Sunday, 26 June 2016

Dawless Jamming

My blog today covers the topic "Dawless jamming" and arises from a Facebook discussion I was following in the "Dawless Jammin" Facebook group. The question was asked (theoretically, it said, and not as a debate!) what "dawless jamming" actually is. A very vigorous discussion arose from this as I expect it does at least once a month. I don't find this repetitive. I find it good and healthy. People should think about what they are doing and why and what they want to achieve. Indeed, I wish people did it more generally.

Of course, before delving too deeply into this discussion, and making my own comments here in my blog about it, it makes sense to get a few preliminaries out of the way. No one here, for example, is really saying that Daws (Digital Audio Workstations, things like Ableton Live, Reason, Cubase, Logic, Reaper, etc) shouldn't be used at all or that they are bad. No one is saying that one way of doing things is good and the other bad. Such questions aren't even in focus here. This discussion is about a certain way of making music and what counts as that way. But it doesn't bind anyone to follow what is decided because its for each electronic musician to decide what they are trying to do and how and why. That's as it should be. So this debate is not about looking down on anyone else who makes different choices. We can all respect each other however we make music and we don't need to have a sneering attitude. So put such ideas to one side.

So what is dawless jamming about? Well, at first glance, its about a number of electronic music-making devices being used in live performance to create a musical performance. But, of course, it can get a little more complicated than that. But I think this preliminary definition is useful because it points those thinking about it in a certain direction. It tells us that live jammers are probably using multiple devices, that they are wanting to use them together and that the aim is something greater than the sum of the parts. This makes me think immediately of someone like Klaus Schulze. 

Taking a look at the picture above from the 1970s gives us an early vision of dawless jamming. In the 1970s, when electronic music broke out into the popular music world for the first time, there were no computers. There was no midi, the protocol which would later allow electronic instruments to talk to each other digitally. Mostly there were also no presets for any of the instruments. The modulars of the time and many monosynths such as the Minimoog or the ARP 2600 or Arp Odyssey and most others besides had no way to save anything. There literally was only dawless jamming. And it was good. I listened to the album Moondawn by Klaus Schulze yesterday (quite by coincidence) and its truly some amazing pieces of music. It was dawlessly jammed in the parlance of today. It is essentially a set of live performances. So its people like Klaus Schulze and his compatriots in bands like Tangerine Dream and Cluster that invented this thing we now do today.

Of course, time and technology moves on. Presets were made viable by Dave Smith and others. Midi was invented by Dave Smith, then of Sequential Circuits, and Ikutaro Kakehashi of Roland. This changed the possibilities of dawless jamming. Computers came along and thats where things started to change a lot. With a computer you can essentially put the dawless jam inside the box. Inside your computer you could have and use way more synthesizers than you could fit on a stage or in a performing space. But, for some, what you lose there is more important than what it might be said you gain. For Klaus Schulze, and those like him, part of the point and the fun of what he was doing in those 1970s days was that you had these physical musical machines and you, somehow and always in the moment, coralled them into some musically satisfying whole. It wasn't back then about control of every detail. It couldn't have been because it wasn't possible. 

So what, now, do we think a dawless jam is? I don't really think its a matter of equipment. Its a matter of capturing the spirit of those 1970s artists and what they were doing. Its about live performance and not about sitting at a desk with precise control over every measurable factor of what you are doing. Its about instinct and not calculation. Its about creating a living thing and interacting with it and not merely reflectively moving pieces of a jigsaw puzzle until you have a picture. For some this will mean that any form of computer, which includes tablets and phones, is out of the picture. There are other recording devices, for example. For others it will be ok to have an iOS synth on an ipad as part of your setup. These are fine distinctions. For myself I find it most important of all that whatever you are using is controlled live by you in your performing situation. A person makes all the decisions and those decisions are then recorded and set in stone. A device like an Octatrack from Elektron is sometimes said to be a "daw in a box" and the metaphor is helpful in some ways. But I think we shouldn't push that metaphor too much. Its a great device and certainly blurs the lines between a musical instrument and a daw software. But whilst its still an autonomous electronic device that a user manipulates live then it still falls within that 1970s spirit of live jamming that I take as my guide.

Dawless jammers, I take it, don't want to be looking at screens. They don't want to perform using a mouse which is a lousy performance tool anyway. They want to preserve "performance" as a part of the way they make music. I'm reminded here of Depeche Mode, once a much more studio orientated band, who, when making Songs of Faith and Devotion in the early 1990s, had Alan Wilder use live drums just so that they could try and get some dynamics of a performance into their studio music. Its a similar idea here in dawless jamming. Dawless jammers want to feel part of a live moment, a performance event. They don't want it to be distant and at a remove. They want the music based in live decisions and not thought out choices over a cup of coffee. In some ways this is counter-intuitive for they are, after all, using machines, things which follow algorithms and programs and do, always, only what they are told. And very regularly so. But human beings aren't machines and, for some, preserving this element in the making of electronic music is vital too. That's why some people don't even sync up their devices even now in this midi world. 

So what is dawless jamming again? Its using autonomous electronic devices in concert, controlled by a human being in live performance, to create pieces of music. Its keeping the locus of control in a human being. Its recording something that was live in at least two senses. Its not wanting things to be under the control of a machine but to be in control of machines. And so, to that extent, its resisting some of the very technology that we might want to use because it puts things too much under the control of machines. Dawless jamming, in spirit at least, will always be about what human beings do with subservient machines and not about how much machines can do for us. There are some things that dawless jammers DON'T want to do because dawless jamming, as a form of electronic music, is human music.

PS I recommend you listen to Moondawn if you can. Its a lesson to every dawless jammer out there!

1 comment:

  1. Very enjoyable read and I agree with your perspective.

    P.S. Never heard of Moondawn before or of Klaus Schulze but I'm listening now and enjoying it.