Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: May 2013

Chapter 13 - Live electronic music


A powerful perspective from which to view the history of electronic music is the role of live performance. The nature of liveness quickly presents dilemmas. When recordings and computers allow the automation of every aspect of music generation and playback, why deal with live human action anymore? Conversely, the traditional human communion of live music making has often felt threatened by new mediating technologies. There remains an irresistible draw to the new just as there is defense of the old: Crowds rushed to witness the first theremin performances, with their seemingly magical action at a distance, and accompanying debates on quite what counts as “musical” or “live” continue to keep theorists occupied.

In electronic music, live control can run on a continuum from a single press of a button to initiate playback, to in-the-moment fine control of all aspects of the music, at a human gestural rate. Because electronic music is so rich with potential complexities of system, its live performance is a negotiation between what is automated and what is left up to human real-time decisions. Various strategies have arisen, including shared control by multiple human musicians, computer artificial intelligences designed for concert situations, mixtures of manual control and autopilot, and other complicated set-ups. Network music even allows action at a distance spanning continents!

Further reading
Emmerson, Simon (2007) Living Electronic Music (Aldershot: Ashgate).
Lewis, George (ed.) (2012) Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2 vols.) (New York: Oxford University Press).
Peters, Deniz, Eckel, Gerhard, and Dorschel, Andreas (2012) Bodily Expression in Electronic Music: Perspectives on Reclaiming Performativity (New York: Routledge).
Pressing, Jeff (1992) Synthesizer Performance and Real-Time Techniques (Oxford University Press).