers play video games, as he says “I’ve played the guitar since I was ten, and I’ve played videogames since the eighties. I guess it’s a different means to the same end, really. There’s not much difference between plucking a string and pressing a button, I think.”[7] These examples call for a new assessment of musicality and embodiment within the “live” performance of electronic music, one in which Kiri Miller’s video game metaphor of “playing along” with technology takes on an increasing significance.

On an aesthetic level, the signifiers of “liveness” and “presence” surrounding the discourse and practice of controllerism highlight the ways in which “opaque interfaces” are being used to reassert modern notions of “authentic” individuality. I would argue that—in direct contrast to most scholarship on “cyborg” identity and “posthumanism”—this stance of limitless control and radical creative agency better reflects a primary cybernetic impulse of neoliberal capitalism, in which embodied interactions with technology are (contradictorily) expressed as a creative practice through which technology can be transcended.

[1] Moldover, “Performance and Controllerism,” Ableton, November 28, 2013 https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/moldover-performance-and-controllerism/
[2] Ed Montano, “’How do you know he’s not playing Pac-Man while he’s supposed to be DJing?’: technology, formats and the digital future of DJ culture,” Popular Music 29.3 (2010): 408.
[3] Deadmau5, “we all hit play,” United We Fail, 2013 http://deadmau5.tumblr.com/post/25690507284/we-all-hit-play
[4] Ean Golden, “Music Maneuvers: Discover the Digital Turntablism Concept, ‘Controllerism,’ Compliments of Moldover,” Remix, October 2007 http://www.moldover.com/press/Moldover_Remix_Oct-2007_w.jpg
[5] Ragnhild Brovig-Hanssen, “Opaque Mediation: The Cut-and-Paste Groove in DJ Food’s ‘Break’,” in Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 159.
[6] Louis Pattison, “Video Game Loops & Aliens: Flying Lotus Interviewed,” The Quietus, May 18, 2010 http://thequietus.com/articles/04269-flying-lotus-interview-cosmogramma
[7] Drew Millard, “Interview: Rustie used to produce like how gamers game,” Pitchfork, May 31, 2012 http://archive.is/dzPoJ