Mark Dresser: Telematics

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Telematics generally refers to the interface of computers, communication and performance.
By Mark Dresser

My sense of 'community' radically changed in 1998 while I was on tour in Europe. During a break after a soundcheck, I checked my email to read the devastating communication that beloved saxophonist Thomas Chapin was being taken off of life support. At that moment I was mentally transported from the locality of the club and connected to a larger group of family and friends of Thomas who were all experiencing the sad cognizance of the last few hours of his too short life. For the rest of the evening I was no longer just in that club, but in a larger space, connected to a larger community, bound by sadness. It was my first vivid experience that this mode of distance communication transcended time and place.

In 2004 I left New York to accept a teaching position at the music department at UC San Diego. I was able to stay in close contact with my community of friends and colleagues in New York through email and cell phone. I made a point to come to New York to perform as much as possible and through filesharing of sheet music and sound files, a lot of the musical preparation that, in an earlier day, might be the sole domain of the live rehearsal could be done at a distance. I certainly missed the casual gig, at which one could perform new music with new colleagues. In the not-so-distant future this may not be the case because of telematic performance. Through the development of telematic music there is the opportunity to regain access to local scene dynamics, not only in New York but also to scenes worldwide.

Telematics generally refers to the interface of computers, communication and performance. It has a modern history of about 20 years. Due to the dedicated work of pioneers, generosity of friends and colleagues and support from a university that is invested in the potentials of technology, I have been able to collaborate, rehearse and perform with other musicians in multiple locations.

I began my formalized work with telematics in September 2007. Noted composer/improviser Pauline Oliveros, a pioneer in telematics, whom I've known since 1971, outlined the parameters of telematic performance over dinner at the Guelph Festival. She explained that there were three interdependent levels of organization: technical, administrative and artistic. Sarah Weaver, her apprentice, as well as an expert Soundpainting conductor, composer and arts administrator, took notes. Sarah was responsible for providing me with the specific documents and the followup support. With Sarah I have spent countless hours over the past year organizing, collaborating, documenting and discussing the properties and potentials of this medium.

Since last September I've participated in three different telematic performances, ranging from 7 to 30 musicians, in three different locations. Typically there are audiences at each location listening and viewing their local ensemble together with the composite group streamed in real time on the web.

The first performance on Nov. 16th, 2007 was between the research groups from Stanford, UCSD and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY with close to 30 musicians. The pieces on this concert were various kinds of structured improvisations. Two of the pieces utilized Soundpainting, the versatile interdisciplinary conducted sign language developed by Walter Thompson.

"Celleto Concerto" featured Chris Chafe as the improvised soloist. The ensemble accompaniment between the ensembles in Stanford and Troy was structured and conducted by Sarah Weaver. "Water Naught" was a duet between San Diego and Troy, with Sarah and I conducting our respective local ensembles. We had agreed that we would develop palettes over the seven weeks leading up to the concert based on metaphoric imagery translated into specific musical textures. Smaller groupings of members from the two ensembles used email, SKYPE, iChat, iVisit, Google Docs (and when all else failed cell phone) to develop every aspect of the metaphoric palettes. "Three Ways" was an orchestrated improvisation between all three ensembles—UCSD, Stanford and Troy—led by a co-located string trio of Chris Chafe (celleto, Stanford), Curtis Bahn (dilruba, Troy) and myself (contrabass, San Diego).

The second concert on Feb. 13th, 2008 included a group of professional musicians at three locations, all with whom I've shared varying degrees of history, including pianist/composer Myra Melford and the computer musician/engineer David Wessel at CNMAT at UC Berkeley. Cellist/composer Chris Chafe was at CCRMA at Stanford. In San Diego at CalIT2 I was with trombonist Michael Dessen from UC Irvine, visiting drummer Billy Mintz and UCSD bass/baritone singer Phillip Larson.

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