UC San Diego's Department of Music

January 22, 2009

  Last October, musicians at U.C. Irvine and San Diego presented "Multiplicities: An Inter-Arts Telematic Performance".

Directed by UCSD contrabassist (and faculty member) Mark Dresser, the concert also featured painter Nancy Ostrovsky and drummer Billy Mintz with Dresser at UCSD; and pianist Myra Melford (associate professor at U.C. Berkeley), trombonist Michael Dessen (at UCSD alum and assistant professor at UCI), and Butoh dancer Oguri at U.C. Irvine.

Thanks to something called telematics, performing music, composing and improvising simultaneously with people in different locations will soon be commonplace. Telematics refers to the "interface of computers, communication, and performance," according to Dresser. He stresses this isn't a replacement for live concerts, but rather an innovative way to address issues of musical community, space, and even instruments with an innovative use of technology.

The concept isn't entirely new, though it does have its roots at UCSD. Noted composer and improviser Pauline Oliveros pioneered the use of technology to bring together performers in the seventies when she taught at UCSD (Oliveros is now a Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York). In Fall 2008, Dresser co-taught a telematic course at UCSD with artist and VisArts faculty member Adriene Jenik as well as sound designer/composer and theatre/dance faculty member Shahrokh Yadegari. It was fortuitous that Dresser's class coincided with classes taught by Oliveros at RPI and Chris Chafe at Stanford, and the three groups were joined in a telematic collaboration and concert.

Dresser's telematic project utilizes Internet II, a proprietary high bandwidth network available only to research and education institutes. At concert locations, webcams and video screens are installed, along with essential audio and computer equipment. Performers in multiple locations are able to hear and see each other as they collaborate in real time.

Given the large, sometimes transcontinental distances involved with telematic performance, there is a time lag between performers as sounds and images travel thousands of miles, but this latency doesn't have a significant impact, according to Dresser. Any delay is generally less than 25 milliseconds, rendering a "wet" (reverb-like) sound. Nonetheless, it's a challenging issue, and Dresser's team makes musical choices that integrate such latencies.

"Its interesting how your mind equalizes or compensates ," Dresser says. "There's nothing more abstract than speaking on a telephone. You have no doubt that you're speaking to someone, but the communication transcends distance."

Dresser's telematic collaborations have always included improvisation. In his larger works, he utilized Soundpainting, a sign language for structured improvisation developed by composer/performer Walter Thompson. This system of more than 750 gestures allows the conductor to direct improvisers including dancers, actors, musicians, and video artists, in a form that includes structured improvisation and even notation. Dresser sees this as an important bridge between composition and improvisation, and an ideal interface for large-group telematic performance.

Telematics, Dresser says, is a new hybrid of instrument and venue. "An instrument has properties of its own," he explains, "and certainly it can give you possibilities that are inherently unique to itself." Telematics transcends distance. Suddenly, the idea of musical 'space' acquires a new meaning. Telematics brings together artists who might never have the chance (because of physical and political barriers) to share the same stage. Dresser's telematic community attracts artists who share similar artistic aspirations.

Dresser is excited about the evolution of his telematic project over the past year. He had no idea it would take off with such speed. Meanwhile, he also uses traditional technology in an unconventional manner, amplifying his acoustic bass with magnetic pickups embedded beneath the fingerboard, which adds new digital potential to his sound.

In the months ahead, Dresser will collaborate with an internationally renowned group of bassists on the Deep Tones for Peace project.

On April 25, 2009, they will gather in Jerusalem and New York City for their first performance with the hope that music can help humanity transcend politics and violence. "Our intention is to add our deep voice to the growing worldwide appeal for peace in the Middle East," says the group's online mission statement. "We sincerely hope that our music (classical, jazz and contemporary) can be received as it is being offered, as a sharing of distinct musical languages and structures that co-exist and are appreciated by all participants."

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