Playing with Something That Runs: Technology, Improvisation, and Composition in DJ and Laptop Performance

Mark J. Butler
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
ISBN: 9780195393613 (hardback), 9780195393620 (paperback)
RRP: £86.00 (hardcover), £20.99 (paperback)

Toby Young

University of Oxford (UK)

Published in 2014, Playing with Something That Runs is already widely cited across EDMC scholarship and in receipt of industry-wide plaudits (notably the 2015 PMIG Outstanding Publication Award from the Society of Music Theory). And yet surprisingly, it has yet to be reviewed in an academic journal. Through a stylish interdisciplinary approach, Butler elegantly transcribes, renders and elucidates the landscape of improvisation across contemporary DJing and live production practices in full 360° technicolor. Butler’s methodology feels as virtuosic and light of touch as any of the musicians he examines, bringing together elements of ethnography, anthropology, sociology, analysis and aesthetics to deftly unpack the complex issues of creativity, liveness, hybridity and interaction at the core of his investigation. For a scholar so well versed in the theoretical, it is admirable that the monograph’s backbone comes from extensive observations and interviews with DJs and laptop musicians, focusing predominantly on fieldwork conducted by the author across a variety of Berlin studios and nightclubs.

At the heart of the discussion is an exploration of the various elements (both practical and theoretical) that comprise live performance in EDM. In addition to offering useful reviews on existing literature, each chapter draws together central elements of dance music performance studies with other recurring themes in Butler’s work such as ontology and the “work concept” (chapter one), creativity and materiality (chapter two), perception (chapter three) and technological mediation (chapter four). Intersections with other pillars of EDM scholarship inevitably feature in much of the work—for instance in the final chapter, which is underpinned by a discussion about repetition and its perception—but typical to Butler’s previous work, revisiting these well-trodden paths never feels tedious. Indeed, the new lens of performance frequently offers up new and interesting ideas; for example the compelling notion of a “perfect loop”, which adapts Robert Fink’s idea of recombinant teleology to consider how the micro-manipulation of static or repetitive material can lead to the perception of a technologically-driven musical experience as quasi organic.

This strand of the book—unpicking the ways by which fluidity in performance is created from seemingly static, typically pre-recorded musical objects—is one of the most interesting aspects of Butler’s discussion, and really gets to the core of what his work is about. One of the most compelling theoretical tools of the book for instance is the author’s identification of seven techniques or “technologies” used by DJs and laptop performers for the creation of fludity: viz. repeating, cycling, going, grooving, riding, transitioning and flowing (71–2). The handling of static material such as loops, samples and records through these actions—which Butler describes as musical affordances—are commonplace enough to practitioners, but too often treated as problematic in lieu of the more rigid definitions of musical composition, improvisation or performance that are typically found in musicology. Through this lens of affordances, as well as Butler’s analysis of both theoretical and practical examples, a more precise discussion of musical creation in dance music is opened up, with profound implications for future discussions of EDM ontology.

Overall, Playing with Something That Runs is an immaculate piece of popular musicology, with the potential to become one the cornerstone texts in our discipline. Its interdisciplinary approach provides an incredibly compelling insight into the performance and consumption of live EDM, and the companion website offers a great tool in bringing the discussions of recordings and performances to life through carefully curated audio and video examples. It would be ideally suited as a key text for any popular music course whilst also having the potential to deepen and expand our discipline at the highest level, and really does provide something for everyone. I could not recommend it more highly.