Telematic music: Musicians perform together ‘live’ from opposite coasts

Last modified: Monday, April 08, 2013

The band launched into its rehearsal music, with the two saxophonists and the drummer kicking off the passage, and the trombonist and bass player coming in after a couple of measures. The jazz beat went on perhaps a half-minute longer before saxophonist Jason Robinson signaled for a halt.

The trombonist, Michael Dessen, spoke up. “That felt faster. That felt like we were pushing the tempo a bit, just to let you know what it felt like here.”

For Dessen, “here” was the University of California/San Diego. He was visible on, and speaking from, a large video screen that was set up on the stage at Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College, where Robinson, fellow sax player Marty Erlich and drummer Bob Weiner were rehearsing before a handful of people monitoring computers, video cameras and lighting and sound systems.

Welcome to the world of telematic music.

In the simplest sense, it’s a musical version of a video conference: Musicians in separate locations — often far-distant ones — playing together in real time via Internet and video hookups. The audio and video feeds are high-enough quality that the sound and images are transmitted between sites almost simultaneously, with only a minimal time delay.

Robinson, a composer and music professor at Amherst, says the technology not only allows musicians in distant locations to play “live,” it also opens up new parameters for players like himself who are interested in experimenting with standard notions of time and space in performance.

“There’s a real philosophical and aesthetic element to this,” said Robinson, who came to Amherst about five years ago from southern California, where he used to perform with Dessen and other players. “Because there’s a slight delay in how sound moves between different locations — what we call ‘latency’ — it gives us another artistic tool to work with.”

As Robinson explains, the differences in how musicians hear one another — whether playing together in a small club, a large concert hall or on different continents — makes for considerable variety in how players respond to one another, a particular value in jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation and solos. Telematic music, he says, “gives us a different kind of connection, and you can write music specifically geared to that.”

Those new kinds of connection can be heard tonight at 10 p.m. at Buckley Hall when Robinson, Erlich and Weiner take the stage to gig with four musicians, including Dessen, at the UC/San Diego, who will be playing at 7 p.m. West Coast time.

This free concert is part of a “virtual tour” that the four California jazz musicians — Dessen, bassist Mark Dresser, pianist Myra Melford and flutist Nicole Mitchell — are doing via the Internet and high-definition video this weekend. On Saturday, the California quartet will play a telematic show with musicians in Zurich, Switzerland, and on Sunday with players at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

As the musicians note, by rehearsing their material over the Internet over a period of months, they’ve also developed a body of music that normally would have come with a large environmental footprint, involving multiple flights to and from different rehearsal and performance locations.

The Amherst show will consist of original compositions written by five of the participating players: Dessen, Dresser, Erlich, Robinson and Mitchell.

Nooks and crannies

Robinson says telematic performances first began about 20 years ago, though the technology of the time meant there was about a three-second audio delay between musicians in different locations. Today, with the high-speed Internet connections and wider bandwidths that are available at colleges and other research institutes, that audio delay is just a fraction of a second.

Telematic performance “is kind of in the nooks and crannies of the musical world, but it’s starting to get a higher profile these days,” he said.

It makes for a different vibe for performers. At a rehearsal at Buckley Hall in mid March, Robinson, Erlich and Weiner began various parts of a composition written by Robinson, after which the players in San Diego would join in. But the sections tended to be fairly brief, as one player or another would call a halt as they worked to get a feel for playing 3,000 miles apart.

“Let’s take that one again, starting from the left,” said Dresser, the bass player, on the video screen. “That’s where these four lines come in, correct?”

Watching the video screen, you could see that Dresser’s words did not quite match his lip movements, like a dubbed movie that’s not exactly in sync.

Dresser and his three fellow musicians in San Diego could be seen on two video screens that faced the seats of Buckley Hall; the Amherst musicians could not see those screens but could hear the San Diego players talk and play through the sound system. Meanwhile, an Amherst student intern trained a video camera on Robinson, Erlich and Weiner, sending their images to video screens in the performance area of the San Diego players.

Weiner, who’s done lots of live gigging with Robinson, Erlich and other players in the area, said this is his first time taking part in a telematic performance. He likens it to doing a recording session where he’s asked to put down a drum track on a pre-existing piece of music and “you just close your eyes, go in the zone and you locate.

“It’s a new thing for me, and I’m open and curious,” he said. “Some of the rehearsals have been great — these folks are all great improvisers, the best in the business, so the music’s been written to allow for a lot of that. And some of it’s just following charts, a bit like classical music.”

He says it has taken him a while to get used to hearing his own drumming live, with Robinson and Erlich, and then hearing it played back through the monitors of the San Diego players as they add their pieces to it. That microsecond of delay, or latency, “can make it difficult to play. But it’s a challenge, and I like that,” Weiner added.

Robinson says the two groups of musicians have rehearsed for months, both separately and together via the Internet and video links, to get the music and the technical specifications of the show down. He also notes that all the players, Weiner excepted, have experience in telematic playing. Robinson’s been doing it for about 12 years, and quite intensively for the last five.

Virtually all the musicians have considerable experience playing with one another, both live and in virtual concerts. Some of the San Diego players also have Valley connections: Dessen, the trombone player, studied at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, taught music at Hampshire College, and formerly lived in Amherst, and Mark Dresser has also taught at Hampshire.

“I think the fact that we already have these kinds of connections gives us a good foundation for this show,” Robinson said. “This is the probably the most impressive [telematic] performance I’ve been part of.”

“It is a fascinating concept,” Weiner said. “The idea of playing music with people in another country, or on another continent — it’s wild.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

The first concert of the “Virtual Tour,” featuring jazz players at four different locations, takes place Friday at 10 p.m. at Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College. Admission is free.


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