two hearts beat as one
i really wanted to go out last thursday and support my friend bianca’s DJ set, but when i found out ellen allien and apparat were playing live as a duo the same night, i had to take a rain check.
i ended up getting to hiro ballroom after midnight. there was a velvet rope and clipboard-wielding door person, who told punters the room was at capacity. presold tickets were honored of course, but not without standing on the same inexplicably barely-moving line as those hoping to buy. meanwhile, friends and associates strolled to the front of the line and got slipped tickets and immediate entry. the whole scenario seemed designed to hold things up just to keep up the show of a crowd of 10+ people looking anxious to get in.
once inside the ballroom itself, i noted the old-fashioned mini-stage with curtains, looking as though it was designed to barely hold a 4-piece jazz or doo-wop band. it jutts out of the same side wall the entrance runs into, which is a bad design move, since people wanting to see the stage competed with people wanting to come and go and order drinks. also, amazingly, several people in the packed room were smoking. perhaps being part of a hotel, the ballroom is exempt from the standard nightclub smoking ban. the final straw of this bad setup was the elongated tables surrounded by sitting people - right on the edge of the dance floor at calf height.
fortunately, none of this has anything to do with ellen allien and apparat. i saw them once before, playing separate opening sets for t. raumschmiere at knitting factory. sadly, allien only played a DJ set then, but she was so good at it and so fun to watch i didn’t mind. things have changed a bit since then, as she’s released an even better solo CD as well as orchestra of bubbles, the duo release she and apparat were promoting. like excited kids, they crouched together behind the cloth-covered tables of equipment as the DJ before them finished his set. each had a mac laptop, bluetooth mouse, and several external devices to affect their sounds. when they stood up, cheers rose.
they immediately launched into two tracks from the aforementioned album that were dark-edged, but with a joyous energy. their music together is a seamless mix of allien’s berlin techno roots with the artier twists and turns of apparat’s IDM bent, bound together by a secret love for pop melody that both have played with in the past.
on the third song, allien stepped away from the gear and picked up a microphone, which drew more cheers. she has a great voice for techno - she keeps her lyrics and melodies simple, she stays in key, she doesn’t try any vocal gymnastics, her voice cuts through the mix without being annoying. as savvy laptop artists, they had her a little processed so she fit into the music perfectly. a few times over the course of the night, such as on the excellent “way out,” she deliberately bent her melodies into yells, perhaps to introduce a more “live” element or simply prove it wasn’t prerecorded or auto-tuned.
however, after each turn at the mic, she seemed eager to get back in front of her laptop, which gets her much respect from me. sadly, women in music aren’t very encouraged to do much else than sing and look pretty, to sell their persona and the promise of sex. that allien is a musician and DJ first and a cute female singer a distant second in a male-dominated field is admirable. even moreso since her own music is so great. as a perfect example, her first vocal was her own “stadtkind,” which seems to have a semi-political bent rather than being personal or sexual in nature.
this was not a pure ellen allien show, however. her relatively straightforward, analog-sounding techno (excellent though it is) is given new dimensions by the digital sheen and inventiveness of apparat. it’s a near-perfect balance, as allien’s own compositions could sometimes be said to be a bit too simplistic, while apparat takes a few too many melodic and rhythmic twists and turns to appeal to more than the chin-scratching segment of the electronica crowd. the merging of their talents has resulted in a nearly-perfect union.
apparat also happens to be one of the more interesting laptop performers i’ve seen, because he makes such a show of tweaking his effects and doing jump cuts live. there’s also a fairly clear cause and effect to his actions, which i think is the main thing people miss when watching someone use a laptop. the top picture isn’t the sharpest i took (seriously low light in there, and i hate using flash), but it best captures the physicality of his gestures. one of his favorite tricks of the night was to loop a small section of a song and substitute it for the rest of the track, sometimes doubling the repetition as allien warped effects on top of it until a climax. this made the live versions recognizable yet clearly changed from their recorded versions. as a finale, allien handed him the mic, and after a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed it with both hands and let out a long, grating, ultra-punk rock scream before abruptly stopping the music. they gave each other a hug and a kiss and left the stage. so much for the ideas of laptop performance being cold, detached, boring, and unchangeable.
i’d been pretty tired before the show, almost considering not going, and the irritating venue made me want to leave right after (another DJ began almost immediately - an unenviable slot). but on the street i was wide awake, blood pumping with excitement at what i’d just seen and heard.
the title of this post comes from a u2 song.