The exhortation that “drum machines have no soul” normally comes off the lips of weathered traditionalists and rock purists (oxymoron?) with a shake of the head and wave of the hand when confronted with a ribbon of the sonic spectrum more commonly attributed to microwaves and adding machines than flesh-and-blood humans banging on goat skins. A similar judgment was proffered when Dylan “went electric.” A couple decades on, young electronic musicians like Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and Jon Hopkins have rendered this sentiment wholly outdated, if not staunchly unfeeling. While early computer musicians may have conjectured dystopias of techno-tyranny, Hebden and Hopkins seem to insist on the human dimension of this trans-humanist vision.
The stage design for Hopkins’ opening set framed the issue literally. On the screen behind the DJ booth, a green grid displayed abstruse data, as if through the combat visor of a downed Halo soldier. Multicolored sine waves illustrated the first ambient drone Hopkins pulled from his console and a BPM counter tracked the choppy IDM beats to the third or fourth decimal place (along with a reading for “Nostradamus Effect” that remained fixed at 100-percent). As the set proceeded, Hopkins pushed his tempos and visibly choreographed a flurry of fractured breakbeats and dubstep tailspins on a pair of Kaoss Pads connoting space mine concussions and radar interference.
The physical nature of his performance came in contradistinction to the normally cold affectlessness of the average knob-tweaker. When Hopkins slapped the pad to trigger a sub-bass drop, the overhead display shook and distorted, quantitative measurements giving way to the qualitative effect of a human at the helm of the PA. Similarly, a triptych of screens to the side of the stage eased from bar-graph measurements of statistically verifiable subjects like global energy consumption to emotional readings of the “First thing I noticed about her” and “Why it won’t work out.” But the greatest shift came when Hopkins stepped away from the decks entirely, assuming his position at the grand piano for a spare tone poem bearing the same emotive touch.
There Is Love in You was the title of Hebden’s 2010 record, for which he’s still touring hard. Dance music thrives on outward expressions of human affection but the sentiment manifests differently in Hebden’s beatcraft. Rather than pounding away at his listener’s ADD, he built his (mostly organic) textures slowly, manipulating inner polyrythms and micromelodies instead of telegraphing the inevitable drop and aiming for the aw-shit climax. The low volume in the room and Hebden’s patience caused some audience members to squirm a bit in anticipation of a rigid, dancable house pulse, but the Four Tet project has always thrived on idiom-defying nuance and those willing to endure the gentle discombobulation were rewarded when digressive atmospherics came back around to body-moving tracks like “Plastic People” and “Love Cry.”
While ultimately ineffable, the musical quality of “soul” generally hinges upon an artist’s ability to evoke emotion in-the-moment and despite audience expectation—that is, to improvise. It’s been the drum machine’s robotic consistency that’s led to its defamation, but artists like Hebden and Hopkins are on the forefront of an effort to return humanity to the digital age.