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Mark Dresser: Telematics

By Published: August 20, 2008
The pressing question for this concert was whether or not we could play 'in time.' Everything I had read led me to believe that the inherent time lag or 'latency' would derail any possibility of performing with a real time 'feel' not to mention any sense of groove or swing. We were able to test this out at a distance of 500 miles. We decided to compose and arrange pieces for this concert specifically with the intention to check out aspects of time, including the metaphoric. Due to the effectiveness of JackTrip—a CD quality multi-track software developed by Chris Chafe at Stanford—the effectiveness of our team of technical collaborators and the musicians themselves, time proved to be not a problem. One piece, "Parawaltz," a tricky metric modulating cyclical form really tested it without vagueness. The concert is posted at YouTube.

The third concert on Apr. 27th, 2008 presented pieces expressly written for the telematic medium by composers Kristin Norderval, Monique Buzzarte, Michelle Nagai, William Swofford, Sarah Weaver and myself through the Deep Listening Institute. Participating ensembles included Stanford, UCSD and RPI. My piece "t/here in/to a/void form/less" was a collaboration with Sarah Weaver, further developing our usage of metaphor palettes and Soundpainting.

Telematics so far, has proven to be both rewarding and a promising performing venue due in large part to the sonic success of our audio software JackTrip. The latency with JackTrip is negligible, equivalent to the adjustment that musicians automatically are accustomed to when performing in a space with somewhat 'wet' acoustics. The experience of performing telematically is somewhere between live performance and playing in an isolation booth in a recording studio. One can hear the details of the attack of the remote instrument. Let's add one important fact: JackTrip only works on Internet 2, a dedicated fast/high bandwidth network developed ironically for the military and educational institutions. Currently telematics is not a 'plug and play' endeavor. It requires a team of collaborators with multiple levels of technical expertise, network sound, local mixing, local video, network video and streaming. It currently takes at least two hours of setup to troubleshoot each step in the process. Though admittedly cumbersome and time-consuming, it is paradoxically one of the most rewarding aspects of this work that it requires community cooperation to make it fly.

The weak link in telematic music performance is the audio-video synchronization. There are two issues. As of yet we don't have access to high-definition video software to match the quality of our audio software but more importantly video requires greater bandwidth and has greater latency than audio. It becomes an issue of what is good enough? Does the synchronization quality that we're now accustomed to on YouTube, for example, make the multiple location live performance unworthy? I think not. Once the hardware for this kind of performance becomes more of a plug and play process with better video resolution, will it be acceptable for professional live music performance? It all depends.

Let's be clear, telematics is not a substitute for live performance. It is another format and perhaps even another venue, with its own properties. As plug and play systems develop and the integration of video and audio quality improve, those potentials will reveal themselves.

Telematics is an improvisers and community medium. There is much to figure out and develop—assembly and operation of the technology, multiple levels of protocol, communication, shape of the acoustics of the signal—and envisioning and experimenting with its artistic possibilities. How it will best serve music is a personal priority and an exciting, intriguing and open question.

Mark Dresser is an internationally acclaimed bassist, improviser, composer, interdisciplinary collaborator. He is documented in over 100 recordings including nearly 30 CDs as a soloist, band-leader or co-leader. He is Professor of Music at University of California, San Diego.

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