The Club as a Performance Ecosystem

The inside of the Berghain

This article was inspired by a happy accident.  I was working on a Max/MSP patch as part of my work for the Emergent Sonorities DMSP group when someone sent me a link to a live video stream of a DJ set on Japanese underground dance music station . I clicked the link and the music I heard was at once familiar but also quite unlike what I was expecting.  No doubt the DJ was playing a interesting set but what really made things stand out was that it was all inadvertently being re-sampling and processed through my open Max patch.

The Emergent Sonorities project centers around the concept of the Performance Ecosystem as theorised by Simon Waters and practiced by John Bowers, Nic Colllins and Augustino Di Scipio.  The more I learned about the idea the more I realised how it might prove an interesting approach to thinking about club music, and this article represents both an analysis and an imagining of a practical application of the performance ecosystem in the specific context of the contemporary club environment.

It can often be quite to difficult to discuss DJ culture using the traditional vocabulary of music criticism.  This is due to the manner in which it’s practitioners blur the boundaries between normally assumed concepts like authorship, performance and interactivity.   In these respect DJ culture shares a commonality with current trends in music making such as real-time composition, improvisation and laptop performance.  Indeed, a ‘DJ set’ often embraces elements of all of these strands of musicking, assimilating them into something unique and difficult to categorize. [1]

The eco-systemic approach holds that we must view musicking in context, and that strict distinctions between performer, instrument and environment are unhelpful. Waters suggests that such classification is merely a result of recent changes in the way we store music – “from the body, to the text, to the recording” and that current developments can be seen as a shift back to a more “joined-up” understanding of music as practice. [2]

In a sense this is an approach that DJs and club promoters have been aware of for some time, aiming to construct an immersive atmosphere in which the audience can, to utilize the somewhat cliched terminology of classic house music, ‘lose themselves’, be ‘transported’, ‘taken on a journey’ or be ‘set free’.  This applies to the music, the sound system, the lighting, and the space itself  – with the holistic ambiance of a night often being what defines it rather than the specific artists booked to play. [3]

There is a level of dynamism and interactivity inherent in a DJs job: they must ‘read’ the crowd and react to their reactions – both to reflect the mood of the crowd and to guide and, on occasion, challenge it.  When Waters observed that “the relationship between performer, instrument and environment becomes notably more mutable in situations in which component elements are assembled in the real time of performance” he was talking about the physical building of instruments but I think it well describes the emergent relationship between how a crowd reacts and which record a DJ may chose to play next.  It is also worth noting that DJs are acutely aware of the difficulties in separating what they do from the environment in which they do it and are often wary of allowing sets to be recorded [4] and have trouble simulating the right atmosphere on mix CDs and Podcasts.

It seems to me that there is some merit in an eco-systemic approach to the understanding of DJ culture.  This leads to the question of how such an understanding might influence our approach to club musicking.  I imagine a practical approach following Di Scipio’s Feedback Studies where we might place various microphones throughout the club space that are used to generate control signals for sound-manipulating software through which which we rout the output from the DJ mixer.  The exact set up would vary from club to club, a very basic incarnation of which can be seen below:

This is a means of explicitly tying together performance, instrument and environment and creates an emergent and complex system of interactions that could have interesting effects for each element.  The sounds that would emerge from such a system would be the result of the interactions between the software, the audience and the records and mixing style of the DJ.  From my experience with Emergent Sonorities I would look into the use of granulation, re-sampling variable bandpass filters to manipulate the signal in a manner that can be subtle or severe as well as gradual or instant, again dependent on the complex composition of interactions in both the present moment and all past moments – an interaction that cannot be predicted simply by looking at the DJ, the software, or the environment on their own but can only be understood as the sum of all composite elements.  While there is no real room here to go into specifics of how the software should be constructed,  experiments along the lines suggested by Di Scipio[5] with a combination functions comprising Compensation, Following,  Redundancy and Concurrency could prove fruitful.  Exciting possibilities could arise from the creative use of interesting spaces and experiments linking the system to lighting and visualizations as well as sound.


[1] For an example of this see Sandwell District’s hybrid DJ/live performances where they mix records and hardware improvisations, remixing classic records on the fly and fusing them with their own sounds.


[3] A good example of this would be Berghain which is a major destination in itself regardless of the lineup. Also nights like this are becoming more and more prevalent. (“featuring immersive environments, projection mapped surroundings, visuals and digital art by…”)

[4] for example.

[5] Di Scipio, Agostino: ‘“Sound is the interface”: From interactive to ecosystemic signal processing.’, Organised Sound, 8(3,2003), 269-277.