At The Altar of the Amplifier
Attending the wonderful collection of live electronic music that was Borderlands at Dark Mofo last month was a highlight of that festival. It also got me thinking about electronic music performance, and in particular, two artists in that night that held a special relationship to their equipment on stage, Stephen O'Malley and Kusum Normoyle. Both these artists use lines of large amplifiers as a key part of their stage presentation, something I also do when I can. So here are some thoughts on this particular role of amplifiers in live electronic music performance.
At Borderlands, O'Malley had five large amplifiers lined up on stage, like monoliths. They are all producing the sound of his single guitar and the processing that passes through. Throughout his performance he tends them carefully, walking up to face them, we can almost see him adjusting them in the dark, his body moving slowly across them as a silhouette, back and forth, sometimes undulating in the face of them, taking a moment to enjoy what we must imagine to be a physical engagement with the sounds they produce. Normoyle, on the other hand, has a much more dynamic way of addressing the longer line up of amplifiers she interacts with - her presence is the very thing that activates them - it is the feedback relationship of her vocal microphone to each of these that drives the sound very specifically - a feedback that she controls sometimes carefully, also often tending to the settings on each amplifier, other times by rushing by them, breaking into the crystalline monophonic electronic sound with vocal performance. Her body is a block and an enabler. This is a more athletic proposition - the energy of the electrical feedback seems somehow encapsulated in Normoyles performance - fast, clean, depersonalised. O'Malley's sound has an abstract warmth, the air around the audience undulates in the space, not searing through it as it does under Normoyle's control. Yet he too creates this sensation of the very electricity being made audible, a kind of crackling throughout the performance, like the electrical charge in the air sonified, a more subtle and timbral version of a Tesla coil in action.
In both of these performances, the amplifiers seem like characters in a drama, something like a greek chorus; commenting and reinforcing the action we see in the performer. They serve as a kind of gothic monument - obscured by the haze on O'Malley's stage but glaring in the stage lights along Normoyle's travel track. They are a set - a very designed backdrop to the action. There were moments where it felt as though these could be the almost be the offspring of the performer, bred from them, replicating elements of themselves, but in need of an attention that takes them away from the business of performing the instrument. These amplifiers are not without their own personality however - they are heavily branded, and designed in the stylised fashion of music gear - a bit protective quality, the textured black vinyl on wood, a bit thrusting into the light with white piping and large logos, indicative lights and some plain functionality.
I write this from a performers perspective: I know it sounds and feels good in front of those things. It's warm, they have a smell; at volume they are reactive to the slightest movements you and your instrument will make. There is a part of this process that is the paying of respect at feet of these machines: to their power, their strange delicacy, the fragility of the hot glass valves, metal filaments and paper cones, the enlivening of our ideas, to their control of the very air we breathe. This is a wonderful genre of electronic music performance, where these mechanical monoliths are what brings the body of the performer back to the centre of electronic music making.