Approaches to Electronic Contra

by jefftk jefftk2 min read29th Mar 2020No comments

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I've been thinking about the various ways that musicians have approached combining elements of electronic dance music with contra dance. Examples:

This is not at all a complete list, but I think it shows the range of what people have tried.

One axis of variation here is how much of the playing is live. At one end you're dancing to an entirely premixed track, while at the other all the sounds are triggered in the moment by the musicians:

  • Fully pre-mixed: Lisa Greenleaf, Emily Rush (Rushfest), and several other callers come to the dance with fully mixed-down recordings. Some "DJ"s are here, doing all their composition ahead of time.

  • Mostly pre-mixed: DJ Improper and some other contra DJs prepare their sets in advance, but can remix them some on the fly. This is what a live DJ traditionally does.

  • Hybrid: Julie Vallimont's various bands [1], Phase X, and D. R. Shadow combine live elements (fiddle, piano, jawharp, accordion, sax, banjo) with loops, beats, samples, and mashups.

  • Live looping: Perpetual e-Motion would come in with nothing pre-recorded, and would build up a complex texture with loops.

  • Fully live: this is mostly not a thing, though this is close. It's very hard to make the full sound of a modern electronic dance track with a reasonable number of live musicians.

Another axis of variation is originality, in the sense of "from scratch". At one end you have music that is based around commercial recordings, with edits, remixes and mashups, while at the other end you have musicians writing their own music. This is separate from the previous axis: you can make pre-mixed tracks from club hits or your own compositions; you can play faithful pop covers live or figure out your own arrangements.

Even though it's separate, they do tend to go together: people who work pre-mixed are mostly remixing and editing recordings, while people who work hybrid, looped, or fully live are mostly making their own thing. I've been thinking some about why. Part of this is that the easiest way to get started is to find existing recordings that support the structure of the dance, or make small edits to them to get it to fit. The tradeoff, though, is that you have much less control. You can very occasionally get multitrack versions ("stems") of songs, but usually you have a fully-mixed track. If you pick tracks you like this will sound good, but you're at a bit of a musical local maximum.

Over time, as people get more experience, they tend to move farther along the "originality" axis. Comparing Vallimont's work in Double Apex (2010-2012) vs Buddy System (2014-), or Jacoby's in Phase X (2012-2013) vs Ground Lift (2019-), earlier work involved a lot of mashups but they've both moved on to a "fully original" approach.

With Kingfisher and my rhythm stage setup I've been exploring the edges of this from a live direction. I want to keep the full control and ability to improvise that I have on the mandolin or piano, but with the full sound of a large band or modern produced recording. (For example, here's something I was working on yesterday which is fully live and uses only my feet and breath.) Looking over what parts of the space have been explored or not and how that has gone is useful for figuring out what things I want to try.


[1] Double Apex with Brendan Carey Block, Firecloud with Andy Reiner, Delta Wave with Jon Cannon, Cosmic Echo with Ed Howe, and Buddy System with Noah VanNorstrand.

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