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The (Anti-)Laptop Aesthetic
- Timothy Jaeger

In Contemporary Music Review, 2003, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 53-57.

This paper explores the use of French critic Pascal Beausse's and Jody Berland's descriptions of our contemporary moment to elaborate on the potential for reviving the twentieth-century avant-garde tradition of Cage and Kagel vis-à-vis Terre Thaemlitz in laptop performance.

KEYWORDS: performance, avant garde, Terre Thaemlitz, French theory, laptop, computer music

One performative model common in contemporary music is that of a single (or occasionally duo, triplet, etc.) musician, on a stage, performing a "live" set exclusively from a laptop computer. The bodily restraint, seriousness of purpose, and lack of ornamentation in the performance of this type of music is related to the European classical tradition of the eighteenth century (Russano Hanning 1998). Other, more recent, models of the twentieth century include more theatricality and playfulness. The work of Maurizio Kagel and John Cage are examples of this, especially in how both composers challenge the audience's expectations of musical performance structure, as well as its parameters of what can be included or excluded. For instance, Kagel has adopted a tradition of theatrics that included instructing the performers to adopt certain facial expressions. In Kagel's (1967/1971) opera Staatstheater, which includes everything from chamber pots to enema equipment, the subject matter continuously shifts during the performance. John Cage is infamous for his inflammatory 4'33" "happening" piece, which included all sounds that happened to occur throughout its duration (Hadzovic 2000).

In contemporary performance, many musicians have begun using projected visuals and other theatrical devices to "add" to a laptop show. For instance, Jan Jenelik uses a video backdrop while performing and Matthew Herbert destroys clothes, DVDs, and other commodities during a live set (Sherburne 2002). This type of visual and theatric compensation on the part of the performer for a "lack" of musical spectacle, however, is not as self-consciously embedded in the work itself as that of Cage and Kagel, for instance. The addition of this visual, theatrical element that is not part of the musical work itself in recent laptop performances is done to compensate for a presumed "lack" of the work's overall value as entertainment. Devices such as those used by Jenelik and Herbert are attempts to distinguish the performance from those that are more "static" in nature. However, these do not continue the tradition of the twentieth-century artistic avant garde in challenging the entire nature of live performance.

Jody Berland, in "The musicking machine" (Berland 2000), proffers that we are now at a point in musical history where there is no need for collaborators, live audiences, physical performance, talent or skill. The advent of sampling, filesharing networks, recorded sound files and programming, and the history of punk rock and free improvisation are all examples of how live performance has become problematized in the twenty-first century.

In many ways, these developments noted by Berland are liberating. The acceptance of free improvisation in contemporary music, for instance, includes an audience's "lack" of expectation that deviates from the classical model mentioned above. Movements such as punk rock have helped to repudiate other classical notions such as the "composer-as-genius". Contemporary musicians like Masami Akita have also become accepted by academicians in their explorations of noise and feedback in lieu of a more restrained and structured form (Ulrich-Obrist and Bauer 1998). These types of developments have gradually created a climate of reception in contemporary laptop-based performance where, ironically, multiplicitous musical and performative styles co-exist, yet devices that are not part of the musical work itself are still none the less used to compensate for a lack of theatricality.

I want to comment on Pascal Beausse's criticisms of artist inquiries into the real and self-media in the book Contemporary Practices: Art as Experience, and their relevance to contemporary computer music. I will address two possible models that develop the concepts of "the real" and "self-media", and how Terre Thaemlitz creates work that challenges notions of performance and audience expectation as a primary example of this revivifying trend in computer music.

Beausse (1999: 77-78) writes: "An artist wishing to function as more than an extra within the real might very well find that the information infrastructure, a veritable locus of world power, is a strategic place to launch an attack." This concern with function and appearing as more than an extra is tantamount to certain artists' practices that I will investigate. Beausse also notes a process that is taking place today: "The discrepancy between the virtualization of information and the density of the corresponding human experience only reveals, in a colder light, how the electronic spectacle takes away the individual's ability to run his own life." Zbigniew Karkowski, a musician who often performs live solely from a laptop, mentions that there is a certain risk involved in creating experimental music, and merely replicating the same obvious structures does not further the practice, nor does it challenge what you are doing and for what purpose (Karkowski 2002). He advocates a type of risk or "break" with the electronic spectacle, in order to develop a genuinely new practice.

This "discrepancy" between the virtualization of information and constant "electronic spectacle" has much in common with Berland's questioning of artistic relevance in the face of a leveling of characteristics once held in higher esteem in periods such as the classical. If we are becoming lost to a dizzying array of machinic communication, then Terre Thaemlitz uses his/her machines, both in composition and performance, in numerous creative ways to counteract this growing discrepancy between the advances of the historical avant garde and the current capitalist demand for novelty entertainment value. They use strategies elaborated on by Beausse to disrupt their own, and the audience's, roles as actors within "the real", and become self-media that cannot easily be recuperated (acting as more than just an "extra"). In this way, they "prank reality" in a way that both Kagel and Cage did in their now-historic works, and take neither technological progress or audience expectation for granted in their compositions.

Figure 1
Terre Thaemlitz

Terre Thaemlitz is a composer who engages in a critique of electronic spectacle and Beausse's "appearing as an extra" in his/her transgendered performances (figure 1).

Unlike musicians such as Jenelik and Herbert, who use theatrical devices to "add" an additional spectacular novelty value to a performance, Terre Thaemlitz emphasizes the lack of the spectacular itself in his/her "live" performances.

    Digital performance is totally referential as a performative process. Therefore, when considering its cultural implications, it is perhaps more productive to consider it as a form of aesthetic regurgitation rather than altering old notions of performativity. The upside to this is that it means we have over a century and a half of critical materials developed in critical response to such approaches. The downside is that most of those critical materials ultimately secretly reaffirm the object they wish to critique.

Terre Thaemlitz notes in a recent e-mail conversation about the cultural implications of performing contemporary computer music:

    And, as all commercial producers know, the real function of performance and touring is to make up for the faulty economics of record releases. I have always preferred the documentational aspect of studio recordings to live performance. In terms of discourse, I equate it with a person's deliberate writings versus their drunk ramblings (presuming, of course, they have anything interesting to say in the first place). (Thaemlitz, personal communication)

Like Kagel, Thaemlitz views the discrepancy with the economics of touring and the spectacle of live performance as an area of contemporary musical practice to be explored in its entirety, rather than compromised. Like Berland and Beausse's theories critiquing the appearance of being more than just "an extra", and Kagel and Cage's twentieth-century works de-emphasizing the value of the composeras- auteur, Thaemlitz's live work attempts to establish a break with the tradition of conceding a "safe space" for the audience in contemporary computer-music performance. He/she emphasizes one particular instance where this occurs:

    In one of the performance strategies for my project "Interstices" I have a laptop on an otherwise dark stage, and appear to be doing the typical things associated with laptop performance. During one audio build-up, I jump up and smash the computer, the concert hall lights come up full white (as in a fire), one of the promoters runs onto the stage in a wave of panic, etc. . . . the idea being to confuse these lines between "improvisation", planning, performance, breach of performance . . . basically allow the audience to catch themselves in a moment of panic or confusion, and let that brief "break" in the performance totally overpower the "actual" performance of music.

This type of performance highlights appearances (the assumption that one is watching something "live", for instance), and then contradicting the particular appearance in question re-establishes the reduced role of the composer that Cage and Kagel were working towards in the twentieth century, as well as Berland's more recent concerns over our problematized information-saturated contemporary moment.

In a recent interview on WKCR, Columbia University, New York, Zbigniew Karkowski criticized Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda, two well-known laptop musicians, as basically acting no differently than a traditional rock group in a live performance setting; by just "playing sound files" that you can hear on recorded CDs, there are no new ideas advanced in treating the laptop as one tool that can be utilized in numerous different ways for a "live" performance (Karkowski 2002). Thaemlitz's performances follow along the lines of Berland and Beausse's thoughts of allowing discrepancies between "live" and pre-recorded, staged and improvised, as well as public self-presentation to remain visible rather than resolve themselves with additional theatrics.

So, in many ways, Thaemlitz's performances re-affirm the twentieth-century avant-garde musical tradition and continue to advance inconsistencies between our contemporary moment of electronic spectacle. By taking nothing for granted, Thaemlitz is able to "prank reality" in a way that does not take for granted the performer's appearance, the technology itself, audience reception, or even "extras" (such as promoters), and therefore furthers a musical tradition that is/ was highly critical of its own performative methodologies.


Beausse, Pascal (1999) "Information: inquiries into the real and self-media". In Contemporary Practices, Art As Experience , ed. Paul Ardenne, Pascal Beausse and Laurent Goumarre. Paris: Editions Dis Voir.

Berland, Jody (2000) "The musicking machine". Switch Magazine . Available online:

Hadzovic, Alen (2000) "John Cage". Available online. Used by permission of the author on:

Kagel, Maurizio (1967/1971) Staatstheater , score. Warner Brothers.

Karkowski, Zbigniew (2002) "Interview on Live Constructions ". WKCR, Columbia University. Available online:

Russano Hanning, Barbara (1998) A Concise History of Western Music . W.W. Norton & Co. Available online. Used by permission on Sony iClassics:

Sherburne, Philip (2002) "The sound of Mutek". Res Magazine . Available online:

Thaemlitz, Terre, personal communication. Available online:˜timjaeger/TEXTS/thaemlitz.doc.

Ulrich-Obrist, Hans and Meta Bauer, Uta (1998) Interview with Masami Akita (Merzbow), Nettime List . Available online: