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Partisans: Blowing a Storm in Cyberspace

Bruce Lindsay By

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Partisans has been gigging in cyberspace—playing a virtual nightclub in Second Life. Over 13 years and four acclaimed albums, Partisans has developed a strong reputation as one of the most exciting and innovative bands on the British jazz scene. One of the band's strengths is its willingness to keep up to date with technology and experiment with it whenever this might help to expand their work. As a result, the night before saxophonist Julian Siegel and guitarist Phil Robson took part in this telephone interview, they had been involved in an unusual performance.

Partisans Partisans, from left: Thad Kelly, Phil Robson, Gene Calderazzo, Julian Siegel



The night of Friday November 6, 2009 saw Partisans' debut gig in Second Life, the online virtual world, when their concert at London's Crypt in Camberwell was video-streamed into the Crypt's virtual venue. While the live audience enjoyed the band's set in the small club, in Second Life avatars with exotic names and appearances watched and "danced" as the gig was presented on four large screens. The experience was an obvious subject with which to begin the interview: did playing to a virtual audience as well as real people need any special preparation for the band?

"We were asked to do the gig" explains Siegel, "then we were told about this element of it. What was different about it? Well, the club put a screen up so that the audience could see the various avatars dancing to what we were playing, although with a time lag of five or ten seconds, but we couldn't see the screen. So for us it was pretty much a normal gig although in the back of our minds was the thought that this was going out to a potentially world wide audience, which is a pretty unique thing."

Robson has a slightly different opinion about the event: "I am actually surprised that it hadn't happened before. I visited the Knitting Factory during one of the first trips I made to New York and they were putting on online gigs, which I think were live. So I am surprised it hasn't happened earlier. I think it's a good thing to be involved with and I hope it's going to happen more." The experience wasn't trouble-free, however: for much of the time when listening in Second Life the sound of a louder-than-normal live audience obscured the sound of the musicians, and there were occasions when the sound broke up badly in the virtual nightclub. "Yeah," agrees Robson "it was a pretty loud audience. But I think it was almost frontier stuff and I'm sure it'll get a lot slicker as people do more gigs. That's why I wanted to be involved in it for the first time."

The addition of a large screen to the club environment may have had a slightly negative impact on the live event, as Siegel noted that the people at the rear of the club tended to watch the screen rather than the band on stage: "They were less involved with the gig whereas the people at the front were into the band itself." "But that brings up another point..." adds Robson. "We, like most jazz musicians I guess, are keen to play to younger audiences, but what comes along with that sometimes is that you play to people who've never been to see jazz music before. So in a way they don't know how to deal with it. Last night there was a pretty noisy birthday party in there. But we love playing places like that even though it can be a little bit hard with the noise—which got a bit too much towards the end—but mostly we get a great vibe off of playing to people like that. Quite often they'll say 'Oh, we didn't think we liked jazz but we really loved that.' So it's really worthwhile for us to do these things."

Partisans performing on Second Life



Technical problems are there to be overcome, and both of the musicians are optimistic about the future of the virtual jazz gig. Siegel's experience of the virtual gig has made him more ambitious: "Now we've done that, can we put in a request to play the first gig in space? I'd love to play a weightless saxophone." Robson agrees on a trip into space, but not for performance purposes: "We could do with a holiday" he suggests.

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