Confronting Creative Failure at Berlin's Loop Festival
The Ableton arranged three day festival was the perfect place to reflect on what it means to contribute to culture in 2015.
"Success points to your past, failure points to your future." A defining moment of Robert Henke's opening keynote address, it grew to become emblematic of our time at Loop – a three day summit for musical creatives run by tech innovators Ableton. It's a powerful interpretation of a dichotomy that plagues even the most experienced of artists, yet rarely facilitates an honest discussion about what 'success' and more notably 'failure' can even mean. For the beginner, most notably, failure and the fear of it can be your greatest hindrance or your most common encounter.
Perhaps partially to blame is our insistent romanticising of the bedroom producer —one of electronic music's most crucial yet confused archetypes. We've long clutched onto the idea of a lone genius reinventing dance music in a cultural vacuum as if it's the defining route to success. Certainly to the outsider, the challenges and creative hurdles are blurred beyond vision, and the intricacies of its technical science are almost entirely overlooked. By the nature of its name, much of the music-making process for bedroom producers is solitary and relies on self-learning, meaning for those starting from scratch the weighted entity of failure can feel ever more intimidating.
And so we turn back to Loop. Situated in an East Berlin on the River Spree, a stone's throw away from Berghain and Tresor, 400 or so like-minded individuals gathered in an old pumping-station-turned-art-space for a discussion of the present and the future of music making. Across the weekend workshops, talks and live sessions were married with technical trailblazers, artists and enthusiasts in a nuclear fusion of ideas – products, including Ableton's own, were placed to the side, with communication and creativity centre stage.
There was a surprising fluidity to an event in which five rooms played host a vastly varied programme. Branching upwards from the main social hub —a hardware playground featuring a revolving modular synth set-up and a wealth of gear from a variety of manufacturers— were discussions on the relevance of genre and the use of repetitive loops, workshops on granular synthesis and organic sequencers, studio sessions with Hecq and Dauwd. Holly Herndon talked through her creative process, Matthew Herbert his creative manifesto; Mute founder Daniel Miller reflected on the creativity of A&R, and Ninja Tune's Matt Black explored whether electronic music needs to be a lot wilder.
But what for the beginner? Ableton's Head of Documentation and composer Dennis DeSantis laid out the fundamental principles of the summit as 'music, creativity, technology', yet how can the novice utilise this tech, harness this creativity and assert their sound above the noise? What can be learned from established and experienced talents – filtered through an application process for tickets – sharing ideas with other established and experienced talents? Armed with nothing but an old demo of FL Studio on my laptop, left to gather dust when my 17 year old self discovered that you can't just become Disclosure overnight, I discovered just how enlightening that environment could be.
Essential to Loop was its emphasis on community and collaboration, which manifested most blindingly in a talk with LA's TeamSupreme. Like Flying Lotus and the Brainfeeder crew, they affirmed that the best environment to create music is within a collective. What started as a competition to make a one-minute beat in an hour using a Notorious B.I.G sample quickly expanded to a wider squad of young producers, sharing projects and files and techniques and pushing each other forward. There's now been 131 volumes of these weekly beat cyphers, and it that short time they've also launched a record label, sold out a tour, and fostered an exponential rise of their own careers. Members JNTHN STEIN, Dot, Preston James and Steve Napela injected a refreshing level of energy into their mid-Sunday afternoon talk, and did well to capture the imagination of starting your own "artist-run democracy". Whilst TeamSupreme weren't new to production when they started, they embodied the collaborative joy that comes with working with others, and the obvious benefits that result from it: inspiration, education, improvement.
Much more of the weekend's wisdom came from Young Guru, Jay Z's sound engineer of 16 years and all-round authority in mastering hip-hop records. Sitting in an office littered with cables and leads, just after featuring on the panel for 'Creative blocks and strategies for overcoming them – part #1,' he reflected on the process of music making: "You have to know the rules in order to break them – and there's a pleasure in breaking the rules." It's a maxim that could be felt continuously vibrating around Loop's ecosystem – that engaging with music is the ultimate guide to discovering originality. If we draw upon a long lineage of sound we can begin to question and experiment with elements its production, in turn creating something new. In the case of Lorenzo Senni, this meant aggressively splicing together hardstyle and trance build-ups, abstracting samples of 90s rave culture and uniquely relaying them onto a seated concert-hall audience.
Within this buzz of ingenuity and originality, Loop was a great demonstration in the boundless power that can be channelled through computer. "The laptop is," according to Holly Herndon, "the most intimate instrument." A musician, sound engineer and doctoral student in composition in Stanford University, her sound brings the human and the digital together in one corporeal entity, taking the mundanity of our internet behaviour and turning it into something hyperpersonal. In Breathe, she described the method of processing her voice in real time, creating something so totally distorting it occupies an ambiguous space between pleasure and pain. Her sophomore record Platform also swells with these tiny, rhythmic, intricate sounds of the everyday – pouring water, pop-up ads, computer whirrs – chopped up with choral, corrupted vocals. Knowing your instrument is then, obviously, crucial. "Anyone can muck around and come up with something great," Young Guru stresses, "but if you don't know why or how it sounded like that then you can't grow as an artist."
The closing hour was titled 'A glimpse into Ableton's workshop' hosted by CEO Gerhard Behles, who wrapped up the conference with the announcement of new products onto an unknowing audience. The announcement of their newest hardware Push 2 made the room erupt, with a slick video demonstration flaunting but a selection of its new features that include: an improved multicolour display, fast and flexible sampling workflows, and a redesign of controller's pads. Their unique trade-in initiative (that received a standing ovation) also means owners of the first Push can exchange it in for 30% off the new one, and returned units will be passed on to musical education projects for young people – for free. Alongside this is a new version of their software Live 9.5 free for Ableton Live 9 users, and a soon-to-be-released technology Link that facilitates collaboration, letting you play in-time with users of Live and a growing number of iOS apps. With the focus of Loop placed firmly on the creators, Ableton successfully held their position as being the crux of art and technology.
So what, then, of this concept of failure? Despite the instruments growing ever more sophisticated, the depth of music expanding into further corners, and the accessibility of the craft continuously increasing, the actual music making process still seems a bit daunting. Yet for an event almost entirely comprised of established music makers Loop proved to be engaging and inspiring, not alienating. It's as if the summit was a big, affectionate 'fuck you' to failure as something hindering or something negative – instead it embraced how the things we think we do wrong can only lead to a greater depth of understanding of the music making process. When we become comfortable with failure, when we can understand it and work with it, it seems to be the path to future success.
Josie does not use Twitter.