A man stands on a colorful stage. The only things before him are an eager audience, his guitar, a microphone, and an array of foot pedals, buttons, and dials. He begins by tapping out a rhythm on the top of his guitar, which repeats with the press of a button. He then picks a few simple notes, which also begin to repeat at the next measure. Next comes a more complex melody, then more robust strumming in the lower ranges. Each new element loops itself, falling into place over the parts before it, like well-placed puzzle pieces. He begins to sing, and unlike the other sounds his voice soars above the composition, verse to chorus, standing out above the deeply layered song. Once in a while a vocal note will echo, resonating into the next few words. Under this the other elements are changed and shifted. When the singing halts, the unified sounds of the guitar seem to sing by themselves.The performer manipulates some electronics on the ground, and turns his lower E string into a full-sounding bass to add a bass line. Then with a few thumps on the top of the guitar again, a bass drum is added. Next, tapping a button at his feet, the song suddenly jumps to twice the speed, and his composition takes on new life. The performer continues with more layers of picking, strumming, and another bass line. Then in comes his voice again, this time filtered to sound more distant. Suddenly the music cuts out as his voice repeats in empty space, though the space is quickly filled when he taps the buttons at his feet to bring back the full music, and then cuts it out just as quickly with another tap. He continues to pull in and then cut out his own previous playing. With a flourish to the audience, he does the same with his own voice, playing with the device at his feet as a DJ would with a cross fader. Then finally, crouched at the controls, he melts it all together and slows it down to a crawl until it fades completely, amid the cheering of the audience.
The artist’s name is Howie Day, and the song is “Ghost” from his Madrigals DVD, recorded live at a concert in New York City. He is one of a new generation of solo artists, using the looping techniques of artists before him to popularize a new sort of “one-man-band.” However, Day and others like him avoid the goofy stereotype of a man who has a ton of instruments taped to his various appendages, a la Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. No, these kind of one-man-bands have a kind of elegance, and certainly a sense of awe about them as they manipulate a series of tools as well as their instrument, when to the layman just singing and playing a guitar at the same time are challenging enough.
These performers aren’t just musicians, they are chemists of sound, using instruments aside from just a guitar or bass (such as looping samplers) to mix and match the best of their aural output. To watch one in action is to watch a serious and practiced loopist at work, tapping the pedals at the right times, twisting dials without a smile, deep in concentration, their hands strumming or tapping rhythm and making ten times the sound they appear to be making. A single guitar becomes more than just a guitar; it becomes a drum set, a bass, and even a synthesizer. A single voice is not just a voice, but is instead a chorus.
At the heart of this form of composition is the looping of sound and/or musical elements. Applying such terms to music might make one think of DJing or similar forms of performance, where artists take pre-recorded music and loop it to create new compositions, then play it to an audience. But no, this is not the kind of looping I am referring to (though no one denies that is one form of loopage). I am referring to looping that uses electronic “instruments” to enhance acoustic ones…a form of looping music that is becoming more popularized, thanks to artists like Howie Day, Joe Preston, and Tim Reynolds. In essence, live-looping.
This style of looping is becoming more of a viable answer to soloists looking for something new, and is becoming more popular. What is it, you ask? Simply this: live-looping is where a performer will use a sampler and delay device to extend and reproduce their sounds. It is mostly all done live and on the spot – sometimes improvised – without a need to record, rewind, and then dub over the previous track. Instead the artist uses a loop sampler to record a sample of themselves, and then begin to use it immediately as they add elements over it, or manipulate their own output. It turns a man or woman into an orchestra, and for anyone bored with the typical SSWG (singer/songwriter with guitar) set-up, it is a uniquely challenging and barely tapped genre for popular and alternative music.
It is a form of electronic performance that creates new rules, shaking some foundations of basic musical performance. Before live-looping, a sample was something integrated into a song long before a musician took the stage, it was never created and used on the spot during the actual performance. It also makes live composition somewhat more accessible, as an artist can pause without playing while his music still goes on, and manipulate it differently for every performance, or create something new out of the elements he or she pieces together.
Live-looping is nothing new, in fact its rich history goes back to the middle of the 20th century. It began when musicians rigged together tape recorders in a way that allowed them to record sound on one, and then play it back immediately on another. This opened up a world of possibility for live performance, and began a movement for solo artists to experiment with. Brian Eno and Robert Fripp added an electric guitar, volume pedals, a wah-wah, and more. Fripp went on to rename his similar set-up “Frippertronics,” which helped inspire a newer generation of live-loopers and is also credited with creating a strong association between the samplers and the guitar, more so than any other instrument.
Now decades later, artists are becoming inspired and influenced by this style of performance, though their styles remain uniquely different. Tim Reynolds (from Dave Matthews Band) seems to use live-looping mostly as an embellishment for his acoustic shows, his skilled and dreamlike guitar playing uses some sampling to enhance and echo certain moments in the performance. While to the ears Tim Reynolds is certainly a solo artist, his music sounds like it’s been mixed down and effects have been added to it, though this is only the samplers at work.
Joe Preston, formerly of the Melvins, went on to create a band he calls the Thrones. The Thrones are always introduced plurally, although for the most part it is only Preston and his instruments. His band mates, these electronic devices, are considered as much a part of the act as any human would be. Using a double necked guitar and an array of samplers, his sound is dark, slow, and rather moody…much like the soundtrack to a morbid video game. It is in bold contrast to Day, whose music is comparatively more poppy, yet still maintains a moody and alternative feel. Unlike Preston, who uses his talent to sound like one man playing with ambient music in a studio, Day chooses to sound like a full band playing live. None of these artists actually are how they sound though, and that is the beauty of live-looping.
As more musicians discover live-looping, no doubt it will one day be popular enough that the music industry will exploit it. Until then, artists are making names for themselves by using the method to appear unique, original, and talented…though not without merit.
Read a review of The Madrigals E.P. at MXDWN.com here.
Watch Howie Day use looping on the song “Sorry So Sorry” at www.howieday.com.
live-looping and its history: livelooping.com
Community of Loopers: www.loopersdelight.com
Howie Day: www.howieday.com
Tim Reynolds: www.timreynolds.com
The Thrones: www.killrockstars.com/bands/thrones/