I recently went to hear Jon Hopkins perform at Brooklyn Steel, a shoebox-shaped warehouse located on the lonely north edge of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I only caught the end of the performance, but what I saw was stellar. Hopkins played music from his latest release, Singularity, an album which aims to recreate, in a sort of self-reflexive way, the transcendent flow of experiencing a perfectly configured and calibrated EDM set. There was lighting design and visuals on a large screen behind the stage and most notably, the music was pummellingly loud. (Everyone around me was wearing earplugs, as was Hopkins, who kept adjusting them, I noticed. Is it fair to acknowledge that sound system/DJ culture has weaponized the sound of live music?) Hopkins is a significant figure in electronic music because of how he combines a composer’s sense of craftsmanship, a pop producer’s melodic and harmonic knack, and a DJ’s technical and tactile understanding of how to achieve visceral excitement. Watching him perform, you have the impression of a composer who has crashed the gates of the EDM party, figured out its sonic codes, and then re-written some of its vocabulary to suit his own ends, all the while staying true to the four-on-the-floor techno style guide. An aesthetically lean and flexible musician, Hopkins wouldn’t surprise us if someday he took a left turn into say, harp music.
Hopkins performs with two laptops running Ableton Live, several Korg Kaoss touch pad controllers, and a mixing board or two. (He might use more equipment such as CD turntables, but I couldn’t see. There are articles elsewhere online that detail this.) The most noticeable aspect of his performing is that he actually plays those Kaoss pads as effects instruments by tapping and swiping their screens to modulate various parameters of the music. Even from a hundred feet away, the audience can see the connection between Hopkins’ gestures and the resulting changes in the music, which is not something you can say about a lot of electronic musicians. Hopkins is particularly adept at transitions between sections of pieces and different songs, so that one sound is continually morphing into/onto another, or a single common tone is both the end of one part and the beginning of the next. Hopkins has stated in interviews that he loves music that is continuously changing, always on the move. In a way, his entire set is one grand morph.
The most attractive aspect of Hopkins’ music is the intricacy of its construction. Singularity is a marvel of a thousand details weighed and measured, intuited and sharpened into a jewel of repeating surprises. In this sonic world, nothing is ever as simple as it feels. The four-on-the-floor beat is skewered in myriad ways, with the timing of the hits displaced and bent so that the beat sucks and heaves the musical time instead of merely marking it. Hi hat-type parts skitter around the stereo soundscape, as if breathing. Harmonic textures and ambiances floating above the beats are glued with echo and reverb effects such that they seem to have no end—their swirling progressions can seem like M.C. Escher staircases that forever go higher and higher and lower and lower while somehow staying in the same place. And melodies are crafted out of little more than a few round tones that playfully bounce and multiply on top of the textures and ambiences before they vanish or become something else. Trying to track all of this musical action creates the sensation that the music has an epic quality—as if it’s urgently trying to lead you somewhere, or guide you on a calibrated journey. There were moments during the show where Hopkins played with extended build-ups as preludes to the inevitable (and cliched) EDM bass drop. But the build ups went to extremes—far beyond a measurable 4 or 16 or 32 beats. Some of the build ups seemed to create their own forevers and built to almost unbearable pressure levels—at one point I had the sense the music was rendering what it might feel like if Brooklyn Steel itself imploded. The rotary knob Hopkins was turning clearly had no end. It was intense.
As I watched and felt the bass tones vibrating my rib cage, I thought about what I have always considered to be the limitations of today’s DJ-oriented music. Typically, DJs play the music of others, and their creative contribution is to draw on their knowledge of recorded music to mix and match pieces that create impactful juxtapositions and guide the crowd through a groove experience. But listening to Hopkins’ set reminded me of the value of the composer’s craft. Hopkins was playing all of his own music, which he recorded himself using the same technologies he was performing it with. Rather than simply mixing together a series of tempo-synced beats from the tracks of others, he had conceived and constructed a unique world of rhythms, ambiances, and effects processes. This is what I mean when I said he’s like a composer who has crashed the EDM party gates. But I figuratively dance around an important point. Despite their contributions to the past fifty years of popular music history, most DJs aren’t composers in the sense that most of them work with previously recorded music they didn’t write themselves. Mixing and remixing isn’t quite composing–although it can be deeply creative–and relying on beats can, to my ear, come at the expense of other musical elements. All this to say that sometimes I miss the composer. Hearing Hopkins improvise his own music reassures me that there are ways to bring the rigors of composition into the fluidities of electronic music production.