With music titans like Jay-Z and Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Ltd. playing within spitting distance of each other at this month’s Coachella music festival, it would have been easy to miss the more niche sonic experimentation taking place, testing what can — and can’t — be achieved through the ever-evolving marriage of music, art, and technology.
In the electronica-heavy Sahara tent, for instance, Berlin-based DJ and producer Richie Hawtin unveiled “Plastikman LIVE,” his traveling stage show that pushes the boundaries of real-time music performance. Like a sci-fi Wizard of Oz, Hawtin, who remains unseen for the majority of the show, pushes buttons and twiddles knobs while encased within a giant custom-built LED cage, its lights pulsing and throbbing in tandem with his sounds — resulting in a futuristic environment that evokes a demonic cabaret for droids. Audience members communicated with Hawtin during the performance via the Plastikman LIVE iPhone app, allowing them to send sound and photo files that informed his manipulation of the light show, while also allowing audience members to watch the show from Hawtin’s perspective. A heady effect, to say the least.
“Let’s just say I wanted to create something deeper than just an hour of “'boom boom boom,'” joked Hawtin before the show, which he had spent a week setting up on the festival grounds just outside the desert town of Indio, California. “One of the things that people continually ask about electronic music is, 'Who’s controlling who’? Is it the human being that is the magical component in electronic music, or is the human just one among several components in the musical circuit? That’s the question at the heart of this show.” It’s a high-concept narrative that may have been lost on some of the crowd — many of whom were quite obviously high on something, whether it be on music, life, or another stimulant. But those revelers may have been missing the point. “Technology, after all, can heighten human experience as much as anything else,” says Hawtin.
Sonic innovators Porcupine Tree, a British progressive metal/ambient band that for 25 years has prided itself on being “genre-less” (and which has inspired acts like Gary Numan and New Order), played early on Saturday at Coachella. Keyboard player Richard Barbieri (formerly of the band Japan), emphasized that while technology can be alluring to the avant-garde musician, it is by no means a substitute for traditional, organic creativity. “It’s not about the gear — that’s the whole thing,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘If only I had this bit of gear, then I could do this kind of music,' but actually you can limit yourself with too much technology. If you know what you want to do, you can do it on anything. It’s an attitude, an intention — the gear comes second to that.”
The sentiment was echoed by British electronica titans Orbital — the two brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll — who conducted some experiments of their own at this year’s Coachella. After a five-year hiatus, the brothers designed a new show that sees them relying on even less cutting-edge technology than during their heyday in the early 1990s.
“For me, it just gets more annoying, it gets in the way,” said Paul Hartnoll, in the Orbital trailer a few hours before the show. “More technology, that is. We’ve got big old analogue synths. Yes, we’ve got a computer running the digital side of things, running the samples, but we like to keep things analogue, keep things simple.”
Simple, that is, except for when it comes to their trademark flashlight headlamps. “For years we had been strapping flashlights to our heads using these homemade headbands, but this time we got a friend to design our headlights,” said Paul. “They're really nice and comfortable and stay in place — that’s where our technology comes in.”