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Birth of a subculture: Music with laptops

Laptops are the instrument for a completely new kind of musician
Ben Christenson performs music on his laptop during the \"Laptop Deathmatch\" competition in Dallas Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006. Musicians, who use home recording software, take turns performing in front of a crowd. They are judged on stage presence, technique and creativity.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Phillip Washington stepped on stage and began fiddling with the wires dangling from his laptop computer, his slight frame bent over the machine and adjacent keyboard as chatter among audience members filled the darkened Dallas nightclub.

But the crowd grew silent as Washington began his performance, pounding the keyboard to unleash electronic beats that shook the club’s floorboards. The audience cheered and pumped their arms as the bespectacled Washington exchanged his quiet demeanor for an intense stage persona, howling to the synthetic sounds as he stomped his feet and contorted his body in jerky, arm-flailing motions.

Washington, who uses the stage name Cygnus, doesn’t sing or even know how to play a musical instrument, but in the world of laptop music, he’s a pro.

A growing number of tech-savvy musicians use laptops instead of guitars or turntables to make eclectic electronic music, then go up against each other in competitions in cities like Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C. The events get publicized through word-of-mouth and the Internet.

Washington, 21, competed against 15 others at a Laptop Deathmatch in January at the Gypsy Tea Room. The artists — they are musicians of a sort — are judged on creativity, technique and stage performance. Washington, an animation major at Dallas’ Richland College and a previous Deathmatch winner, made it through several rounds, but lost after more than five hours of competition.

Music for nerdsZach Huntting, who cMo-founded Laptop Battle in Seattle in 2003, said interest in the competitions has grown strongly over the past two years.

“It seems to be pretty mixed crowds — everything from people that go out to clubs to dance, scenesters, people that are into the music, nerds, tech people, anybody with any type of curiosity about laptops,” said Huntting, 29. “It’s sort of on the edge of both of those cultures” — computers and music.

Many compositions incorporate sounds from everyday life — nature, human voices, guitars — which are recorded and then digitally processed into music using off-the-shelf software such as Ableton Live, Reason, MAX and Traktor DJ Studio. Most of the Dallas contestants used Mac computers.

“There’s a pretty big void — a lot of people are into laptop music and there’s not too many outlets for it,” said Mwanza Dover, who organizes Laptop Deathmatch in the Dallas area. “There are so many kids out there that have a laptop, and their parents get them a $300 music program for Christmas and they run with it.”

Washington, for example, said he often incorporates snippets of television theme music or manipulates his own voice, giving it a discordant echo during a performance.

Contestants usually get only three minutes to perform and may only use one other external device, such as an electronic keyboard. While some sit back and nod their heads to the beat as their piece plays, others use fancy fingerwork to modify and play back their creations.

“You really never know what you’re gonna get,” said Dover, 32. “This one guy, he actually was going to the audience and sampling different people’s voices and then making beats out of their voices.”

A burgeoning subcultureIn Dallas, the crowd of about 100 people was young and curious — and filled with more than a few future competitors.

Computer programmer Brad Yeager said he dabbles with home recording software but he’d never seen anything like Laptop Deathmatch.

“It’s great that it just gives people the opportunity to showcase their stuff without being an established artist,” Yeager said.

Chad Retz, 21, who mostly listens to hip hop, said he was interested in the competition’s premise.

“I wanted to see how people throw it down on the laptop,” Retz said. “I appreciate it for what they’re doing.”

Though interest in the subculture continues to grow, many hope it can avoid mainstream popularity, convinced that a higher interest level would taint the purity of the music.

“As long as this kind of thing remains underground and unplucked by the very popular media, it will live and grow forever,” Washington said. “It’s a personal thing for the artists, and it does not need to become about money.”