It is largely assumed among producers and listeners that the performance of Contemporary Ambient music incorporates a strategic convolution of noise with composition, presenting listeners with experiential conditions that emphasize their own performance within a sonically active social theater, rather than suppressing their performance in favor of frontal spectacle. Similarly, it is well known that production methods for Contemporary Ambient music such as non-realtime computer synthesis typically involve processes which are not immediately reconcilable with conventional listener/virtuoso performance paradigms. However, when it comes to "live" Contemporary Ambient performance, there seems to be a great deal of regressive desire among producers, organizers and audiences for conventional stage-based performance. This differentiation between concepts of production and performance encompasses what Jacques Attali refered to as economies of repetition and representation.
Integral to any concept of performance is a strategic understanding of the means of production to be performed. For producers such as myself, who are almost entirely dependent upon computer synthesis, there is little room (and even less necessity) for the realtime modulation of elements during final mixing. 4 The heroics of authorial gesture are replaced by the uneventful establishment of variable programming parameters. Spontaneity and decisiveness occur throughout the compositional process, but unlike in Modernist compositional strategies, they are not cherished as golden nuggets of primal and universal Humanist contents.
Transposed to the arena of the stage, the "live" performance of such compositions boils down to pressing ENTER on a computer keyboard, and ends with approximately ten minutes of silence required to rewire and EQ equipment for performance of the next track. Because of this, in academic computer music circles the popular alternative to real-time computer playback is to play compositions previously recorded on digital audio tape (DAT), typically in a darkened auditorium with the audience facing an unused and blackened stage. 5 To avoid these uneventful tediums, many Contemporary Ambient producers' preferred approach to performance involves multi-channel realtime tape manipulation - DJ-ing - incorporating as many DAT drives, CD players and turntables as can be arranged. Like direct computer playback, this method of performance allows for the "live" playback of digital sound files, plus it has the added advantages of allowing for realtime manual editing and mixing of a producer's own input sources, as well as the intermixing of other producers' audio and external sound sources (an eschewing of authorship and establishment of referentiality). In terms of economies, such "live" performance becomes a representation of the productive processes of repetition. However, the deconstructive values I wish to infuse this multiplicious economy with are currently (perhaps hopelessly) circumvented by popular musical codes around performance as a consumer process, through which the performer is required to exist as a celebrity (including personnas of humility), and all sounds recorded and ambient are exhalted only for their production of exchange value.
It is in this latter spectacular manner that the economic viability of DJ performance as an instrumental medium has been established, both within Underground clubs and Dominant Culture (as exemplified by the global economic success of Rap, House and Techno). And as the majority of Contemporary Ambient events are organized by club promoters who deal with DJ's on a regular basis, one would think that a stratification between DJ-ing and "live" performance of conventional theatrical instruments would no longer exist. But this is not the case, particularly within the price scales of Contemporary Ambient performance. Speaking from personal experience, after hearing that my standard presentation techniques do not involve keyboards or other traditional theatrical instruments, I have had countless organizers reduce their initially proposed "live performance" fee by more than half. In New York the common practice is to ask producers to DJ for free (with a "we're all trying to make this happen together" snuck into the invitation somewhere), regardless of the fact that people attending the events must pay a cover charge at the door to enter. Such prioritizations of performance strategies enter the realm of cultural production by presenting an economic boycott which effectively censors the efforts of post-spectacle computer based producers by restricting access to the cultural outlets and economic means which both allows and relies upon studio production to occur. The long-term effect of such an environment is Contemporary Ambient's restriction to popular musical paradigms of production and presentation.
The cultural impact of such restrictions can be traced in the Orb's rise to supergroup status. Fronted by Alex Patterson, a former A&R person for EG Records which handled Brian Eno's original Ambient releases,
With time there began to be entirely Contemporary Ambient events, including Ultra-red's opening of Public Space in L.A. in 1994. Ultra-red drew from their experiences as activists to present "ambient music in its most obvious, material manifestation: the sound culture of everyday life."
But in the absence of any large-scale understanding of how to stage events around a concept of decentralization, most organizers and producers grappled at the most familiar performance strategy associated with free-form and a-structural music: the Neo-Bohemian Progressive Rock festival, a thoroughly mainstream marketing strategy which, by the early '90s, was already consuming the Rave community. In this manner, Contemporary Ambient producers fell prey to all of the demands of other stage and personality-based performance strategies. Decentralization was overwritten by a concept of authorship, and any remnants of desire among producers for anonymity only resulted in confusion. Disoriented producers took darkened stages, beginning and ending their sets unannounced and intermixed with opening and closing DJ's. Meanwhile, audiences now faced stage-forward, asking if the show had begun and complaining that they could not spot their favorite stars clearly on stage. By 1996, when the Orb took center stage at New York's Roseland Theater with drummers and guitarists on hand, dominant Contemporary Ambient performance was no more than a musical staging of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.7 Frustrated and confused by the lack of populist satisfaction derived from such stagings, producers, organizers and audiences declared, "Ambient is dead." Few seemed to realize that this disorientation was a byproduct of the functionality of Contemporary Ambient production. Few seemed to realize that Contemporary Ambient's inapplicability to a Prog-Rock metaphor involved a disclosure of Prog-Rock and all music's site specificity and non-universality, and suggested the development of new performance strategies.
Under the collapse of Prog-Rock staging, a number of producers including Oval, Scanner, Dumb Type and myself increasingly turned toward production methods which attempted to address processes of deconstruction present in our own methodologies. For many of us, digital editing and computer synthesis emerged as the primary studio process capable of representing a decentralization of authorship through the sampling and resynthesis of other peoples' recordings, as well as by exploiting a high prophile technophobia present in the popular media which identified computers and the internet as threats to the loss of personal identity. In this manner, the subjectivity of the creative process, as well as the listening process, was audibly connected to a social history of inputs and cultural variables.
Despite this newfound enthusiasm among producers, on a market level the retreat from Prog-Rock aesthetics was accompanied by a new emphasis on the homogenizing power of quantized rhythms, and an increasing resistance to a-structural and beatless performances. As for myself, proposals to incorporate texts with releases so as to familiarize listeners with my own rationale behind particular processes, as well as to generate discourse around materialist listening practices, were discouraged by the record company I was signed to, resulting in semiotically burdened and textless covers such as Soil. 8 Record labels began pressuring Contemporary Ambient producers to produce Neo-urban music: "Trip-Hop," "Abstract Beats," "Drum & Bass," "Ambient Jungle" and "Acid Jazz." Both in sales and performance, this new predominance of rhythm serves to synchronize and pace a production's reception, using the restraints of simple mathematics to invoke a simplification of interpretive formulas. Only a few committed record labels which had developed steady followers continued to release a-structural Contemporary Ambient material, and they now found themselves flooded with submissions from producers rejected or abandoned by other labels. This frustrating situation was poignantly described by Ultra-red:
One intriguing result of the Contemporary Ambient record industry's transition toward Neo-urban music is a renewed emphasis of the DJ as the ideal Contemporary Ambient performer. However, this return occurs in the most conventional of ways, engaging familiar images of DJ's as the celebrities we have come to know through the Rap industry and nightclub followings. There is no secondary displacement of identity as was suggested (however unintentionally) by early "chill rooms." The DJ is center stage, and fully reconcilable with dominant personality-driven performance structures. As a personality figure, the DJ's sense of individuality is used to generate authenticity, thus distracting one from questions of authorship (as opposed to encouraging a direct deconstruction of such issues).
In the disaffecting aftermath of the Death of Ambient, Illbience has emerged to clarify electronica's reconcilability with institutions of Modernity, a jargon-infused attempt for dominant viability within the crumbling Necropolis.
The Illbient community's representation of Modernist ideology is appreciatively reciprocated by Art Institutions, such as with the recent Soundlab event for the 1997 Whitney Biennial Exhibition. The event's placement within a gutted floor in a Wall Street financial building was not so much deconstructive as ironic. Impromptu sidewalk café tables were placed near the main coffee bar, invoking the high-Modernist café atmosphere museum officials have come to associate with progressive thinking. One might still overhear patrons debating Sartre, but in this café the sound of improvisational jazz was replaced by the turntable instrumentalists and free-form poets of the Illbient community. Abstract textural 35mm slide projections and film loops permeated the space, as free-form dancers invoked the motions of '60s performance. The proposed "aesthetic merger of the digital with the analog" 13 did not reflect the use of digital media (which was largely absent) as much as an ideological fissure of the antiquated with the recumbent. And, in typical fashion and without naming names, there are numerous stories of only partial or no compensation of expenses to performers at the event - a condition which I emphasize is not unique to Soundlab, but to Contemporary Ambient performance in general.
Despite the contention that "Soundlab happenings are urban illbient community actions, encouraging a dynamic, contentious cultural production rather than passive consumption," 14 for both audience and performers, the primary communal relations of the Soundlab were precisely the Capitalist relations of traditional Marxist commodity fetishism. By its own declaration, the Soundlab is a manifestation of the social relations between the products of artistic production - an emphasis of the alienation from labor which results in fetishism. Producers, along with audience members who 'enter the mix,' "build [their] own different [sic] engines, creating ... personal vocabularies" 15 which function as metaphors for the labors of individuals acting separately. The sum of these difference engines being exchanged in the marketplace of the Soundlab results in the emergence of seemingly independent contents (Illbience) which are mutually engaged by both audience members and performers. As a material exchange relationship, audience members exchange money to vicariously engage in the productive acts of performers - to consume (and hence reclaim) their daily relationship to experiential processes of observation by being transformed into their own mixing boards. Conversely, performers are encouraged to distance themselves from their individual labor so as to produce a communal Illbience which shrouds processes of direct financial compensation in mystery.
The continuity between all of the aforementioned venues for Contemporary Ambient performance - DAT playback in darkened auditoriums, DJ-ing in side rooms at Raves, Prog-Rock staging, or immersive Illbient events - is their failure to address the undesirable yet unavoidable implications of performance as a strategy of representation within the mechanisms of Consumer Capitalism. While such venues claim an Avant Garde inhabitation of a cultural periphery, they fail to address the peripheral as a strategic fictional response to a mythology of the core. A fiction which, when unaddressed, loses strategy and adopts the language of Humanism until it poses no greater threat to social convention than an Expressionist's scratchings upon a Museum's walls. Similarly, Contemporary Ambient emerges from materialist traditions which have been dismantled by their inability to successfully strategize the paradoxical, from Constructivism's and Music Concrete's claims to represent a utopian Social(ist) Consciousness, to Minimalism's quest to isolate the production of contents in the individual's interpretive process while somehow having those contents be sharable. Thus the crisis of post-spectacle "live" Contemporary Ambient performance arises from this historical inability to react to the limitations of performance methodologies as they function within the very core of relations which Contemporary Ambient asserts it is positioned to critique. The economic viability of performance remains contingent upon abstract and homogenizing audience relations which inhibit the incorporation of fracturing diversity. The performance itself serves to represent a reconciliation of intent with process, tempering any attempts to elucidate the sustained collision of distinct and simultaneous economies of representation and repetition.
I am forced to accept the manners in which this circumstance conditions my own reception, as well as production. My own objectives for performance are hopelessly diffused in their actualization. Every composition's abandonment of rhythm imparts an uninvited dissension from the incessant drums which accompany the march of cultural inertia; only to be resurrected through reappropriation by institutions of the Avant Garde. Each attempt for clarification on my part contributes to an air of arrogance and self-distinction which erodes my relationship to the cultural outlets I wish to nurture. I am compelled to tip a hat to the popular observation that "at least an Orb concert or Illbient event can get people together." But then again, I remind myself, so does Sunday Mass, and the act of congregation can never be distilled from the politics of social organization.
All things considered, this is why I can't get paid to DJ a-structural audio.