Occasionally I am lucky enough to get away from it all and make music with musicians from various countries. Earlier this year, I found myself in a villa in Italy, primed for a week of collaboration, creating sweet, improvised music with other human beings. Ah, the simple pleasures of life!
Due to the constraints of international travel, many of those present had brought laptops and controller keyboards. As ever, I had my bulky hardware synthesizers, a hardware sequencer and a drum machine with me.
Once we were all set-up and plugged into the main desk, music quickly began happening. Astonishingly quickly. I hadn't even programmed any new sounds or banged in any drum patterns before a big, lush production gushed forth, all complex drums, perfect sub-bass, choral pads and tasteful samples. Impressed, I twiddled a few knobs and waited for a suitable moment to contribute something.
While I listened and waited, someone sidled up to me and whispered into my ear. 'Who's leading this one? Who's playing? Who's involved?'
I looked about, studying my fellow musicians. Puzzled, I looked closer still. At least four of them were clearly active, gazing into their laptops, deep in concentration. Tiny twitches of their fingers and slight movements of controller sliders offered clues, but they were too subtle for me.
'I have absolutely no idea', I confessed, at length.
This felt like a defeat; so, like any Brit abroad, I pondered the matter over beer. I rapidly entered the maudlin whining phase, bleating heartily about the good old days — when an audience didn't have to guess who was doing what, and all you could prepare in advance were a few guitar licks or an impressive new bass patch on your Wasp. I dispensed my nostalgia into the early hours until, to everyone's relief, I ran out of steam and stumbled off to bed...
Where magically, I travelled back 30 years to find myself playing with my old college band. I was back at the moment it all started. I can't actually remember the song we were playing but I recognised the moment instantly — our very first sensation of slipping into a mutual groove. Something new clicked into place, something absent from all our previous practices. We were, for a few minutes, an entity greater than the sum of its parts; unquantifiable, yet more addictive than chocolate. We exchanged mutual grins, as if to say 'oh, so this is what it's all about!'
Now at this point I must confess my dream went askew as Jessica Alba entered the rehearsal room dressed as a traffic warden and carrying a cannon-sized spliff. Anyway, moving quickly on, I later awoke with a blinding headache and a complete understanding of the universe. However, as is always the way, by the time I'd cleaned my teeth and removed an unexpected parking meter from my beard, all I could recall was the buzz about making music with people. This was important stuff!
And so finally I reach my point — and it is this: computers can excel in many social functions; they are wonderful tools for uniting people of different creeds and backgrounds — providing those people are not already in the same room! There's just something about a computer screen that sucks the life out of any gathering; used thoughtlessly, a computer can wreck human interaction.
It's the isolation element that really gets my goat. I'm sure it must be a very intense personal experience for laptop-wielding musicians, enthralled by their busy screens, conducting huge wodges of data, overseeing miniature views of virtual mixers, effects racks, vintage keyboards and the rest. But laptoppers manipulate controls in ways that are visually meaningless to anyone else — and if you can't tie the physical actions of a musician to the music, how can you relate to them at all, except on a very superficial level — especially if they never look up?
Anyway, blessed with this profound insight, you're probably wondering what happened next. Did everyone begin to exchange meaningful glances, gain a fresh musical rapport and wallow in a deeper appreciation of each other's playing technique?
Nah, not exactly; you can't withdraw from technology overnight. Ableton et al are designed to give you more; make you lord of your domain. These are not powers anyone will give up lightly. I maintain that they are unsuited to a band or collaborative situation; although laptops can bestow upon each of us the power to be the whole band, we should confine this to the list of pleasures best experienced alone.
Paul Nagle is a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee – a band committed to taking synthesizers, loopers, sequencers and guitars out for live, improvised mayhem.