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Kirsten Hermes (University of Westminster)

Electronic music is at the forefront of contemporary recording practice and DAW-based productions dominate the current popular song charts (Official Charts, 2019 and Strachan, 2017). Concerts are an invaluable income stream for artists (Webster et al., 2013). The performance of popular electronic music, however, is accompanied with a specific set of challenges. For instance, records are usually created by layering software instruments and samples and cannot be reproduced on the fly in the same way as they were produced in the studio (Snoman, 2019). Unmodified backing tracks lack interest, both for the audience and performer. Following Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory (2013), artists are more likely to disengage when they repeatedly perform the same material without new challenges. Not all artists are able to play traditional musical instruments or operate complicated performance equipment. Therefore, the automatic randomization of performance parameters within pre-defined constraints can be an option for keeping performances interesting – by ensuring that no two performances of the same song are identical. 

The term Generative Music, as coined by Brian Eno (2009), describes compositions that change every time they are played: by defining a system that allows for randomness, artists can explore new musical material. Generative approaches are popular in the fields of live coding and modular synthesis, however they are less often related to the performance of popular electronic music. While pop artists may wish for their record to still be recognizable in the performance, interest can be created e.g. by subtly varying synthesis parameters or rhythmical arrangements. The seminar covers a range of technical means for implementing randomness in the performance of electronic music, including possibilities within popular performance DAWs (Ableton Live), pure hardware setups and programming environments. Through autoethnography, random automatic improvisation will be explored in the context of two contrasting genres of electronic music: neoclassical and chiptune pop. This research feeds into Kirsten Hermes’ upcoming Routledge book “Performing Electronic Music live”.