Some draft notes on sessions
In March 2020 The UK, in response to the COVID global pandemic entered a period of “lockdown” where citizen were required to stay at home in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. With some variations many countries around the world introduced similar measures. One of the consequences of this enforced social distances was that musicians were unable to rehearse, record or perform with anyone outside the people they lived with. In an attempt to maintain contact between players, the Glasgow improvisers orchestra (GIO), a large improvisation ensemble with a flexible membership or approximately 25 Individuals, began experimenting using zoom software as a means to improvise together. The sessions developed, into twice weekly, two hour sessions and, at time of writing (May 20200) , where lockdown continues in Scotland, the sessions have developed to include an international group of over 30 musicians all of whom are experiencing living under conditions of social distancing.
While the sessions began as a means of staying connected they quickly developed into a means of producing new and interesting work. the latency attached to all internet conferencing software did not hamper the interactions as we let it become part of the developing improvisation. In a sense it became part of the emergent features of the improvisation. Also, the zoom software is specifically designed for voice and therefore although different types of sonic stimuli and sound sources have some degree of difficulty in being recognised, all participants were able to make themselves heard within the improvisation. Another feature of the zoom software is that is ‘thins out’ the sound in as much as it does not allow more than a few, 3 – 7 instruments or sound sources to be heard at once. This has significant implications for larger ensembles attempting to use zoom. However once again, with a focus on the process and with the overall aim of allowing the emergent aspects of the improvisation to be central to the process the thinning our process need not be a particular hinderance. Indeed when watching the recording the visual aspects, all of which were recorded, produce a fascinating record of musicians performing who cannot be heard.
A third aspect (latency and visual aspects being first two) of the process is the way in which these online sessions present a unique way of experiencing improvisations. All performers are arranged on the screen in 2D, each occupying the same size of frame. Each performer watches the screen as well as listens and is therefore audience member as well as performer. Performers can also interact visually as well as musically interacting with the camera, manipulating their backgrounds, and using their instruments and bodies to interact with the camera. Of course this type of embodied performance is possible in more conventional non internet music making, however there are certain key differences between the live context and the zoom context. The zoom context produces a flattening or an equalisation of every performer in the sense each performer occupies exactly the same size of frame and therefore has equal opportunities to influence the ongoing interaction and every participant therefore functions as performer, viewer and listener, sometimes all at the one time.
Like all video conf tech the software has a latency but we can subsume the latency into the improvisation. Also, the software is influencing what we hear in terms of what is foregrounded, relative volumes, EQing etc, and even who appears on the screen. I suppose the tech functions like an algorithmic composer mixing and editing the improvisation. Given the emergent nature of improvisation we choose to incorporate these features and how we respond to them into the music (we can’t control them – especially given the variability in everybody’s internet quality. The various tech (good and bad) we are all using to hear is part of the piece – some people choosing to wear headphones others not – some people using external mics and interfaces. The whole thing is a kind of virtual/tech site and time (we are all locked down – even our international guests who join) specific improvisation. The software makes decisive editorial decisions about what we hear (mutes loads) and there is loads of compression but there is lots of interesting material being foregrounded – consequently a freely improvised piece seems moves in short episodic moments rather than the longer narrative arches or blocks that our (GIOs) free improvisations often do. We also trie pieces with “lite touch” instructions which worked well too. The visuals provide endless drama, points of interest and humour and also signals duo/trio encounters within the piece – sometimes with no accompanying sound since the software mutes a lot. While the software does its thing, foregrounding and muting and compressing etc, conceptually it is producing some really interesting music as well as prescient challenges/metaphors (eg flatting the curve of a typical improvisation) crucially it is also really good fun and it helping us stay connected producing some special and beautiful moments.
Another important feature of the improvisation session was that individuals could choose which particular hardware they wished to use. For example, some participants chose to use external microphones, speakers and digital interfaces where as others selected to use the inbuilt speakers and microphones on devices, sometime a lap top and in some a cases a phone. This added to the accessibly elements of the session in that that participants could use whatever technology they were comfortable with, allowing a fuller and more immediate engagement with the musical, creative and social aspects of the interactions. This was another reason for selecting zoom as it is widely regarded as an accessible and easy to use platform. Had other platforms been used or if specified technical requirements been set we anticipated that many people, not comfortable with technology, may have been excluded from the session or at least would have experienced significant difficulties in fully engaging with the sessions. As it was every participant could access the session by literally only engaging in one or two clicks. This is was a very important factor in the success of the sessions.
While there was significant interest and positively for the project from musicians from across the globe, it is also important to discuss the views of musicians who choose not to take part in the zoom improvisation sessions. Participation in the sessions was of course voluntary and a number of members of GIO chose not to take part. While we cannot be sure of the reason of all members for not taking part informal conversations highlighted a number of important issues that precluded participation. For example, issues such as not being able to play instrument in conventional manner was cited as one reason for not taking part. One gio member mentioned that the could not play their saxophone in the usual way because it is too loud for the zoom sessions. The very virtual nature of the interaction as also views a reason not take since being in the presence of others was stated as a primary reason to take part. Also not wanting to engage with a large corporate multinational company such as zoom and their links with other since companies such as Facebook was also stated as a reason for not wanting to take part. Also, the issues discussed above such as latency, zoom editing the amount of music that is heard and the automatic foregrounding of certain musicians was also cited as reasons not to take part.
Form a theoretical perspective there are many important issues for consideration. During lock down around the world there was an explosion of interest around online collaborative music making as a way of allowing musicians to stay connected, disseminate their work and as a means of generating income when all other income streams had eased. Many of these examples involved musicians pre-recording and then editing various pre-recorded elements together and presenting these pre-recorded elements as a complete performance. This way of working overcomes some of the technical issues involved in virtual real time music making and when presented also creates as illusion of people playing together. Improvisation as real time social collaborative creative process facilitates in-the-moment interaction and allows the emergent nature of the interactions to be incorporated into the ongoing evolving creative milieu.
MacDonald and Wilson (2020) propose that improvisation proceeds via a series of on-going creative psychological decisions about when to start when to stop when to introduce new ideas and when to change ideas and these decision lie at the heart of online musical improvising as well. The proposal that these decisions operate at the collaborative, creative and social level means that this conception of improvisation incorporates all the elements on online improvising incorporating musical social visuals decisions.
Improvisation facilitates a means of overcoming some of the problems that lie at the heart of physical distancing. We say physical distancing rather than social distancing because the online improvising sessions allows social distances to be reduced – people can be together in the music. The unique features of improvisation with it’s emphasis on real time decision making, collaboration and listening means that opportunities for improvising when experiencing lockdown may help maintain a sense of community. What is also important in the context of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and these sessions was that GIO already has established mode of practice and an established network of members with a shared social and creative history. This history of working together was brought into the virtual space during the session and quickly helped establish cohesive group dynamics essential for the sessions. However, by extending invitations to musicians around the world we quickly opened up the creative environment to at least another 15 or 20 individuals to establish a new working group. Also engaging with the idiosyncrasies of Zoom meant that new type of improvisational practices started to develop.
Wilson and MacDonald (2020) propose that engaging in improvisational activities in the appropriate contexts may provide health benefits and the nature of the online improvisation sessions has some of these key elements that may be influenced in why the sessions helped sustain a sense of community. For example, the online sessions involves sophisticated, social, creative and technical negotiation. Creative choices about when to play, who to interact with, when to listen, when to stop, how loud to play, when to introduce new material, are all key decisions to be made in this and all improvising contexts. These decisions are undertaken regardless of the experience individuals have with online improvising. Therefore all participants make exactly the same type of decisions (albeit with different material) when engaged in group improvisation. These decisions are creative and social and many ways they echo decisions made in daily life: when to enter a conversation, when to listen, when to develop a new point, extend one that has ready been made etc. communicating in groups is a key part fundamental aspect of life involving real-time nuanced decision making. Reading non-verbal cues, anticipating consequences of actions, developing empathy and interpersonal understanding are ubiquitous everyday social tasks (MacDonald, 2020). Therefore although the online improvisation sessions were unusual and involved a very specific type of musical context the improvisatory nature meant that they utilised similar processes that we use in daily life and thus maybe have helped maintain a sense of community for those engaged in the sessions.
Online improvising is therefore a particularly sophisticated type of socially mediated artistic collaborative endeavour. This way of conceptualizing improvisation emphasizes psychological and group processes rather than acoustic parameters and musical structures (MacDonald and Wilson, 2016). Rather than viewing improvisation as a rarefied form of musical communication, open to the initiated few who have developed advanced technical skills and musical knowledge, improvisation can be conceptualized as an accessible universal social activity rather than an exclusive form of musical activity only available to open to the initiated with advanced technical skills. Improvisation also provides a means for abstract expression of emotions, an opportunity for creative cognitive and social engagement(MacDonald et al 2012).
All sessions were recorded and used Zoom software. Particular attention is placed upon how improvisation as a universal, real time, social, collaborative process facilitates interaction (participant, listener and viewer) allowing the technological affordances of the software (algorithms, delays, gallery/speaker view etc) and hardware (laptop, tablet, instruments, use of headphones etc) to become emergent properties of artistic collaborations rather than hurdles. The extent to which this process affects new perceptual and conceptual breakthroughs for practitioners will be discussed as will the crucial and innovative relationship between audio and visual elements. Further critical insights will be provided by discussing why some musicians chose not to take part, or only briefly participated. The films take the form of edited extracts from the sessions highlighting the artistic, theoretical, political and conceptual issues discussed.
MacDonald R.A.R (in press) The Social Functions of Music: Communication, Wellbeing, Art, Ritual, Identity and Social Networks (C-WARIS) New York: Oxford University Press. In D. Hodges, A. Creech and S. Hallan EDS, Handbook of Music Psychology in Education and the Community, New York: Routledge
MacDonald, R. and Wilson, G. (2020) The Art of Becoming: How Group Improvisation Works New York: Oxford University Press.
MacDonald R.A.R, Miell D & Hargreaves D.J. EDS (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Musical Identities Oxford: Oxford University Press
MacDonad R.A.R &. Wilson, G.B. (2016). Billy Connolly, Daniel Barenboim, Willie Wonka, Jazz Bastards and the universality of improvisation In G. Lewis & Ben Piekut(Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, pp 103-121. New York: Oxford University Pres
MacDonald R.A.R, &. Kreutz, G Mitchell, L.A., EDS (2012). Music, Health and Wellbeing Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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