coLABoratory: Lab 1 – Ray Lustig: Before the Lab

I’m really excited and grateful that ACO is giving me the chance to indulge a nagging little curiosity of mine.  I’ve seen some really interesting concerts where musicians have played together with other musicians in faraway places via the internet.  It’s always a huge feat of technological wizardry, cutting-edge equipment and software, and enormous expense, and, despite the brilliance of so many who worked so hard, there are often still glitches, mishaps, and outright connection failures, and the musical statement sometimes suffers under the strain of technological limits.

So I wondered what would happen if you just embrace the limits of technology, and even try to make them the most interesting part.  What if instead of using highly specialized cutting-edge technology, you used really basic, but more-or-less-reliable, videoconferencing software like Skype, Google Chat, or Facetime?  Consumer level stuff.  Free, and easy to use.  Yes, there are those unpredictable delays, and mismatches between sound and picture, freezes, and catch-ups, but what if instead of trying to eliminate them, or write music whose texture isn’t disrupted too badly by them, one decided to make these mishaps the very thing that makes the work interesting?

My new work for ACO, Latency Canons, uses these unpredictable problems as “canons” (rules).  When we sing in rounds, or canons, there’s that time delay between two or more versions of the same music:  “Row, row, row your boat.  Row, row, row your boat.” Composers have always enjoyed riffing upon this simple game of making “rules” for musical self-similarity–two or more versions of the same thing set apart by some strict law–the second one follows the first by one measure, or 5 measures; the second is like the first but higher; the second one is upside down, or backwards, etc. etc. etc.–but still sounding good.  Different keys, flipped, flopped, multiplied, stretched, compressed, and so on and so on. So, I decided to use the bi-products of technological limits–unpredictable delays, picture-sound mismatches, freezes, and more–as unpredictable canonic “rules,” to make highly unstable canons.  Music that would otherwise be fairly simple, and perhaps even uninteresting, becomes interesting because of the technological limits.  What if you’re playing online with musicians uptown who are delayed by 1 second at the same time that musicians in England are delayed by 5 seconds?  And what if those times are constantly changing around?  What if the musicians are trying to follow each other but the visual cues and the sound aren’t aligning?  What if an onscreen conductor suddenly freezes on beat 3, but only for some of the players?

For me it’s about embracing imperfection, or at least questioning how perfect we really want or need our technology to be.  The mighty supersonic jet Concorde, which once made it possible for the general ticket-buying public to cross the Atlantic in under 3 hours, was once seen as the way of the future. But it went broke. Not enough people needed it badly enough to shell out the huge bucks for the flight. The technology existed, but it was more than we needed or could afford, at least for now.

Could the zero-delay, crystal-clear, perfect internet video connection be an ideal that we might eventually give up on too? Maybe we’ll be okay with the delays. For now at least, I am. 

Your guess is as good as mine how this will turn out, but it should be great fun to see what happens.  Will it be soaringly free polyphony, a musical train-wreck, or some gorgeous combination of both? A risky experiment like this is something that would scare off any sane orchestra. So, many, many thanks to the whole fantastic team at ACO for their incredible sense of adventure, unrelenting enthusiasm, and great creative spirit!

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