“We’re making wearable technology,” says Fernandez de Cordova of Machina’s mission. “So we wanted to give the artist a way to step away from the computer, to make music with movement, something to make concerts and performances more interesting.”
With a rising generation of DJs content to “perform” entirely pre-programmed sets from behind their laptops, Machina’s impulse seems smart. One side effect of the 21st century’s digital music boom is that it has largely removed human physicality from the way many pop songs are created — and perhaps more noticeably, how they’re performed live.
That’s why some electronic musicians have begun to describe their stagecraft as “controllerism.” It’s a nod to “turntablism,” a term coined by DJs who first used turntables, mixers and stacks of vinyl albums to develop new dialects of hip-hop and dance music.
“With controllerism, the idea is that you’re using digital controllers to give a performance and push the boundaries a little bit, instead of just pressing play,” says Dan White, managing editor of DJ Tech Tools, a Web site that reviews (and sells) various controllers. Some look like video game joysticks. Others look like 22nd-century telephone touch-tone pads. Functionality is key, but it’s important that they look cool. Everyone’s watching.
“If a DJ is screen-gazing on stage, people will say [he’s] checking his e-mail,” White says. “You want to be able to distinguish your performance. People aren’t going to remember you if you’re not doing something original.”
Of any artist currently exploring these ideas, Imogen Heap might be the most original. Tired of the clinical feel of the knobs and faders that adorned her synthesizers and mixing boards, the British pop singer and experimentalist began working with a team of researchers in the U.K. on a pair of “musical gloves” that would allow her to replace all of that dial tweaking and button punching with more nuanced hand gestures.
Her Web site says it’s like “painting music rather than typing it into a spreadsheet.” Over the phone from England, Heap says: “It makes you think differently about what a sound is. It has movement. It has speed. It has rhythm. It can have texture. It can do so many things because there are so many things to play with in a 3-D space.”
Heap estimates that she’s a year away from integrating the gloves fully into her live show, but with the help of a demo she gave for Wired last year, interest in the gloves has grown quickly. So she has started another site — theglovesproject.com — for those who might want to try to engineer a simpler, more affordable pair of their own. “We need to build a community of people to nurture these creatures, these virtual instruments,” she says.
The more the merrier. Without a class of musicians ready to adopt it, technology can sometimes be mistaken for novelty.
“I don’t necessarily think that [musicians] are gonna pick up the craziest instruments they can find,” White says. “It has to be something that’s associated with some level of authenticity.”
Innovative, but not too weird. The formula for the perfect controller might be as elusive as the formula for the perfect pop song.
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