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DJs Face Off with Laptop Compositions

It was a little bit of boredom that led to the birth of the laptop battle.

A few years ago, Kris Markle, a dance DJ and electronic musician from Seattle, was getting a little tired of computer music performances. "It was becoming a tired cliché," says Markle, who also goes by the stage name Kris Moon. "There'd be some guy sitting on stage in a pool of light with his computer, playing music. But for all the audience knew, he could have been checking his e-mail or surfing the Web. There was no energy."

To change that, Markle and some friends decided to inject a little competitive spirit into laptop music. Borrowing freely from a long tradition of rock band battles, rapping contests and poetry slams, they staged their first laptop battle at a Seattle lounge in April 2003. Since then, they've founded a group -- laptopbattle.org -- that has staged battles in other West Coast cities and helped spawn similar events around North America.

The recent Mid-Atlantic Laptop Battle held in Washington at a club called DC9 reflected Markle's goal of transforming computer music concerts into high-energy events. Organizers Patrick Burritt and Eric Helton selected the dozen final contestants for both their musical prowess and their potential ability to whip the crowd into a frenzy with onstage antics.

"We don't want just blips and bleeps that show off your computer's processor speed," Burritt said before the event. "We want composers who can combine the music with a sense of fun and performance. Something the crowd can engage with on a visceral level, not just an intellectual level."

Performers had to cope with some constraints, however. One was that they could play just a few minutes of their compositions. In the early rounds, for instance, competitors could play just a three-minute sound bite, while finalists got about 10 minutes of air time. Another rule was that all of their equipment had to fit on a square board that measured 2-feet-by-2-feet. That prevented contestants from adding too many gadgets for tweaking the sound of their compositions. When their names were called by an MC, the performers walked on stage toting their boards and then plugged into a sound system.

What happened next depended on the performer. Some were content to hit a key and play a pre-recorded composition, bopping along behind their laptop. Others started with pre-recorded tracks, but would then use the keyboard and other devices to improvise a song on the fly. A few became a blur of frenzied motion, battering the keyboard and twisting knobs one moment, dancing with arms and legs akimbo the next, sometimes even leading the crowd in arm-waving chants.

One of those energetic performers ultimately won over the panel of seven judges, which included Kris Markle. By a single vote, they declared the battle's winner to be Paul Geissinger, a musician and audio producer from Philadelphia who goes by the stage name Starkey. "Starkey had it all," Markle says. "The music, the energy, the stage presence. There was nothing boring about it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Malakoff
Nicknamed "Scoop" in high school, David Malakoff joined NPR in December of 2004 as the technology and science correspondent for NPR’s science desk. His stories about how science and technology impact people’s daily lives can be heard on all NPR news programs.