The DJ had the dance floor going bananas, but Daniel Fernandez de Cordova was nonplussed: “This guy was just pecking away at his computer for about two hours. . . . I felt it was a little bit ridiculous.”
Maybe Fernandez de Cordova can remedy that. He’s the co-founder of Machina, a Mexico City-based company that’s developing a jacket that uses MIDI technology — short for “musical instrument digital interface” — to allow a DJ’s physical gestures to trigger the sounds coming from the speakers.
“We’re making wearable technology,” says Fernandez de Cordova of Machina’s mission. “So we wanted to give the artist a way to step away from the computer, to make music with movement, something to make concerts and performances more interesting.”
With a rising generation of DJs content to “perform” entirely pre-programmed sets from behind their laptops, Machina’s impulse seems smart. One side effect of the 21st century’s digital music boom is that it has largely removed human physicality from the way many pop songs are created — and perhaps more noticeably, how they’re performed live.
That’s why some electronic musicians have begun to describe their stagecraft as “controllerism.” It’s a nod to “turntablism,” a term coined by DJs who first used turntables, mixers and stacks of vinyl albums to develop new dialects of hip-hop and dance music.
“With controllerism, the idea is that you’re using digital controllers to give a performance and push the boundaries a little bit, instead of just pressing play,” says Dan White, managing editor of DJ Tech Tools, a Web site that reviews (and sells) various controllers. Some look like video game joysticks. Others look like 22nd-century telephone touch-tone pads. Functionality is key, but it’s important that they look cool. Everyone’s watching.
“If a DJ is screen-gazing on stage, people will say [he’s] checking his e-mail,” White says. “You want to be able to distinguish your performance. People aren’t going to remember you if you’re not doing something original.”