Leave Your Laptops Home: Radio Massacre International and Trevor Dunn

I’ve attended a few concerts recently that pushed me further into the No-Laptop Zone and they couldn’t have been more different in their sound, influences, and effect. The best of them, Radio Massacre International and the Trevor Dunn’s Schemes of Omission employed no laptops, prefab drum loops, sequencer patterns or CD replicated soundscapes.

Trevor Dunn is a journeyman bassist from New York who works in the outer fringes of music with people like John Zorn. He came to Philadelphia for an Ars Nova Workshop show at the Rotunda with a quartet consisting of Shelley Burgon, harp; Ches Smith, vibraphone; and Travis LaPlante, tenor saxophone and Dunn on upright bass. They played music “off-the-floor, ” sculpting a low-density soundscape of shifting textures, multiphonic saxophone blowing and thready, barely there pulses that mesmerized for over an hour. Owing more to Morton Feldman than Charles Mingus, this was jazz through a modern classical aesthetic. It was a music of listening, both for the audience and especially for the musicians who responded to the subtlest shifts of mood and motion.

A few nights later I saw the English electronic trio, Radio Massacre International. Two of them, Steve Dinsdale and Duncan Goddard performed a great living room concert for us in London last year. You can hear one unreleased track from that on Resonance: The Echoes Living Room Concerts Volume 13.

ResonanceThey came to our living room this time and performed a new set with the full trio and I saw them again the next night in a show for The Gatherings concert series.

RMI plays vintage synthesizers, mellotrons, Fender Rhodes and even some more modern devices, as well as electric guitar. But unlike most live electronic shows I’ve seen in the last 5 years, there were no laptop computers and no CD players, iPods or whatever providing backing tracks. Everything was played live. Even the repeating sequencer patterns, which I believe contained no more than 16-note sequences, were programmed on the spot. RMI wasn’t just playing live, they were improvising and composing the music on the fly. This was no recreation of a CD, but a new event entirely, born before the ears of the near capacity crowd. Gary Houghton’s battered, Rory Gallagher Replica Stratocaster Guitar, was like a visual testimony to the live nature of the music.

Although the music reached some ecstatic highs, it wasn’t always great. Some of of their trajectories didn’t quite reach orbit, but many of them did. Yet, even when they failed to launch, the search itself provided musical tension and a certain exhilaration that an artist playing synchronized tracks to a slick video just can’t generate.

I still think RMI is trapped in the vernacular of 70s space music and I wish they’d move on from that, something they did to a degree on their Septentrional album. But playing live on Echoes and at The Gatherings, they were there in moment, not presenting a freeze-dried version of their music.


I feel like I’ve been harping on this a bit lately, but we’ve recently had a couple of electronic musicians come in and essentially hit play on a computer and then perform a fairly lame solo line on top and it makes me feel like an accomplice to a sleazy con game. Laptops are great tools for composing great music, but they are death to live performances and I’m beginning to think that musicians using them that way are perpetrating a deception on their audiences, even if it’s a full band playing in front of a laptop.

You can hear Radio Massacre International playing live on Echoes, Tuesday, November 27. And you can catch them in the flesh next summer when they perform at the 10th Annual Nearfest Festival

Comment posted by
at 11/29/2007 11:59:15 AM

Hello everyone,
I am new to this website and I am trying to search for the greatest Echoes CD’s of all time. I tend to like acoustic generated sounds over electronic ones so if anyone can help me I would be grateful. I also tend to like the tabla, gamalan, etc. over western guitars and pianos. Please feel free to email me at davidhunternyc@gmail.com. Thank you for your help.
David Hunter

Comment posted by
at 11/26/2007 9:01:31 AM

I read your echoes blog this morning, and it hit home in more ways than one- but
I’m kind of viewing it from the other side of the aisle….

I’ve been struggling with this “lap top vs. live” question since this past June,
when I played a couple of concerts- one of them being at the Star’s End show.
After THAT show, there were two people who asked me how I was triggering my
backing tracks. Both people were truly surprised to hear that I didn’t use backing tracks, and it made me wonder how many audience members thought I used backing tracks. I found myself thinking “hey- if people think I’m using them, I might as well, and make life easier on myself”. But every time I entertained the idea, I felt like one of those sleazy con game guys you were referring to.

Your article has furthered my resolve in doing it all live, all the time. It
may not be slick, but it will be real.

You’re good at inventing new terms to describe music (like “ambient americana”).
Why don’t you come up with one for these live laptop shows- something like
“ambient karaoke”? )

Comment posted by
at 11/26/2007 9:13:52 AM

Jeff Pearce hits it right on the head. I’ve had this conversation with Hans Christian from Rasa many times. He’s a phenomenal musician and does incredible things with live looping, but he also uses a lot of backing tracks. Audiences just assume that everything except the obvious lead line and Kim Waters’ voice are backing tapes. There are two things wrong with this.

1-Audience members aren’t aware of what is being done live. Even astute ones like Mark Preston, who I believe is one of the people you talked with at the 30th Anniversary Star’s End show, just assume it’s all backing tracks.

2-And that doesn’t seem to bother them at all. It’s all Electronic Karaoke, barely a step above Milli Vanilli lip-syncing.

Comment posted by
at 11/26/2007 11:04:37 AM

John, would “electronic Karaoke” be “electroniKaroke”? )

The “audience” issue is one that I’ve noticed lately- disturbingly, they don’t seem to care much- if at all- about the “performance” aspect. I remember, in 1988, seeing both George Winston and Michael Hedges (rest his soul), and seeing the “joyful effort” that went into “live without a net” playing. Even now, I still feel that when I see Will Ackerman or Liz Story play live- makes me feel like I’m there on a journey with them, as opposed to watching them present a slideshow of their journey from the comfort of an easy chair.

I’ve heard a lot of musicians, in defense of “live laptop augmentation”, say things like “it’s impractical and too expensive to do this without backing tracks; I can’t afford to bring a whole band out for a show”. Maybe the audience could retaliate, in a way “Yes, tickets to your show are $25. Here’s three real dollars, and a photo of my $22 that I left at home- it’s my money and I earned it, but it’s easier for me to bring a photo of my money.” )

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