Four Tet, the moniker of electronic artist Kieran Hebden, delivered a hypnotic, sample-based performance at the Mezzanine in San Francisco Saturday night, mixing elements of house, IDM, and free jazz rhythms. Fifteen minutes past midnight, Hebden positioned himself behind a desk of interwoven chords, a laptop, looping modules, and a mixer without much acknowledgement of his crowd. He donned a generic grey hoodie that draped his unkempt curly brown hair while his sullen, dark eyes fixated on his laptop screen.
He was locked in.
Similar to the way a computer programmer writes complicated software using thousands of smaller commands, Four Tet constructed his electronic symphony through a kind of hierarchical sampling — gradually layering complex rhythms until a recognizable song emerged. Hebden orchestrated his performance on his laptop using Ableton Live; song components were dissected, sampled through a MIDI launch pad, and modulated through a three-channel mixer.
Four Tet’s live production strikes a fine balance between repetition and improvisation. He began most of his songs, like club-favorite “Love Cry,” by launching a bouncing, four-four club beat and looping synthesized samples. The rhythms got busier and busier and sometimes more dissonant sounding as he played free jazz cymbals and synthesized arpeggios looped at different tempos. Finally, the song took its form when Hebden layered vivid vocal sampling atop a brightly synthesized harmony.
Unlike listening to one of Four Tet’s records, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact beginnings of those discrete songs during his live mix. One only could recognize a song after Hebden launched a key channel, when a vocal hook or modulated harmony emerged. In this way, Four Tet purposefully toyed with the crowd, having audience members turn to one another and question: “Is he playing what I think he’s playing?!”
He seemed to create lengthy and trance-like buildups aimed to dislocate the crowd, only to drop a familiar sample which the crowd could finally recognize. Although his eyes were mostly fixated on adjusting modulation knobs, MIDI buttons, and his laptop screen, Hebden did sometimes flicker his eyes onto the audience to enjoy the crowd’s reaction.
Mesmerizing buildups were pierced by modulated vocal samples, such as the repeating key vocal sample, “Come on, come on, come on,” on his song “Ba Teaches Yoga;” and, the 90s jungle breaking beat of the song “Kool FM” that is interrupted with a jarring sample of an MC hollering, “Hey! Hey, hey, hey!”
On other songs, Four Tet skipped the incremental mixing pattern and instead launched entire breaking beats all at once.
On “Parallel Jalebi,” a syncopated, oscillating rhythm and heavy bass pulse reverberated throughout the walls at the Mezzanine, synchronizing collective head bobs became a room full of swinging pendulums. Hebden flavored the head-swinging beat by sampling a colorful female voice while pitch bending the beat.
Ongoing samples sunk through bass pulses and dense percussion, such that his set always elicited kinetic response. Like his samplings, the crowd was constantly in flux. Towards the very end, Four Tet progressively tapered off the moving kicks and beats to calm the crowd with wavering harmonies.
Without a single break in his set, the crowd wiped sweat from their brows, shaken from two hours of constant rhythm. They had been hypnotized.
Article by Mike Roe and photos by Chris Redman