Laptop Battle

The electronic music culture has always battled in its balance between newness and tradition. House music, for example, has always been true to its disco lineage, and has made very few lasting stylistic modifications in the last decade. Or, back in the mid 80s, when the now infamous Roland 303 was out of production- an initial failure, available dirt cheap in secondhand shops, it's magic squelches and bleeps unexplored- electronic musicians were mostly concerned about the accuracy of a synthesizer's piano sound, and less interested in inherently synthetic possibilities. With this historical background, let us consider some new kids on the block in the electronic music underground. is the first group to attempt a nationwide electronic music battle format in the United States, vaguely similar in nature to DMC turntablist competitions, in which competitors take turns in a head to head elimination bracket, displaying their audio mixing skills. Revolutionaries in their declaration of the laptop as an instrument on equal par with the turntable or electric guitar, the group has just started its nationwide competitions, which will culminate in a national final in Seattle at the Decibel Festival, in September, 2004. The Fourth City crew from Washington State, who organize the tour, have put together a format with three minute rounds, a bracket of sixteen competitors, with no external controllers allowed. Five judges help decide winners, and the crowd is also involved in picking battle winners. A large soundsystem is used, and a video camera is aimed at each performer's laptop screen during their set, allowing the audience to see what's running on the desktop, projected larger than life behind the stage. The group's website encourages participants to "develop techniques and strategies," alluding to the overall newness of their organization.

The San Francisco show, which took place early in the tour, in a small club venue known for house music DJ sets, was marred by constant technical difficulties. The first round of sixteen contestants, in eight head to head matchups, didn't get completed until after midnite, 3 hours after the event was to have started. A surprisingly large audience turned out on a rainy Sunday evening for the event, which was eagerly covered in the local weekly papers in advance. Most of the crowd packed tightly against the cramped stage area where the performers played their sets. Unfortunately, most of the audience had left by the time the winner, Twittering Machine, won the final. Indeed, most of the audience left after the first round. It didn't help that the event organizers allowed numerous 'do overs' in the first round to people who experienced technical problems; unlike other competitions in which performers who aren't ready when called are disqualified on the spot (imagine having to watch an incompetent performer play the same set twice in front of a jaded crowd).

San Francisco was full of surprises for the Seattle organizers, who were stunned in the first round by the jeering and booing for poor performances: "wow, this is a tough crowd" mentioned MC Zapan over and over. The Bay Area has its own battle styles, yet sets by the local reigning champions seemed to confound the Seattle judges. For the past several years, the San Francisco style, developed in front of hooting and hollering audiences, has leaned heavily towards hardcore, noise and a barrage of gag insult samples brazenly dropped at full velocity at unwitting eardrums in need of earplugs, which the promoters failed to supply. While not explained in the event rules, it became clear that the out of town judges wanted to see the winner get a dance floor going in three minutes or less, which was of little interest to the more experienced Bay Area artists like Aneurysm, who went out with a violently cacophonous bang in his second head to head set, explaining "I think it was worth it though, just to see the twisted expressions on some of the qualificationless officials asses." DJ Shortbus, who has MC'd battles in many categories, including turntablism, MCing, laptops, electronic, and audio/visual, was outraged at what he saw, and was almost thrown out of the venue by the organizers for heckling the judges, even though rowdy behavior is common practice at the local battles. He explains:

    "They used the word 'experimental' and 'battle' and what was going on was nothing but bullshit, I mean nothing was experimental- the things that they let advance- and the winner had 4/4 beats that were fucking beatmatched the whole way through. And kids who've actually done this before in other competitions definitely had the upper hand but were totally fucking just shunned. It seemed like the judges didn't have a clue of anything about laptops or electronic music, nor did they know what the fuck 'experimental' means... you come to a thing called a 'battle' and they're playing fucking dance music, and the kids that are playing battle music, and the judges are closing their ears, that's the whole thing of it, you know, it's a battle, it's supposed to be fucking torturous, or slapping the other people around."

Any event with judging is going to be controversial, as pro wrestling or cold war era figure skating fans will admit. Runner up hardcore artist Duran Duran Duran was stunned to receive his second place software awards for a photo op and then have the judges take back some of the software after the pictures were taken. "I've played some super crappy shows, but this just might be the worst" said Eddie Fucker, who is Duran Duran Duran. Shortbus, who books Duran Duran Duran into local venues, explains "their contest is invalid, its just crap." Longtime battle follower Skeeter commented "these fucks make experimental music by their own definition. Any thing beyond what they deem to be experimental (i.e some glass reverb Autechre twin rip off shite) they run to the high hills. Fuck em and their tepid indietronica blink blonk music."

Predictably, the field included inexperienced artists that didn't appear ready to perform in public in any format, glitching through erratic performances. The uncertainty of the untested organization and their format lead to a range of conflicting strategies. According to the website, any music or software is allowed. Many performers, however, stuck to commercial, pre-packaged software products like Logic, Max or Ableton Live, and leaned heavily towards tried and true IDM and Big Beat stylings, building up a track as a vinyl DJ would, in the style of Mr. Oizo or The Chemical Brothers, rave-oriented bands that were in vogue as the 90s drew to a close. "That sounds like the Reason demo" said one attendee, comparing one performer's set to the factory preset song that comes with a popular audio program. Strangely, granular synths, capable of inflicting seizures and out of body experiences with digital audio were nowhere to be found, despite having been used by winners in similar events the previous year. The more experienced contestants approached the event from a noise or multimedia perspective, as a series of noise battles with electronic musicians and laptop categories have gone on over the past years in New York and San Francisco, conducted by the likes of Madame Chao Productions (Brooklyn) and Switchcraft Recordings (Oakland).

Even as the Fourth City group encouraged costumes and fanciful performances- with founder and MC Zapan looking dapper in a lurid necktie- only two of the sixteen contestants bothered to wear anything other than a techno geek tshirt. Further, only two contestants put together a multimedia onscreen visual set for the sake of the projections; most performers offered no visuals other than screens full of gray rectangular shapes typical of off-the-shelf audio software, and it was obvious the judges weren't noticing what was on screen other than the brand of software being used. Disappointingly, with geek mystique so entrenched in San Franciscan culture, it was surprising that with all the squadrons of unemployed interface designers and software developers throughout the region, the performers weren't building their own audio tools in flash, java, visual basic, C++ or so on, preferring plug-and-play, out-of-the-box software environments, stunningly dull in their gray onscreen mixing console emulators. Apparently the concepts of 'circuit bending,' which came through the recent electroclash fad, have yet to be applied to the software environment, which is even more ripe for modifications than literal hardware. Skins for audio tools anyone?

Going forward, as more groups like surface and evolve, the issue will be whether or not a new form of music will accompany the new formats, or instead, will insistence on decade old auditory aesthetics trump innovation. Organizers and performers alike will have to step up their game, or risk losing audience interest entirely, for the veneer of newness- which is the primary allure for at this stage- will soon be gone.

Terbo Ted
Better Propaganda Editor

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