During the course of five performances, I began to develop a unique relationship with the laptop as a nascent musical instrument. This connection emerged at the nexus of two techniques that appeared to hold significant potential for personal, and audience engagement:
Microphone feedback: Audio feedback (Larsen Effect) between a microphone and speaker
“Unplugged” laptop: Using the built-in speakers of the laptop, rather than external amplification (such as a PA)
When these techniques were combined, a unique way of interacting with the laptop began to emerge. Bowers (2005) posited the concept of minimal ‘infra-instruments’ in reaction to the NIME trend of designing increasingly complex interfaces. I propose the 'infra-laptop' as a unique way of interacting with the laptop as an instrument, without the use of external controllers or sensor enhancement.
In the following text I will analyse the potentialities for liveness in the use of microphone feedback, and unplugged laptop - separately - before exploring the intersection of these methods as the infra-laptop.
In his category of ‘spatial liveness’, Sanden (2013) suggests that "music is live in the physical space of its initial utterance." The use of microphone feedback sonifies the performance space and embodies the laptop within it by amplifying environmental (including audience) sounds, and activating the resonance of the room, creating a site-specific, 'open feedback system' (Sanfilippo, 2012). We also hear the imprint of the software as sound picked up by the microphone passes through various processes within Max/MSP. Similarly, the idiosyncratic qualities of the hardware are sonified as the feedback loop passes from the speakers and back into the microphone. This is an example of ‘virtual liveness’ (Sanden, 2013) being created through ‘mediatization’.
For his category of ‘corporeal liveness’ Sanden (2013) states that “Music is live when it demonstrates a perceptible connection to an acoustic sounding body." An acoustic instrument does not require external amplification to make a sound – it is its own amplifier. Using the built-in speakers embodies the laptop. When the microphone feeds back with the internal speakers, the body of the laptop begins to resonate, affecting the feedback behaviour. This resonance is intensified when the laptop lid is closed. Using the built-in speakers of the laptop also reconciles the issue of dislocation between electronic instrument and speaker, maximising its credibility as an instrument. Using the laptop ‘unplugged’ allows the musician to be mobile in the performance space, and consequently be more interactive with that space.
Augmenting the laptop with external technology distracts from its potentiality as an instrument. The technique of no-input mixing involves routing the output of an audio mixer back into its input, amplifying the internal noise of the device until it begins to oscillate. Feedback is an effective way of foregrounding the idiosyncrasies of audio technology, effectively sonifying its internal circuitry. This reductionist approach has the potential to transform ancillary forms of equipment into instruments in their own right. The laptop can be reduced in this way through audio feedback between the built-in microphone and speakers. Characteristic artifacts that emerge through the process of analogue/digital conversion are magnified exponentially through the rapid cycling of this resynthesis that is catalysed by microphone feedback.
In experimenting with the infra-laptop setup, a number of unique techniques have emerged. The open feedback system can be manipulated physically through a variety of techniques that I have chosen to term “concrete filters”.
filtering of feedback with hands over the microphone and/or speakers
placing the mouth over the microphone, creating an "acoustic" formant filter
changing the angle of the lid
closing the lid, causing the speakers to reflect sound back into the microphone – intensifying feedback
manipulating the closed lid with hands (e.g placing a hand on the lid dampens the resonant vibration)
These techniques facilitate interactive liveness, (Sanden, 2013) through a direct physical connection with the sound.