Last night’s Virtual Virtuosos online gig at TEDxWarsaw proved the concept that remote collaboration by musicians in more than two locations (two having been done before) is possible, even if the currently available technology is still leaving more questions than offering answers.
Some months ago when we first began considering the content for our first TEDxWarsaw, I had the somewhat crazy idea that, since we couldn’t afford to bring leading jazz musicians to Warsaw for the gig, we would take the gig to them. The idea grew out of a series of projection gigs my good friend Nigel Gavin and I had done in Auckland a few years back. Nigel’s music,improvised on the spot to the images, worked really well and seemed to take the audience into meditative spaces they enjoyed visiting. It was time to ratchet up the level of difficulty and a TED-like event seemed the logical venue for it. After all, it’s all about going out on the edge and trying out stuff which is very far from being mainstream.
Having got the idea, I needed to implement it so I began to look for the right musicians and the right technological solutions. Nigel would play in Auckland. Having been just introduced to the music of Krzysztof Scieranski, a genius of the bass and his own synth/loops setup, I knew I’d found the Warsaw musician who would play live on stage. I had talked to leading American drummer Paul Wertico who had worked with SBB, a well known Polish band, and had a long standing connection with the country about somehow getting him involved in TEDx. Since we had zero budget it seemed logical that I should mention the virtual jam idea to him. After a long Skype call Paul came on board with considerable enthusiasm. Plus, what I hadn’t known, Paul had worked with Krzysztof in the quartet The Colors a couple of years prior, so that was a happy coincidence.
To my considerable delight, I very quickly happened on information about the Manchester Camerata collaborating on a trans-continental orchestral performance with the Venetian ensemble Ex Novo. I got in touch with the technology gurus at Manchester Digital (Paul Spensley, Paul Limbrick and Alan Holding) and they suggested that to circumvent the problem of latency we should consider “layering” the music, one instrument – and one location – at a time. We would be using a Skype connection to do this, relying on the software’s ability to adjust compression to fit the available bandwidth. Brett Sutton, the technology director at Roosevelt University (where Paul holds his “day job” as professor of jazz (how cool is that??) joined us in trying to make this work.
With Nigel unavailable due to commitments which came up while we were planning the event, we called on Tom Ludvigson, New Zealand’s leading jazz multi-instrumentalist, with deep experience in experimental, on-the-edge music. (His current project, Trip, certainly walks down some marvellously untrodden paths.) Tom agreed to try out this crazy idea – particularly crazy since the music would be travelling in one direction only, with Paul composing it on the spot, Tom playing to what came through his connection and hearing only the drums, Krzysztof hearing both Tom and Paul and finding a space for his bass and synth, but with no closing of the circle and Paul hearing neither Tom nor Krzysztof – the only way to circumvent latency that we could think of. Tom would do this at MAINZ, a music and audio engineering school in Auckland where he lectures.
With the trio put together and the technology roughly laid out, we proceeded to try it out in the course of the week prior to TEDxWarsaw. Using what we hoped would be a fast enough connection at Warsaw University’s Old Library Building, and a lot of trial and error we settled on a solution and managed to make it work, despite the network being down on the first evening we trialed it and slow on the second. A reasonably full trial run on the Thursday before TEDx confirmed that the setup would work in terms of the technology but we still had no idea as to whether it would make sense musically as Paul had a major gig on and was unable to join us. Nail biting time.
At the close of TEDxWarsaw, with Krzysztof having already played a great solo set earlier on in the day, it was showtime. We were running late, one computer managed to catch a cold, there was no time to do a proper sound check, and my slideshow which was meant to accompany and cue the music got screwed up by the projection crew. Instead of the lovingly crafted slow dissolves what I saw on the screen were rapidly changing images, with no regard for order or timing. Ah well, c’est la guerre. I feverishly typed “We’re up. Start the music” into the chat window and, like magic, Paul’s cymbals came through crystal clear, followed by Tom’s Fender Rhodes. Krzysztof hit the strings.
What followed was indeed an excellent proof of concept. A free-flowing free jazz aura filled the auditorium – decidedly not for everyone but those with trained ears certainly tuned in (I was watching the audience intently.) This was followed by a minute or two of a groove, with Paul laying down a steady rhythm. Unfortunately, just as the guys were getting into it and it seemed to start happening, the connection deteriorated, the tempo sped up then slowed down, the sound became garbled… I decided to slowly fade out the drums and keyboard and Krzysztof took off into a delicious solo tune to take us out.
Finally, Krzysztof said a few apt words about the World still being a little too big for us, despite our best attempts at making it ever smaller. We had hoped for a three-way conversation to discuss the project with the musicians but with the connection having deteriorated and the day essentially run out of time, Krzysztof’s comments had to suffice.
Only the bravest and most adventurous musicians would ever attempt anything of this kind… As far as we know this is the first time this was ever tried out with three separate locations. As a musical experience it was somewhat frustrating and limiting for the musicians and surprising for the audience. As a technology experiment – attempting to use garden variety tools over a fast but not industrial strength broadband line – it worked. It’s my intention to try this out again, with better technology and a budget this time. Yes, did I mention nobody got paid for any of this? That’s commitment to the art. Thank you Paul, Tom and Krzysztof! We’ll do it again, just as soon as technology catches up with ideas.
(Very soon I will publish the slideshow which accompanied the music on the day. Enjoy it alone or with appropriate musical accompaniment.)