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Battle of the laptops

A boom, sizzle and a puff of smoke signaled the end of the first-ever Seattle Laptop Battle in 2003.

Local electronic musician Bobby Karate managed to blow out a speaker, filling the Deep Down Lounge in Pioneer Square with the smell of toasted plastic. Killing the sound system was an act that no one could follow.

Karate's move not only silenced the competition that night, but exemplified the spirit of this extreme art form.

Pushing the limits of technology and performance art, the organizers of Seattle Laptop Battle have been changing Seattleites' perception about electronic music for the past two years.

No longer the stuff of pasty tweakers and technophiles, organizers feel that electronic music is now more easily accessible, bringing together a diverse group of digital musicians and fans not traditionally associated with each other.

Zach Huntting (who goes by the name "Zapan") and his crew Fourthcity, a collection of musicians, DJ's and artists, are responsible for Seattle's laptop battle scene.

"We need to change people's perception of electronic music," said Huntting, an organizer of competitions and a UW alumnus. "Laptop is the new punk rock."

In an effort to spread the word about laptop battle and electronic music, Huntting, along with other Fourthcity members, will hold a demonstration on Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Communication 206.

Sponsored by the Simpson Center, this networking session will give a crash-course in the latest software and hardware needed for battle. Appearing will be other laptop gladiators, DJN and two-time battle champion Kris Moon.

Laptop battles are competitions that pit 16 computer musicians against each other in pursuit of prizes and trophies. Contestants work within a furious three-minute time frame when they use a laptop to create live music. Fusing broken break beats with pre-recorded tracks, battle compositions best resemble a free-form freak out.

It is an event that is part music improv and part extreme performance art. While Huntting said that criteria for evaluating battle contestants varies from battle to battle and judge to judge, important factors include improvisational skills and crowd response.

Video footage a recent laptop battle shows some contestants soliciting audience reaction through gimmicks. One contestant jiggled about dressed up in a Teletubby costume, while another smashed fruit over his head.

Gimmicks aside, Huntting said that at the core of a laptop battle is building a community to explore the music.

"Laptop battle serves to unite the genres and further research the use of the laptop on stage as an improv instrument," he said.

According to Huntting, there was an earlier contest that came a few years before the Seattle Laptop Battle series. Held by Modsquare, the Chicago-based webzine dedicated to electronic music, the contest was based more on theatrics.

Huntting said there were few rules to early competitions, but the most important rule barred sabotage by way of water- tossing. Teams were formed with the objective to psych-out the opposing laptop musician and gain favorable responses from the crowd. Teams accomplished this by dressing in animal costumes, dancing and distracting laptop DJ's, Huntting added.

Bringing it to Seattle, Huntting and his crew formalized the battle, applying a few more guidelines such as time limits and tourney-style contests. Huntting said that he took note of the hype-machine that surrounded the event.

In Seattle, Fourthcity participated in similar guerilla-style advertising. Utilizing wheat paste and the cover of darkness, the Fourthcity crew plastered the city with a ubiquitous poster campaign the likes of which this city has seen.

Remnants of past battles can still be seen on places such as public utility boxes and newspaper bins.

The work was a success as the hype-heavy event filled Capitol Hill's Chop Suey to capacity with 700 spectators last fall.

Like early punk rock and hip-hop, the underground movements that spawned the empowering message of do-it-yourself ethics suggest anyone can be a laptop musician, said Huntting.

According to Huntting, all you need is the right software and a computer with a decent processing speed.

Huntting stressed, "Other people are doing it, too."

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