Bloomsbury Popular Music-Technologies of Play in Hip-Hop and Electronic Dance Music Production
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Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound
Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound

Samantha Bennett

Samantha Bennett is Associate Professor of Music at the Australian National University. Her work is published in Popular Music, Popular Music and Society and The Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is the author of the upcoming book Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Peepshow, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Eliot Bates

Eliot Bates is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Music in Turkey: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (2011) and Digital Tradition: Arrangement and Labor in Istanbul’s Recording Studio Culture (2016). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2018

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Peer-Reviewed:

Yes

Periods:

2000s

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Technologies of Play in Hip-Hop and Electronic Dance Music Production and Performance

DOI: 10.5040/9781501332074.0016
Page Range: 138–153

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, electronic dance music and video games emerged as dominant forms of popular cultural expression (Matos 2015; Bogost 2011). The rise of electronic dance music as a global industry parallels the proliferation of massive multiplayer online video games, both manifesting the power of social media in mobilizing previously isolated communities of gamers and musicians. More recently, the visceral experiences of music and gameplay have converged in various ways, specifically shaping the embodied practices of music and game creators themselves. The success of music video games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band has influenced both amateur and professional musicians to think through the practical connections between musical production, performance, and gameplay. Dubstep pioneers Skream and Benga have discussed the ways in which their use of the Sony Playstation video game console to make beats has shaped the sound of contemporary dance music (GetDarker 2014; Red Bull Music Academy 2011). In 2014, Red Bull Music Academy even launched a documentary series titled “Diggin’ in the Carts,” tracing the global influence of Japanese video game music from the 1980s and 1990s on contemporary genres of electronic music (Red Bull Music Academy 2014). Through interviews with game music composers and hip-hop DJs alike, the series reveals unexplored relationships between the now ubiquitous experience of gameplay in everyday life and the technical practices of electronic musicians.

Integrating theories of play from various branches of media studies with analyses of the technical design of both music and video game controllers, this chapter discusses the embodied practices of electronic music production in relation to the haptic control inherent to gameplay. Together, the coterminous rise of video games and electronic dance music charts an alternative historical narrative in the evolution of digital media. Rather than reifying the centrality of “analog” technologies such as the turntable in the birth of popular music genres, the ongoing convergence of games and music establishes forms of experimental play with emerging media as crucial to the development of cultural production in the twenty-first century. By engaging a transitional moment in the historical evolution of hip-hop, electronic dance music, and interactive media, I provide insights into the physical and cognitive structures of sonic embodiment in gameplay and human-computer interaction (HCI) more broadly (Collins 2013).

From Turntablism to Controllerism

While digital music software has become commonplace in the studio and on the live stage, the history of hip-hop has always been rooted in the “analog” materiality and physical manipulation afforded by tools such as the vinyl record or the Akai MPC sampler and drum machine. Musicologist Mark Katz claims the physical immediacy of the record as the most important reason for its success, as he describes the hand resting “comfortably on the grooved, slightly tacky surface. . . . Pushing a record underneath a turntable needle, transforming the music held within its grooves, one has a sense of touching sound” (Katz 2012: 64). The “inimitable feel” of vinyl comes through not only in the performance practice of the DJ, but also in the hands of record collectors who value the dusty, aged quality of vinyl just as a book collector values the original printing of a text. In physically manipulating the deep wax grooves on the surface of a record, the DJ may sense he or she is “touching sound” and being allowed immediate access to the musical source and social context embedded within the object.

It is no coincidence, then, that an archaeological rhetoric pervades discourse surrounding record collecting within hip-hop. The process of seeking out new records for both creative inspiration and musical source material, known as “digging the crates,” has become a rite of passage for aspiring DJs and record collectors more generally (Eisenberg 1988). According to ethnomusicologist Joseph Schloss, “one of the highest compliments that can be given to a hip-hop producer is the phrase ‘You can tell he digs’” (Schloss 2004: 80). The excavation of vinyl facilitates the construction and preservation of hip-hop’s musical genealogy. Katz describes the materiality of the vinyl as “a precious substance in hip-hop” that is “authentic,” “elemental,” and “fundamental.” Present at and largely responsible for the birth of hip-hop, Katz claims of vinyl: “There is more than just music inscribed in those black discs; vinyl carries with it the whole history, the DNA, of hip-hop” (Katz 2012: 218). In the late 1990s through the early 2000s, vinyl culture would confront a major practical and philosophical dilemma with the emergence of digital tools for music production. For a culture so intimately dedicated to the physicality of both the record and the performer, what happens to the structure of hip-hop’s musical DNA in the context of the perceived immateriality of software? How are techniques of production and performance coping with the gradual collapse of vinyl as the fundamental “substance” of hip-hop culture?

In 2010, Technics discontinued the production of the SL-1200 turntable. The iconic model was lauded for its minimalist interface and direct drive system, which afforded the DJ a particularly robust instrument with a heightened sense of tactile feedback. The countless obituaries surrounding the device’s death marked this moment as the end of an era, questioning what would become of hip-hop in the post-SL-1200 age (Patel 2016; Barrett 2010). In the same year, Apple introduced the iPad, a touchscreen portable tablet that became particularly popular among digital musicians seeking new ways of controlling the increasingly complex music production software developed for laptops. These coterminous developments turned out to have a major impact on the forms and techniques of hip-hop production and performance, marking the convergence of multiple discursive spaces within electronic dance music culture—studio artists became stage DJs, laptops converged with mobile devices, and the lines between production and performance became increasingly blurred.

While turntablism thrives on the physical dexterity of the DJ and the visibility of the vinyl record, laptop musicians often struggle with constructing convincing stage performances. Since the computer serves as the primary focal point for the stage setup, laptop DJs are often accused of playing video games or simply checking e-mail without offering the audience an entertaining performance. DJ John Devecchis disputes the notion of laptop performance as a form of DJing altogether, as he asks, “How do you know the DJ is even playing? How do you know he’s not playing a prerecorded set? How do you know he’s not playing Pac-Man while he’s supposed to be DJing? I want to see the DJ doing something” (Montano 2010: 410). For Devecchis, as well as many other DJs and fans of electronic dance music, it is the lack of visibility in performance techniques that delegitimizes the skill of the performer, while disrespecting the expectations of certain audience members.

Debates concerning the proper techniques of electronic music performance proliferated on the heels of such technological changes, eventually coming to a head in 2013 as a result of a controversial statement by Joel Zimmerman, also known as Deadmau5, one of the most globally renowned DJs at the time. In a blog post titled, “We all hit play,” Zimmerman claimed to speak for all of the “button-pushers” who were too afraid to admit that most DJs “live” performances consist of simply getting on stage and pressing play: “its no secret. when it comes to ‘live’ performance of EDM . . . that’s about the most it seems you can do anyway. It’s not about performance art, its not about talent either (really its not)” (Deadmau5 2013). In direct response to DJs such as John Devicchis, who prioritizes individual skill and “paying your dues” as a turntable DJ, Zimmerman celebrates the lack of skill and technical accessibility of DJing in the digital age, claiming that “given about 1 hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of ableton and music tech in general could DO what im doing at a deadmau5 concert.” The post immediately went viral among the online community of DJs and electronic music producers, inspiring heated exchanges and countless defenses of the lineage of “live” performance in DJ culture, including Twitter rebuttals from Zimmerman’s friend and fellow DJ Sonny Moore, also known as Skrillex.

The “button pusher” debate exemplifies many of the ongoing anxieties musical cultures experience with the rise of new technologies. For some audience members, the presence of a laptop on stage seems to negate the “live” aspect of the event and thus their own physical presence at the club, leading them to think, why not just listen to the music in the isolation of my home? For some DJs, particularly those who have dedicated years of their lives to learning the standard techniques of turntablism, the laptop delegitimizes the creative labors of a musical tradition nearly half of a century old. Rather than perceiving the technologies as threats to performance standards and conventions, music theorist Mark Butler describes the increasing prevalence of hardware “controllers” in the laptop performer’s arsenal as tools for externalizing the perceptibly opaque creative processes happening behind the laptop screen. According to Butler, “Rarely if ever is a ‘laptop set’ only a laptop set. Instead, the internal, digital elements of the laptop environment are externalized—made physical in the form of MIDI controllers and other hardware devices” (Butler 2014: 96). In the wake of Zimmerman’s commentary on the state of performance in electronic dance music culture, both stage DJs and studio producers have increasingly turned to hardware controllers as a means of heightening the physicality of their “live” presence (Butler 2014; Hugill 2008; Gilbert and Pearson 1999). In doing so, the lines between performance and production have become increasingly blurred for digital musicians.

Controllerism and the Materiality of Software

“Controllerism” emerged in the late 2000s within the electronic music community against the heated backdrop of the button pusher debate. While the term could be used to describe a vast number of performance techniques within electronic music, musician and hardware hacker Moldover broadly defines it as being “about making music with new technology. Right now controllers are where it's at, and so that's the name for the movement. Button-pushers, finger drummers, digital DJs, live loopers, augmented instrumentalists; we're all controllerists” (Moldover 2013). For Moldover, controllerism represents a unique stage in the development of music technology, one that materialized at a historical moment in which the vinyl record ceased being the sole interface for performing prerecorded musical material. Indeed, it is the vast proliferation of digital music controllers that has defined electronic dance music production amid the perceived twilight of vinyl, helping DJs and producers to navigate emerging tools and techniques through new forms of musical practice.

The use of MIDI devices to control digital software is the most common form of controllerism. In contemporary popular music since the early 2000s, MIDI devices are commonly used as “live” instruments that are manipulated in real time. Grid-based interfaces with rubber pads have become commonplace in the studio and on the stage, allowing the percussive triggering and automated sequencing of digital samples. Indeed, controllerism represents just one of the ways in which the lines between production and performance have become blurred in contemporary digital music—a fact that is evidenced by the emergence of FACT’s “Against the Clock” or XLR8R’s “In the Studio” series, both of which reveal the significance of MIDI controllers in the creative process of digital music producers. Designed by Ableton in collaboration with Akai Professional, the company responsible for the infamous MPC series drum samplers, the Push controller, for example, is marketed as a digital controller that blurs the line between production and performance, presenting a staggering degree of fine-tuned control while composing using Ableton Live software. Ableton’s APC, Livid’s OHM, the Monome, and Novation’s Launchpad, among many others, are specifically catered to the “live” triggering and micro-manipulation of both musical patterns and sonic parameters such as volume, effects, and mixer settings. Other grid controllers are fashioned as entire studio workstations in themselves. Native Instruments describes its Maschine Studio as an “ultimate studio centerpiece for modern music production,” specifically emphasizing the “unprecedented physical control and visual feedback” of the interface (Native Instruments 2016).

While grid-based controllers dominate the digital instrument industry through a carefully marketed alignment with proprietary music software, other controllerists feel limited by the creative constraints resulting from this integration. Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain started building open source, minimalist controllers in 2006, seeking to construct “less complex, more versatile tools” than the cluttered interfaces being marketed to electronic musicians at the time. The company prides itself with operating “on a human scale,” using only local suppliers and manufacturers, and embodying values of environmental and economic sustainability in their design process. This minimalist sensibility is embedded within products such as their Monome “grid” controller, in which the only control mechanism on the instrument exists in the form of small rubber buttons capable of sending simple on-and-off messages to open source software such as Max/MSP (Figure 8.1). Rather than perform with the seemingly prescribed options of proprietary software, Monome users build and freely share custom software patches that can be applied across a variety of artistic genres and creative needs.

Figure 8.1 Monome “grid” controller (2008).

As these examples demonstrate, controllerism surfaced as an attempt by electronic musicians and designers to employ hardware as physical extensions of existing instruments, simultaneously enhancing the sense of tactile immediacy imbued by turntablism and distinguishing themselves from the “we all hit play” paradigm detailed by Deadmau5. Indeed, Moldover defines the primary motivation for controllerism using the same critical language as v inyl purists, claiming “performers who use computer technologies as musical instruments needed a way to differentiate themselves from people who ‘check their e-mail’” (Golden 2007). At the same time, performing with vinyl without employing extensive sonic manipulation is also not enough for many controllerists, who emphasize “live” improvisation and the physical display of HCI on stage. In this way, controllerism positions itself as a progressive expansion of both laptop DJs and vinyl DJs who simply “hit play.” If vinyl record performance foregrounds the agency and presence of the musician, controllerist performance foregrounds the negotiation between the musician and the “rules” of the software. This dialectical relationship between hardware (human bodies, material technologies) and software (processes, logics, and mechanics of code) finds a direct analogy in the structures of video game play.

Controller Design for Gaming

The status of being a “button pusher” is not simply a denigrating term for artists working with hardware controllers, but a metaphor for the convergence of a gaming logic with digital music production. Speaking of his own influences from video gaming, Flying Lotus talks about growing up as an only child who “didn’t have too many friends, but I had Nintendo.” Like many electronic musicians growing up in the 1980s, the dawn of the gaming age, FlyLo cites that period as formative in his creative development, proudly stating, “Those sounds are part of my youth, part of my history” (Pattison 2010). Glasgow’s bass music pioneer Rustie talks about how his production styles emulate the way gamers play, describing his experience with the electric guitar and video games as “different means to the same end, really . . . there’s not much difference between plucking a string and pressing a button, I think” (Millard 2012). The 2000s witnessed the emergence of a new generation of electronic musicians, one that grew up on Nintendos, Game Boys, and Ataris, rather than their parents’ vinyl record collections, and the production practice of pressing buttons and swiping screens reflects this.

Recently, musicologist Roger Moseley introduced “ludomusicology” as a theoretical model with which to analyze the shared experiences of play, performance, and digital embodiment in both gaming and music production. Most significantly, ludomusicology is concerned with “the extent to which music might be understood as a game”—as a system of rule-based logics that “constitute a set of cognitive, technological, and social affordances for behaving in certain ways, for playing in and with the world through the medium of sound and its representations” (Moseley 2013: 286). If, as Moseley suggests, musical scores, software code, and hardware interfaces constitute “the ludic rules according to which music is to be played,” what might the technical practices of digital music producers say about the shifting nature of musical performance and instrumentality as play?

In order to recognize the explicit connection between gaming and music production, it is necessary to understand how the experience of play is capable of facilitating creative experiences in general. The notion of constraints as an engine for creativity and experimentation within closed, interactive systems has become an overarching framework for explaining the allure of play as a cultural force (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). In a succinct definition that could be applied equally to music and gameplay, Bernard Suits describes gaming as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 2005). Whereas musical play is often conceived as allowing an unfettered creative experience—the idea that technologies allows for the creation of “any sound you can imagine”—embodied interaction with games and electronic music may be more aptly characterized by the ways in which the media resists or constrains the actions of the user (Théberge 1997).

Whether embedded within the instrumentality of music or gameplay, constraints are most often perceived in the physical comportment of the player as he or she interacts with a technological apparatus, the interface shaping his or her embodied knowledge and practices. Dance scholar Harmony Bench has examined the gestural choreographies through which users comport themselves while engaging with touch-based digital media devices, for example. Noticing the ways in which “their bodies curved into supportive architectures with which they cradled touch-screens,” Bench argues that these “digital media choreographies” encourage the development of bodily techniques across media and technologies, simultaneously ushering in new understandings of physical and bodily comportment and serving as the mechanisms for that education (Bench 2014: 238). Bench specifically aligns musicianship with the sort of “computational literacy” of gaming, detailing the significance of rote repetition in the development of embodied knowledge within each practice, as well as the ways in which each “demand[s] a corporeal training that impacts operators’ experiences of their physicality” (ibid.: 243). Think of the ways in which musicians, gamers, and computer operators alike must constantly update their skills based on the rapid, and often radical, changes made to common operating systems, game controllers, and digital musical interface design (ibid.: 245). While scholars have previously examined the “medium-specific” modes of embodiment that reshape technological users’ bodily structures, Bench’s analysis is not limited to a single platform, allowing her to highlight gaming and music production as shared avenues for the embodiment of systematic design constraints that ultimately function in shaping the bodily comportment of the player.

Game controllers are particularly important conduits for the transmission and negotiation of design constraints, aiding in the embodied cognition of social values, haptic metaphors for technological interaction, and expected patterns of use. In other words, controllers externalize the “rules” embedded within digital systems. According to game theorist David Myers, all video game controllers share at least two formal properties that directly shape players’ embodied practices: “they employ arbitrary and simplified abstractions of the physical actions they reference, and they require some level of habituation of response” (Myers 2009: 50). For example, Xbox One and Playstation 4 controller schemes (the most popular handheld controllers at the time of writing) are similar in their dual-joystick layout, abstracting a complex set of buttons and triggers to letters and shapes. Abstraction in the hardware interface is thus used as a method for managing the complexity of the software, allowing the player to physically internalize the constraints of the controller that are required to succeed in a variety of gaming genres. How might these design constraints apply to digital music-making—a practice that asks the musician to navigate emerging complexities in HCI?

Figure 8.2 (A) Playstation 4 controller (2013); (B) Xbox One controller (2013).

Controller Design for Music-Making

As with the development of motor memory in video games, training on a musical instrument involves the internalization of the affordances and constraints of a given instrument through the rote repetition of bodily techniques and habituated responses. Musicologist Elisabeth Le Guin discusses the ways in which cellists physically comport themselves in relation to the cello during performance, molding themselves into a single “cellist-body” through movement and action (Le Guin 1999). Just as gamers embody the internal constraints embedded within the game itself, instrumentalists develop an embodied understanding of the constraints embedded within a given piece of music. Le Guin defines this skill as “anticipatory kinesthesia,” in which the performer assesses the physical demands of a given piece on their body, asking such questions as “What do I need to do in order to play this? Where will I put my hands, and how will I move them?” Most instrumentalists would not be able to articulate clear answers to these questions, in the same way that most gamers would have trouble putting to words such a deeply embodied practice. Rote repetition is thus capable of facilitating the acquisition of tacit, embodied knowledge (Polanyi 1966).

As is the case with embodied knowledge in game controllers, the mappings of musical software onto hardware ask the player to internalize a constantly changing set of embodied musical techniques. This process of interface abstraction may be most clearly exemplified in the minimalist design of the Monome “grid” controller, which comprises a small rectangular box fitted with a symmetrical grid of small rubber buttons and a USB port. Often, the Monome is used as a controller for the Max/MSP visual programming environment, which is itself a modular, open software that can be used for a variety of creative practices from electronic music synthesis to the real-time generation of 3D visuals. In this context, the button grid interface can take the form of a pitch controller alternative to the keyboard interface, an externalization of a step sequencer, a multitrack mixer or effects modulator, a visual spatialization map, and any number of other tools. Approaching the blank interface of an instrument such as the Monome, the musician must focus more on the internalization of specific software affordances, rather than the external affordances of the minimalist hardware (Upton 2015).

This internalization of software through hardware has two seemingly opposing effects on electronic music production. First, as the processing power for a given musical task is increasingly delegated to the software, the physical and gestural manipulation of the hardware becomes increasingly unnecessary. This fact is highlighted by trends in game controller and interface design more broadly, which value the least amount of effort to achieve the maximum output. In the context of games, a single, slight flick of a Playstation 4 controller’s right trigger may just as likely fire a gun, swing a sword, open a door, or detonate a series of explosives. In the context of musical production and performance, the single tap of a rubber pad may just as likely trigger a single snare drum sample, a four-bar drum loop, or an entire musical album. In valuing the non-isomorphic design of musical gestures, digital music controllers have encouraged both musicians and audience members to develop new forms of embodied listening and production. It is this transitional moment that sparked the vehement and ongoing debates about human agency in performance detailed in the opening of this chapter.

Increased complexity in software design seems to facilitate a decreased complexity in hardware design, leading to what Bart Simon terms a “gestural minimalism” in gaming that could equally apply to musical production and performance (Simon 2009). However, as the player develops an embodied knowledge of the software’s “rules,” he or she is able to dedicate more attention to the physical control of the hardware itself. This leads to the common experience of what Simon alternatively calls “gestural excess” in gaming, when physical movements are made in excess of what the hardware is actually capable of performing. For example, even though the joystick of a controller may be the only mechanism capable of steering a car in a racing game, the player often exceeds this limitation by gesturing with the controller itself as a steering wheel, dynamically contorting their entire body to the left and right as if controlling an actual car. This becomes a subconscious attempt to overcome the arbitrariness of the digital “mapping” by foregrounding the embodied metaphor on which the software is designed. Just as these gestures function to translate the “rules” of the game to the player, embodied metaphors can likewise translate a sense of musicality and performativity to an audience. Or, in the case of studio producers, these embodied metaphors provide the musician with an imagined audience that can help guide their production practices (again, FACT’s “Against the Clock” and XLR8R’s “In the Studio” series provide interesting case studies of this phenomenon in action).

For electronic musicians, gestural excess represents a clear strategy for conveying a sense of “liveness” to their audience, while developing performance strategies for the embodied control of musical techniques embedded in software (Auslander 1999). Describing a performance from German electronic musician Stefan Betke (also known as Pole), Butler writes about what he calls the “passion of the knob,” in which the producer “seems to put his whole body into the extended turning of a knob,” directing an “exceptionally intense expressivity toward a small, technical component associated with sound engineering” (Butler 2014: 101). These gestural excesses are highly choreographed, as the performer “telegraphs ‘expressivity’” to the prerecorded musical material, locating himself or herself as the primary agent of the sounds being heard by the audience (ibid.: 3). In a way, this mode of performance is meant to foreground the “human” presence while effacing the technological apparatus. At the same time, highlighting the physical practice of interfacial mediation likewise foregrounds the mechanics and “rules” embedded within the apparatus, thus indoctrinating the audience into new modes of listening to the interface. In other words, gestural excess gives the audience a practical method for listening to the electronic music controller as a process-based musical instrument, rather than a tool simply to be used for the composition of sound content.

Daedelus, a Los Angeles-based producer and DJ, has become infamous for his use of controllers to externalize the mechanics of music software in production and performance. The relationship between gameplay and music is further highlighted by the type of creative work to which he dedicates himself, including interactive audio installations, sound design for video games, and controllerism in live performance. In a particularly fitting video shoot produced by the news and media website Into the Woods, he performs an entire “DJ” set in the middle of Portland, Oregon’s Ground Kontrol arcade (Intothewoods.tv 2012). The v ideo begins with Daedelus challenging a fellow beatmaker to a game of Street Fighter 2, followed by a montage of clicking and clacking button presses that trigger short bursts and choppy audio samples from the machine. Surrounded by the flashing lights, bleeps, and blips of vintage game consoles, the gestural excess of these two button-pushers transitions seamlessly into Daedelus’s musical performance.

As the camera shifts focus from the game consoles to the musician standing in the middle of the arcade, the visual frame immediately foregrounds a technical setup comprising a laptop and two Monome controllers. The “brain” of the operation consists of a Max/MSP software patch called MLRv, which allows Daedelus to control simultaneously the playback and fine-tuned editing of musical parameters in multiple audio samples. The GUI consists of eight horizontal rows, each containing a sample, with options to adjust volume, playback speed, and pitch just below each row. Using the Monomes as controllers for the MLRv software, Daedelus then physically manipulates the rows of audio in various ways. The 256-button Monome serves as the primary control mechanism, mirroring the layout of MLRv by dividing the 256-button grid into 16 rows. The rows then spatially fragment the corresponding audio sample into 16 parts, allowing the musician to play back specific moments in the sample by pushing the buttons within the horizontal row. The audio waveform in the software literally becomes externalized in the hardware, and the “rules” of MLRv become playable.

Figure 8.3 MLRv Max patch (2011).

Daedelus’s performance mannerisms further highlight the gestural excess witnessed during the gameplay depicted at the beginning of the video. The Monome is angled upward, away from the performer and toward the audience, and the laptop screen is out of sight, highlighting the physical interaction between the musician and the hardware device. Every button press by the performer is accented by a rapid withdrawal of his hand from the interface, spatially exaggerating the spectral morphologies of the sounds being controlled. While the 256-button Monome remains stationary, Daedelus twists and contorts the smaller 64-button Monome, controlling audio effects that are mapped to the device’s accelerometer (the same sensor used in mobile phone technology). Rather than simply “pressing play” and letting the computer do all the work, these moments of gestural excess—combined with the abstract and minimal design of the hardware device—allow the viewer to focus visually and aurally on the musical patterns as they are chopped, stuttered, and looped by Daedelus in real time.

Ultimately, both video game and digital music controllers make tangible the design affordances and constraints of the software being controlled. For gamers, the process of abstracting video game mechanics into the letters and shapes of controllers allows players to embody the rules of games, and therefore develop the skills required to succeed in gameplay. For musicians, the process of externalizing the mechanics of music software programs allows performers to convey “liveness” to their audiences, and therefore engage with both listeners and technology on a more dynamic level. By bringing together case studies in music and gaming, I have suggested a play-oriented model of HCI that recognizes the interconnections between hardware objects and software processes; design and use; play, production, and performance (Moseley 2016).

Failure as Evidence of Liveness

Controllerism represents a single solution to a perennial question in digital art: how to physically interact with and manipulate creative affordances embedded in screens. The development of hardware for engaging with music software has rightly been criticized as an unsustainable model that runs on the desire for commercial profit—a model of planned obsolescence that is paralleled in the games industry (Fitzpatrick 2011). However, the fact that users continue to experiment with controllers, constantly challenging themselves to learn new forms of embodied interaction with their tools, highlights another important value in the experience of contemporary music and games: failure.

The necessity of failure is obvious in the case of gaming, a medium that teaches players to face death virtually over and over again. It is through the process of death and resurrection that the player learns from their mistakes in order to develop the skills necessary to “beat the game.” Recently, the proliferation of “controllers” in media production and performance has allowed the built-in possibility of failure and imperfection to bleed into the realm of digital music. Composer Kim Cascone describes failure as “a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts . . . reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them” (Cascone 2000: 13). Rather than praising the agency and virtuosity of the human over technology, “liveness” is evidenced instead in the potential for failure inherent to the process of navigating new relationships with technology.

Failure contradicts prevailing ideologies of innovation and progress inherent to design and technology industries. Each year, Apple releases swaths of computing devices, promising to make the lives of consumers better through “user-friendly” designs that are easy to navigate and seemingly fail proof. In exposing the potential for failure at the root of all forms of mediation, controllerism represents a single instance of a twenty-first-century digital culture in the process of resisting the perennial narrative of technological process. Similar to parallel movements in interactive media—net.art, indie video games, glitch aesthetics—controllerism embraces vulnerability as a prevailing ethic of HCI. In each case, the imperfections of both the individual operator and the software become evidence of “liveness.” Technological change, in this context, is not simply about developing new, shiny “digital” objects, but also playfully experimenting with the embodied, “analog” processes ever present in music and media production. In an era of increased technological control, dominated by proprietary software, global surveillance systems, and the ubiquity of “smart” media, these technologies of play remind us that music, like many of the games we play, consists of rules that are designed to be broken.

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