It’s not unusual for a performer to flaunt a certain kind of self-criticism when greeting friends and fans after a show. If not an expression of false modesty, the post-show sulk is at the very least a form of calculated modesty. It is impressive, after all, to appear flawed, vulnerable, and self-aware. It’s useful, too, because responding to the post-show sulk, as a fan, a friend, or both, feels a whole lot like responding to the new acquaintance, strapped for cash, offering to pay the lunch bill: you must, as a matter of courtesy, say no. You must say it went great, sounded fantastic from the audience, was there maybe a problem with the monitoring on-stage? You disagree, accepting the terms of this strange category of social phenomena wherein one is polite precisely to the extent that one is able to appear convincingly, aggressively oppositional.
Skillfully deployed, the post-show sulk is a tactic that makes adoring fans of casual sympathizers, capable of turning gestural, concert-going praise into a ritual of self-validating import.
The first thing to observe about Jonah Gray’s post-show ambivalence is that it is not sulky, or disingenuous, or even inward-facing. He is not in need of reassuring dissent. He is not raising questions about his set at Rough Trade for the purposes of soliciting praise, nor even do his doubts have much to do with his own capabilities as a performer. When I speak to him afterwards, he is for the most part aware of just how well his DJ set was received, and does not at any point pretend to think otherwise. What he feels conflicted about, though, is the format: a so-called “live” show without instruments, getting “asked to play at Rough Trade [when] you know that the…show that you have prepared is not going to be the best for that venue or that crowd,” questions less of the form “Did I do a good job?” than “What does doing a good job in this space, for this crowd, and with this set of equipment really mean?”
For Gray, a producer/instrumentalist who records and performs under the stage name Jonah Baseball, the answers are not obvious. He is, to be sure, no ally of the arch-conservatives, who tend to regard live performances without live instruments in roughly the same terms they might a salad lacking vegetables. Nor is he particularly sympathetic to the cause of button-mashing-as-performance, tacitly endorsed by anyone who has attended a major music festival in the last decade. Instead, Gray’s position—a critically-minded kind of optimism—falls somewhere in the uncompromised middle, and his operating principle, as a performer and as a listener, might be summed up (incompletely) as ‘whatever seems to work.’ The past few years have found him experimenting with various formats, groups, and approaches—a rock-based, mostly instrumental, band composed of classmates at Michigan, a steady partnership with like-minded DC-based producer Lindsay Lowend, and a widely adaptable DJ set, all of which represent the basis for further development rather than a set of artistic endpoints.
Though Gray plans to continue on this course of tentacular evolution, seeking not one answer but many, his extensive training in instrumental music remains at all times the anchor. It is a story that should by this point sound familiar: extremely talented multi-instrumentalist discovers Logic Pro in high school, begins making beats, begins making beats with friends, begins making beats with friends that other friends listen to and seem to like, watches eagerly as his fan-base extends beyond the reaches of the friends of said friends, and maybe even finds a label willing to promote his Soundcloud catalog, all of which is fine and well until he’s forced out of the bedroom studio and into a performance venue where he is invited to play songs from the album, having, then, to face the question of what “playing,” today, really means—to his audience, and perhaps most importantly, to himself.
For this kind of artist, raised on music lessons, at home in the world of amateur recital, attached, still, to this idea that live music should be performed by live musicians, artistic dilemmas begin to sound, strangely, ethical: Is it “right” to play a beat-based show without a single, live source of percussive sound? Is it better to rehearse with a drummer? Is it fraudulent to do otherwise?
Though much of what Gray discusses with me are the practical challenges of various approaches, the difficulties of presenting studio-based music in traditional live music settings go well beyond what can be described in purely technical terms. These are tensions that require us to think deeply and critically about the relationship between the studio and the stage, entering into conversations that might in less exigent circumstances seem purposelessly abstract, but here seem concretely necessary.
For Brian Eno, the beginning of recorded sound marks a break so fundamental and so dramatic as to justify a re-naming: the sounds of the modern studio, he explained once to a crowd in St. Petersburg, Russia, should not really be called “music.” This is a form of sound art altogether different, altogether new, he tells us. And in a sense freer: the studio is our great liberator, releasing sounds previously confined to a room, to a moment, and limited by the capabilities of musicians in real-time. Frequency, volume, and timbre are, in the recording and production process, determined by the needs of the mix. The significant historical transition, as Eno describes it, is not the move from acoustic instruments to sound synthesis, nor is it the switch from primarily analog to primarily digital techniques for producing and capturing sound. To Eno, the difference is something more fundamental: music was/is an art form in which sound-as-experienced was sound-as-played. What could be conceivably written was what could be conceivably performed. In the modern recording studio, Eno points out, sound becomes malleable, transportable, something that is available to engineers, producers, and performers as a creative medium unto itself.
At a certain point in the lecture Eno makes the utterly necessary argumentative move towards historical analogue. Early films, Eno claims, were once "basically plays which were being filmed." And then came the innovations of the people doing the filming: "people started realizing that you could do things with a video camera and with editing that you couldn't do in a theater." Taking advantage of the vast cinematographic possibilities of the modern camera, directors and cameramen were not simply documenting an old form; they were creating something entirely new, something that could no longer be called theater.
One can imagine where Eno’s argument goes from here.
To Eno, concurrent developments in recorded sound mark differences of form, not value. The effort is to distinguish between periods and processes — an analytical task — and at no point does Eno suggest that the difference is between better and worse ways of doing something. His account is neither a story of progress nor of regress, but a set of postulates, which, when taken together, represent Eno’s contribution to that favorite subject of music scholarship, namely, the relationship between technology and form.
Eno’s thesis is certainly a provocative one, and though a full evaluation of the claims raised is well beyond the scope of this essay, not to mention personal expertise, it seems worth raising at least a few objections here. We might, for example, wonder why Eno downplays those aspects of “music” that have persisted within contemporary recorded sound — things like song structure, melody, harmony and rhythm — why, in other words, he privileges the sonic dimensions of recorded audio over its musical content, and the role of the producer over that of the composer or instrumentalist. Or we might point to any number of contemporary recordings that seek only plausible “live-ness,” wherein the studio does more to approximate on-stage sound than transform it. But whatever we make of Eno’s broad and (perhaps too) sharply defined historical categories, we cannot ignore the questions they bring to mind.
Of particular interest to me is what goes unmentioned, namely the situation — dire? hopeful? mixed? — of live music in the age of recorded sound. If Eno is correct in regarding recorded music as an entirely new form, how, then, might we understand those performances that bring the studio back to the stage? Are artists today committing a sin analogous to screening a movie outdoors and billing it as live theater? Or are they, instead, collapsing many of the distinctions — between, for example, live and recorded, played and sampled, performed and manipulated — on which Eno’s argument rests?
Gray, like Eno, speaks of a persistent interplay between composition and presentation, process and outlet. “Checkpoint” became, in the hands of his band-mates and subject to the limitations of their set up, a song unlike the one written, recorded and produced on a laptop. The band first discovered a “hip-hop jazz version” and, later, an “afro-beat” take on it. At one SXSW appearance, it was, conversely, the compositions that motivated the format: “We created a way of performing all these songs that we couldn’t make into beats… Tony [Lindsay Lowend] had guitar parts for them and I had keyboard parts for them.” The result is a set is of stripped-down instrumentals, nearly all of which feature jazz-inspired improvisation over programmed electronic drum parts - a performance that proves difficult to categorize along Eno’s formal lines.
It would be reasonable to expect from an instrumentalist of Gray’s caliber some degree of skepticism about the instrument-less setups of his contemporaries. But just as Gray reveres the technical facility of his earliest musical heroes, so too does he admire the virtuosity of modern-day DJs. “I saw Cashmere Cat recently and he was doing some crazy shit messing with the sound of the CDJs. He was using the CDJs as an instrument. He was shredding on them and knew how to use the effects really well, sped up tracks and had this whole weird Steve Reich-y phasing.” Far from a pre-recorded cop-out, Cashmere Cat’s set was inventive, masterfully executed, and, as Gray remembers it, “one of the cooler things I’ve seen.”
Cashmere Cat is one of many in this rich and ever-evolving tradition of live sound manipulation, a group of DJs capable of proving with every show that spontaneity and excitement — that sense of attending a show and experiencing something irretrievably unique — are not specific to any one venue, format or genre. Rendering, in this sense, “live” the very tools accused of occasioning live music’s demise, these artists preserve the event of music even as they transform its medium.
As the popularity of performances like these continues to grow, and as the presence of instruments on-stage begins to seem more an artistic luxury (or worse, a retrograde salute) than a sufficient condition, we must, as critics, resist the ever more tempting stance of platitudinal pessimism. To be sure, doing away with un-nuanced contempt does not mean accepting new music simply on account of its newness, nor does it mean abandoning those timeless concerns of music criticism—questions related to quality, distinctiveness, coherence and everything else that makes a good performance good. If anything, the broadening of what qualifies as ‘live' musical performance makes these time-honored critical tasks all the more vital. But today, as always, they require us to be not only scrupulous but firmly present, demanding an approach that is, in other words, commensurate with the acts we aspire to cover.
Stream and download Jonah Baseball's discography at his Soundcloud.