The most interesting part of James Blake’s live show at the Bowery Ballroom last night was his trio’s seamless use of technology to bring to the stage some of the electronic and otherworldly textures of Blake’s debut album, James Blake. Blake was playing a Prophet synthesizer for his gritty analog keyboard textures along with a Nord stage piano for his acoustic piano sounds. But Blake’s microphone (and his piano) was also feeding into a sampler operated by his guitarist, enabling Blake to be looped and overdubbed and harmonized with himself, building up cumulative textures. The guitarist spent more than half his time “playing” this live sampled material by hitting small rubber pads on the sampler, sometimes playing deep dub basslines on it as well. One wouldn’t think that watching a musician poking away at a little 10-inch plastic box could be much fun, but it really works because you get into the musician’s concentration* once you figure out which sounds in the band’s texture he’s producing. Blake’s drummer used a hybrid electronic-acoustic set up: real hi-hat and cymbals, an electronic kick drum and a multi-pad percussion controller. What this means, for those of you who don’t play such instruments, is that the drummer can trigger any sound he wants on his electronic pads. Thus, one moment he’s playing a crisp, sampled cross stick sound (so key to a lot of dubstep music), the next moment a deep gong sound, and then suddenly a bamboo xylophone-type sound. What’s exciting about this is how the drummer becomes a sample-triggerer, commandeering any sound that has been set up beforehand, making it easy to duplicate the textures of electronic music in a live setting. And of course, seeing all of these sounds played in real time by a stick-wielding musician, connects the listener to the conventions of traditional live music performance. Oh, and before I forget: the band didn’t play to a click track and so the time was elastic and subtle and no one needed headphones. Beautiful. In the end, that’s what made this concert work so well: three musicians were able to produce a whole lot of sound in a truly live way–keeping it self-contained by sampling and triggering themselves, and leaving room for improvisation too. It’s a testament not only to the skill of the musicians, but also to how far electronic music technology has come that performers can use its machinery in such transparent, creative and pleasurable ways.
* There’s a story that the composer John Cage tells of having attended a ballet performance with a friend. The ballet dancer is holding still on stage, almost motionless and not appearing to be doing much, but is riveting nonetheless. Cage’s friend turns to him and asks: “How does she do that? How does she hold my attention?” And Cage replies: “You’re held by her concentration.”