Saturday, March 24, 2007
The crowd at Mohawk. Photo by Coté.
Note: You can download the tracks I performed at the official DXM webpage. Enjoy!
(Written: 4pm, Sunday, March 11th. I’ll say more about the SXSW panels in a different post.)
I’m sitting outside of room 9AB, waiting for a panel called “Sex and Computational Machinery” to begin. It’ll be only the fifth panel I’ve been to this year, so far — after Kathy Sierra’s opening remarks about creating passionate users, a short panel called “Beautiful Algorithms,” and “Mapping: Where the Fuck Are We Now?” yesterday. And Phil Torrone’s and Limor Fried’s keynote earlier this afternoon about open source object hacking. I’ve been exposed to many of the projects and ideas that have been presented about so far, which is a bit disappointing, but there have been some good moments. I had not been familiar with Fried’s “x0xb0x” open source TB-303 synth project before — and it looks cool. (Maybe if I get ambitious this summer I’ll order a kit.)
Speaking of synths: One of the more surprising events of the weekend so far took place last night at the AMODA Laptop Battle. Executive Director Todd Simmons invited me to participate. Last year I had been a last-minute alternate and got knocked out in the second round. (About what I expected.) This year, though, the stars aligned just right and I managed to actually — gwwrk — win the damned thing. Erm. Whoa.
For those who don’t know, a laptop battle works like this: 16 people are invited to compete in a single-elimination tournament. They are grouped in random pairs. The first person plays for the three minutes. The second person plays for three minutes. The audience cheers. The five judges decide who wins and who gets eliminated. This goes on until there’s a single winner. Okay.
So here’s what happened.
Scoreboard at DJ. Photo by Coté.
In the first round I won against a guy from Dallas who goes by “Kidko.” He seemed newish (no one I asked knew who he was) and he rocked it — did a good job — but came off a bit novice. I’d prepared to dump the brunt of my creativity into that first round (since I could’ve lost and not had another chance). So I blasted out my masterpiece, or whatever, and won the round. Poor Hilary (aka “Majora”), my friend and another competitor, got paired with “Cygnus,” the guy who represented Dallas at the national laptop battle last year, and got knocked out after just the first round. Sadly. So Kidko and I played our three minutes apiece. The crowd cheered. And the five judges selected me to advance. Awesome.
For the second round I was matched with “The Mysterious H,” a dude I know from back in the Austin days when he was part of a duo awesomely titled “Disco is a Dry Hump” — they played sets at one or two of my Oscillate Night shows. He rocked a wireless keyboard, beating out the gritty synthro jams while dancing and jumping around in the audience. I had a bit of a misfire when I played — the mix sounded awful from the stage, though it can sometimes be hard to tell what the audience hears. I don’t own speakers at the moment, so I did all of my prep on headphones. Which can be dangerous. Because what sounds complex and interesting with headphones on often sounds muddy and cluttered in the much less aurally-forgiving club setting. And that’s kind of what happened. Sounded muddy. Cluttered. Anyway, The Mysterious H clearly had crowd support and I felt fairly certain that my battle adventure would end there. But the judges threw it to me and caused what felt like a riot of boos. Holy shit. I have not been booed on stage before and it’s, uh, shocking! But the judges’ decision stood, so I advanced. H was a bit disappointed, so I bought him a shot and congratulated him. Dude’s awesome. I still think he should’ve won that round…
Coté and me. Photo by Coté.
(Written: 6pm, Sunday, March 18th.)
Now I’m at Austin Java Company, downing Dr. Peppers and kind of unwinding my brain after all of this by engaging in some awesomely unproductive web surfing and a bit of work here and there. Here’s the rest of the story of that magical battle night:
The third round was interesting. My competitor, “The Wild Bull” (I don’t know anyone’s real names…), lost his first round — but the girl who whipped him pulled out of the competition, so he passed through. Had I gone with my original fatalistic plan of only putting together three tracks with the assumption that I would lose by then, then I would’ve had to back out, as well, allowing him into the final round having lost twice! This did not happen, though… The night before the event I put together one final track. Which would come in useful. So the Wild Bull did his piece — a bit more dub-like than the beatz-go-crazy of his first two sets — but kind of misfired. He lost much of the energy he had during his first two sets. I think he might’ve front-loaded his performances and ran out of juice by rounds three. I, on the other hand, hadn’t. I did the “Hello Moto” remix I worked up for Christian’s and Andrew’s Generative Social Networking project and bounced the crowd around with some ringtone-themed beats. And won. (With much less booing than before.)
So finally, the fourth round. DXM (me) versus Cygnus, who had won the Dallas competition last year and had gone to Seattle for the nationals. This also got weird. I had the luxury of performing second at almost every stage of the competition, having been given the #14 slot (out of 16). I think this gave me a bit of an advantage because I could respond a bit to the guy before me (though because I had a fairly playback-heavy set-up, there were limits). After Kidko, for example, I felt confident that I would win the round, and I could take that confidence to the stage. In this final round, Cygnus went on to do his standard variety glitch-the-fuck-outta-yer-beats-dance-around-knob-twiddling thing — but his sound kept cutting out. Todd had to go up to the stage and physically hold the audio cable securely in the jack and I think it put Cygnus off a bit and the set just didn’t seem to go very well. I nervously paced back and forth off to the side of the stage and realized that — barring my own technical glitch — I had it made. I really liked “Hydrogen Eyeliner,” the fourth track I had set up, and just felt really good about everything. It all kind of clicked perfectly together. So I did my final bit, got people dancing. (I remember vividly looking up from the screen and seeing the ITP contingent — Rebecca and Christian, especially — dancing around in a small group. I wish I could’ve photographed that. Fortunately Christian captured that exact moment as a video on his cellphone.) I played and did well and then we came up for the vote and — confusion. My brain was on overload, so I may have mixed up what actually happened, but I think Cygnus complained to Todd and the MC (Phranchyse, I think) about the equipment failure, and the MC called for a tie-breaker. Which the crowd wanted. But I couldn’t — I prepared exactly four pieces and, whatever, the rules said that was the competition. Having nailed it, I didn’t really see what the benefit of doing another round would be. The judges kind of wanted it, it seemed, but I stepped aside and told Todd that I just couldn’t do anything else. So the judges went in my favor, Cygnus kind of acted like a dick about it (understandably, maybe), and that was that. The MC held my hand up and I got crowned (or whatever) winner. Everything after that was kind of a rush of people congratulating me and me trying to get my head together enough to corral a group of ITPers safely back to the car and then to a Taco Cabana for some food.
So. A few thoughts, now that I’m the big-shot.
First and foremost: I’m not sure what happened with Cygnus, but having working equipment is the baseline for being a good laptop performer. (Not to single him out — he wasn’t the only one with problems at this event and it’s bound to happen at these sorts of things with so much equipment-chaos.) You just can’t call “redo!” when something goes technically amiss. If the glitch came about because of AMODA’s gear, though, I feel bad for the guy.
Second: I’m a bit tired or the hyper-drum-and-bass beat-mangling crap. It’s easy. You get some beats, and you twist the bejeezus out of them with a controller of some sort. Sometimes the crowd loves it, because it is a good way to get some great energy out on the stage. But I think it’s getting a bit tired. I’d rather see some people go in new directions with it and for performers to express a different kind of control over their sounds. We can’t all be Richard Devine. Todd claims the beat-mangling stuff goes over very well at the national battle in Seattle. We’ll see. I’m going to continue to develop the trancey-electro sound I used for this show.
Third: Stage presence is a difficult one for laptop-based performers. Do you stand there and look like you’re checking your e-mail or dance around like a cracked-out monkey? Last week at AMODA’s event, the performers seemed to polarize either far on one side or the other (I tend towards the “checking e-mail” look). There’s a middle ground, I think, or — at least — a way to look interesting on the stage, but without looking like an goofball. And I’m not at all dissing people like The Mysterious H who are building upon the physical performance angle. I’m talking about people who are essentially twisting knobs with really exaggerated movements. I’d rather the live performance element come out directly in the music itself — that’s what this is all about, anyway.
But what do I know.
Tom expressing himself. Photo by Coté.
I'm Josh Knowles, a technology developer/consultant on a variety of mobile, social media, and gaming projects. I founded and lead Frescher-Southern, Ltd. I grew up in Austin, Texas and currently live in New York City.
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