Show Report: Ableton Loop 2017

Presentations, product demos, performances and more
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Already in its third year, Ableton’s annual Loop conference is quickly becoming one of the premiere international music events. With its eclectic array of TED Talk-like presentations, intimate production workshops, hands-on technology demonstrations, and one-of-a-kind performances, the three-day event in East Berlin’s enormous Funkhaus studio complex brings together a wonderfully diverse audience of performers, experts, and instructors of every gender and ethnicity. (Full disclosure: This year, I participated at Loop both as a speaker and audience member, as did many of the attendees.)

With so many simultaneous presentations to attend at the mall-sized facility, it is impossible to see everything, so advance planning is crucial. While there were numerous in-depth sessions with influential dance artists like Goldie and Honey Dijon, there was also a strong focus on academic topics ranging from music theory and the neuroscience of sound to the future of online music education.

The diagram from Paul Adenot’s presentation on creating classic techno sounds using the Web Audio API.

The diagram from Paul Adenot’s presentation on creating classic techno sounds using the Web Audio API.

For example, producer Susan Rogers (Prince’s in-house studio engineer for many of his famed ’80s recordings), offered insights into the neurological underpinnings of our perception of sound and music, explaining in detail how learning music—or a second language—profoundly enhances cognition, especially if training begins at a very early age. Having studied with Daniel Levitin after achieving her financial success in the music industry, Rogers delved deep into the intricacies of how our brains function in an auditory context. From there, she shared meaningful stories from her work with Prince, analyses of a few rare selections from his catalog, and anecdotes about the numerous charity shows he performed while touring. (It turns out that most of those secret concerts were explicitly kept off the media radar because Prince didn’t want the press to interfere with his musical philanthropy.)

Equally enlightening was YouTube sensation Adam Neely’s presentation on the relationship between pitch and rhythm, with several ear-opening examples of polyrhythms in this context. Neely also appeared in a group discussion on the nuances of using video for mass music education. If you’re not already familiar with his YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/havic5), I highly recommend checking it out. It’s genuinely impressive.

Speaking of music education, I also attended a roundtable discussion between NYU’s Ethan Hein, British performer Melissa Uye-Parker, and Ableton’s Jack Schaedler and Dennis DeSantis, which produced insights into the future of online education. During the talk, Schaedler delved into his sophisticated philosophy on the co-development of Ableton’s groundbreaking Learning Music website (learningmusic.ableton.com). It’s also worth noting that moderator DeSantis’ Making Music book for Ableton is a modern example of the concepts embodied in Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. DeSantis’ straightforward guidance of the discussion was accessible for the hundreds of presentation attendees.

Susan Rogers talked about neuroscience and shared stories about her time as Prince’s principal studio engineer.

Susan Rogers talked about neuroscience and shared stories about her time as Prince’s principal studio engineer.

In addition to the dizzying array of big-room presentations and smaller workshops, Ableton Loop 2017 included a trade-show area populated by manufacturers such as Roland, Novation, and Roli, among others. This space was very relaxed, allowing attendees to work with the instruments while talking to their developers, but without feeling the retail pressure that often accompanies these kinds of events. The overall ambience was that of a playground for electronic artists, complete with stunning views of the Spree River from an expanse of windows along the main wall.

Last but certainly not least, there was also an incredible range of recitals from a precisely curated assortment of cutting-edge artists—both acoustic and electronic—including the cross-cultural Nile Project, musique concrète icon William Basinski, and cutting-edge visual artists Nosaj Thing, each delivering indelibly memorable performances. Taken as a whole, the effect of artists performing for other artists defies description, as does the fact that most participants are accessible to anyone who happens upon them in the communal food court. The experience is transcendent, and serves to affirm the sense of community that Loop engenders.