It sounds like the beginning of riddle: Three people and three instruments are on stage together but not all of them are there. This was in fact the scene at the Telemotions concert presented in April 2011 by Mark Dresser on contra bass, Michael Dessen on trombone, and Myra Melford on piano. Their improvisational jazz set happened in one continuous 75 minute present, but the players were 80 miles apart. As in all good riddles there is both a rational explanation and a lingering sense of magic.
To even say where the concert took place requires some calculation. Dresser and Melford were in San Diego at UCSD’s Calit2 Theatre, while Dessen was performing at UC Irvine. Audiences were present at both sites along with projected backdrops designed by Victoria Petrovich, and so were visual manifestations of the performers—thanks to John Crawford’s Active Space system. In development at UCI since 1994, Active Space uses multiple networked computers to process live video feeds of performers. In the April Telemotions concert, these combined to create both direct and fluidly improvisational renderings of all three people on both stages.
The performers are quick to say that making music this way takes a village. Essential components include the high performance computer network that links the universities and the people who maintain it. But technology is also creating a village.
In a non-networked world, scheduling rehearsals between players in three different cities would have been daunting; (Melford teaches at Berkeley, Dessen at Irvine, and Dresser at San Diego). But with the software platform Jack Trip (designed by former UCSD music student Chris Chafe), the players were able to test out ideas, workshop new pieces, and improvise together—all without leaving their offices.
In an interview for Alexander Mclean’s Under Your Skin, Dresser credited composer Pauline Oliveros with spurring his interest in telematics. She told him: It’s a community affair. It isn’t just artistic. There’s a technological level and an administrative level.
Just thinking of that kind of structure, Dresser explained, opened his mind to a new way of collaborating. If the organizing component—he mentions Google docs and Chat—brought a new, perhaps somewhat analytic dimension to brainstorming, the ability to just work on music together allowed the kind of intensive organic development that used to only happen on the road.
Integrating that which seems separate—a theme suggested by the technology—found expression in non-digital ways in the concert, too. Part of the set included large images of abstract paintings by California artist Don Reich. Some, like “Deep Forest” were used by the players as departure points for an improvised journey accompanied by chimes, insect-like fluttering, and a trombone swarm. (Melford, who has composed solo piano music based on Reich’s paintings, can be seen playing in the concert video with small reproductions placed on the piano.)
Another painting, “Curtain,” whose horizontal bands of color are divided vertically into fabric–like folds, was treated by the musicians, as a score that could literally be read: in this case, one full of sliding, droning and tinkling.
Perhaps the least expected effect of all the technology was the heightened attention it gave to flesh and blood. When Melford reached into the piano to grab strings, or when Dresser surrounded his bass, slapping and bowing simultaneously, the sheer physicality was both affirming and startling. Wherever there was, the force of inspiration was here and now.
Concert videos: http://www.mdessen.com/projects/telematics/telemotions.html
San Pedro, CA