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Real-time looping, in my experience, is at least as much a psychological technique as it is a physical one. In other words, the conceptual foundation of how the apparatus is approached tends to be at least as important as the feature set within the unit, or the physical act of engaging the user interface of the looper.

A very large part of what I've done with live looping, whether I've realized it at the time of not, has been based upon certain ideas (and often, preconceptions) I've had regarding how the technology could (or "should") be used, and the changes I've made in the craft over the years have reflected shifts in the way I think about the approach on a conceptual level.

This section is designed to shed some light on certain key areas of interest - and conflict - I've had with real-time looping, and my attempts at coming to terms with them in my own work. The issues in question involve the role of effects processing, the nature of real-time electronic performance, and improvisation verses composition.


Part 1: Ambient Guitar (1997)

Part 2: Studio Looping (1998-1999)

Part 3: Glitches, Cycles, and Non-Repetitive Looping (2001)

Part 4: Turntablist Guitar and LoopIV (2002)

Out Of The Loop


The Desired Effect?
My initial work with looping was largely informed by some preconceptions about how loops were "supposed" to sound and function. I tended to operate from the point of view that looping was ambient and abstract by default, and automatically involved a lot of electronic processing. I would frequently alter the whole foundation of how I approached the guitar when I was looping, by using sounds, textures, and articulations that I rarely (if ever) used outside that realm.

The ambient tracks from 1997 are a good example of this approach in action: I had a certain style of "playing," which was based principally on electronic processing and sonic texture as its foundations, and would frequently find me tweaking effects parameters on a Lexicon Vortex or Digitech Whammy pedal just as much as actually playing guitar. The actual use of the EDP was very basic and (relative to the depth of the unit) limited, and the guitar playing I was doing was very much a product of my idea of how I thought looping was "supposed to sound." Another way of putting it is: I didn't play like that unless I was playing into a loop, and when I played into a loop I usually played differently than when I wasn't looping.

This approach certainly expanded my concept about how the guitar could be used, and how the initial sound of the instrument could be extended into different sonic and functional territories. At a certain point, though, I started wondering why it was that I had a completely different conception of the guitar when it came time to loop it, and what it was that made me adopt this attitude with the EDP. A lot of it came down to various notions I had about looping, and what it was "supposed" to sound like: Somewhere along the line, I had decided that looping=ambient music, or looping=experimental avant-garde textures, or looping=spacy electronic hypnotic drones. (For some reason, I never got very into the "record a backing riff or chord progression and then solo over it" school of looping that so many serious instrumentalists tend to start off in.)

I also realized that, by using looping in this way, I was operating in a system where the loop itself became the central focus of the playing. A huge part of what I was doing was approached from the mentality of trying to figure out which effects parameter or EDP function I should next tweak, often to the exclusion of even considering the un-looped or un-processed guitar as an option. (I've found this to be particularly common when playing with other loopers in duo formats: very frequently, both players will have a tendency to focus largely on how their playing can steer the loop, and the loop becomes the destination, rather than the point of departure. It can be surprisingly easy to forget that actually playing something unlooped on the input instrument, muting or fading out the loop itself, or even not looping anything in the first place, are very viable possibilities!)

A further consideration is that "making a guitar (or other instrument) not sound like a guitar" doesn't quite mean the same thing in 2002 that it did ten or fifteen years ago. The last decade has seen a huge proliferation of hardware and software effects processing tools that are specifically designed to mess with, mangle, and otherwise utterly obscure the original sonic character of a signal. From Kaoss pads to sample rate reduction stomp-boxes to literally hundreds of freeware plug-ins and boutique software companies, there's no shortage of ways to alter the sound of an instrument... and no shortage of examples of recording artists who are doing so.

That isn't meant to take anything away from the people who use effects processing in a musically interesting and exciting manner. Ultimately, good music making and good musical tools don't have an expiration date, and while the number of people interested in "sonic mangling" may be greater than it was a decade ago, it still takes a skillful approach to make effects work in a truly musical manner.

But for me personally, trying to re-cast the sonic identity of the guitar in today's tweak-heavy era doesn't hold the same intrigue or challenge that it used to. And there's still a part of me that feels like my own work in the sound-mangling realm has frequently come at the expense of sacrificing a large part of the essence of what I do on the guitar, for the sake of expanding the sonic parameters of the instrument. At a certain point I had to ask myself: my concept of an unlooped guitar doesn't involve ANY effects, so why should it suddenly do so when I start looping?

So the more recent looping work I've done over the last year has actually been an attempt to invert the traditional effects-bound looping approach (not to mention the stylistic associations which tend to accompany that approach), by deliberately eliminating everything in the audio signal chain except the bare minimum: a guitar, an EDP, and an amp/mixer. What I've found is that this approach has compelled me to dig far deeper into the inner working of both the Echoplex and my own guitar playing than I ever had before. Without having a Vortex, a Whammy pedal, or an Ebow to lean on, I've been forced to try to find approaches within the EDP itself that can take me in different directions. And I've stumbled onto a host of guitar techniques that can produce extremely esoteric and abstract sounds, without requiring any gear beyond a pair of hands and a patch cord.

It's a way of having the looping function as an active and up-front extention/reflection of my guitar playing as it exists generally, rather than sublimating my guitar to the role of ambient texture generator (and doing so strictly when I have my Echoplex turned on). One thing I particularly like about the "bare bones" approach is that it all sounds very much like "me" - even in their most glitchy, stuttery moments, these loops seem to contain much more of my own musical identity than my more heavily electronic approach of a few years ago did.

To me, the challenge has actually been inverted: instead of making the guitar not sound like a guitar, I'm interested in finding ways of creating varied and complex textures that, on some level, ALWAYS sound like the guitar that's fueling them in the first place.

The Real-Time Paradox It's been my experience that an awful lot of live looping tends to use - and rely on - its real-time element as a principal source of interest, for both the performer and the audience. This syndrome tends to be exacerbated by the fact that real-time looping remains a largely unknown, underground phenomenon, which means that many audiences can still be easily impressed by the apparent "novelty" of techniques that were state of the art a few decades ago.

Trumpeting the live, non-overdubbed, non-edited nature of a looped track is an all-too-common calling card for practitioners of the craft. I do it all the time myself, and it's certainly not a bad idea to educate audiences about the nature of the craft, or for that matter, to find an angle for drawing in a listener in the first place.

But making such a big deal out of the live angle does beg the question: If the music in question was NOT done live, and did NOT involve any clever real-time technology, would it still hold up as anything particularly interesting or musically satisfying? Would it merit consideration strictly as a series of sounds, without the added intrigue of the live approach? And maybe even more importantly: would the essence of the music be possible if the electronic element was NOT being done in real time?

So there's an odd and prickly issue here, to my mind: Real-time technology can be an exciting and intriguing prospect for musicians and listeners alike, but a lot of the resulting music doesn't really NEED to be done in real time. And when it is, it often puts the live performer in the position of manually executing a result which, for all musical intents and audible purposes, could have just as easily - or effectively - come from a prerecorded track.

Of course, I very much understand and appreciate the concept of the performance itself as a fundamental artistic statement, and I've seen some players who are able to present loop-based music that's almost entirely pre-composed in performances that are quite engaging (and, sometimes, utterly riveting). So it's entirely possible that my own misgivings about "the real-time paradox" have less to do with looping in general, and more to do with my own shortcomings as a loopist... of which there are many!

But it still tends to leave a weird ambivalence in my mind... as if the real-time element is trying to adapt to the step-time school of thought, rather than finding its own endemic vocabulary and points of reference.

Studio-based recording and editing technology is often a slow and laborious process. The advent of non-linear digital editing has certainly expanded the envelope of what can be created in the realm of audible sound, but it's also increased the potential amount of time necessary to realize that sound by several orders of magnitude.

One of the problems with being able to do almost ANYTHING is that it becomes very difficult to do figure out what to do in the first place. And once you have decided what to do, it can be a very long process to put everything in place just as you wish... especially when it CAN be done "just as you wish," with an unlimited amount of time to tweak, re-think, second-guess, and tweak anew.

The most basic quality of real-time work, on the other hand, is that it happens instantly. A cut-and-paste, slice-and-dice texture that would require many hours of mouse-clicking (or many DAYS of tape-splicing) can happen in just a few seconds time with an EDP and some judicious taps of the foot.

And when live looping is approached from the point of view of creating a complete, cohesive piece of music, beginning from the very first note, and consciously restating or developing core ideas, then the real-time angle starts to become more than just a way of bringing recording technology into the realm of live performance. It becomes a way of bringing the spontanaity and instantaneousness of live performance into the realm of modern technology, with a speed, a focus, and a dialogue that's almost unthinkable in step-time digital assembly.

What I'm really interested in at this point is looping as a means towards music that doesn't just HAPPEN to occur in real time... but which MUST occur in real time, in order to sound the way it does.

Order From Chaos Speaking strictly about myself and my own work, I've found that approaching looping from a highly compositional point of view, and writing (or performing) loop pieces with particular parts to be played at a given time, has always felt awkward to me. My attempts at composing looping pieces almost always end up feeling like exercises in trying (and failing) to measure up to a fixed, specific ideal - usually, some completely random loop I happened to stumble across by accident, which I can never seem to re-create with the same "magic" as the original had.

And there's almost always a part of me that wonders: if the whole approach to looping is to play a pre-written piece of music, and if the looping apparatus is being used as a way of recording and playing back a series of pre-composed musical events, then why not simply play a completely pre-recorded version of that piece?

Here again, I'm the first to acknowledge that a compelling live performer can turn a "redundant real-time performance" into a true work of art. As a listener and audience member, I absolutely appreciate the awesome potential of the pre-composed loop. But as a player and performer, the concept doesn't seem to resonante with (or through) me.

One very powerful concept which I DO find myself drawn to, which I've heard discussed in many different schools of creative thought, is the idea that raw repetition is one of the keys to creating structure and coherence in a work. In the most basic sense, what that means is this: If you take a series of random events and repeat them, then suddenly they're not random any more.

It also seems to me that one of the most beautiful - and unique - elements of live performance is that things invariably happen which are both completely unexpected, and which can never be duplicated; it's been said that no instrumentalist can ever play a phrase in exactly the same way more than once. When you factor spontanaity and improvisation into the equation, the potential for happy accidents becomes rich indeed.

With all of this in mind, it's little surprise that the loop music of my own which I've felt proudest of almost always originates from a high degree of improvisation, randomness and unpredictibility. By throwing a semi-haphazard series of musical events at the EDP, and by using various EDP functions to further randomize and tweak those events, it becomes a very different sort of process for me: less a case of dealing with static repetitions of an idea I've already played, and more of a dialogue with a seperate musical entity.

Hearing an initial idea re-contextualized in such a manner is a very liberating thing, because one of the fundamental challenges of any composition or improvisation is, "Where do I start? Out of all of the possible that could happen right now, what should I do?" Having the EDP spit an unexpected slab of sound back at me is a very immediate and inspiring way of answering that question: "HERE'S where I can start. And here are some possibilities that I never would have thought to play (or been able to play in the first place!) if I hadn't stomped on the Insert button a few dozen times, or flipped the loop into Half Speed, or semi-randomly hit Remultiply and SUS-Insert..."

Microscopic subtleties of rhythm, timing, and texture which would be invisible on first glance can become themes and motifs. Multiple fragments of "random" sounds become compositional sections which can be expanded, developed, and juxtaposed in relation to one another. Quantization settings can take haphazard events and impose an unexpected structure onto them. For me, once some raw musical material has been reflected back in such a (highly fractured) manner, it can be much easier to decide what to do with it all in the first place.

It might be argued that approaching an entire performance as a series of improvisations is a hazardous proposition. Fair enough... but it also seems to me that the strength of a performance can rise or fall on the basis of countless variables that come into play. It's entirely possible to present a set of entirely pre-composed material, executed proficiently, and still have wildly varying results from one performance to the next, for both the audience and the performer.

For myself and my own music making, improvisational looping seems to embrace the fundamental chance, uncertainty, and spontenaity at the root of ALL musical performance, to find ways of working WITH it, rather than struggling against it.

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