A Weirdly Gratifying Musical Intimacy
It’s 7 p.m. on a Sunday, in one of these months of 2020 or 2021 that feels an awful lot like the ones before and after it. I plug my microphone and headphones into the audio interface connected to my laptop, start up the online server, and launch the Jamulus app. Putting on my headphones while I pick my double bass up from the floor and position it in front of the mic, I click “CONNECT.” Within seconds, the screen fills with the names of friends near and far.
About twenty of us have gathered for our weekly session — logging in from our living rooms, bedrooms, and rehearsal spaces in Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, Berkeley, and even a couple of spots in Southern California. There’s no video — instead we scan the Jamulus interface, which shows us all in a row, each person’s audio signal represented by a channel strip with a light meter that goes up and down as they play.
In this setup, you can “see” who’s playing at any given time, and set how loud each person is in relationship to everyone else; you can also “pan” each person, assigning them a specific position in the stereo field of your headphones so that, for example, the flutes are on your left, and the percussion is in the center. You can decide the brass should be quieter than the woodwinds, or that the two electronics players should be placed far left and far right in your aural field. You can make the other bassist sound loud and close, to feel like you are standing side by side even though that musician is in Santa Monica and you are in Oakland.
So the listening experience is hyper-subjective — what each person hears and interacts with is dependent on these settings and preferences, and also on their internet speed, physical location, and computer processing power. Thus there is no one version of any piece we play — but multiple versions that co-exist until they dissipate. In the context of an improvised music practice that prizes the ephemeral, I find that poetic and beautiful.
In mid-March 2020, the music stopped. The monthly and weekly concert series in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco that sustain the Bay Area’s gloriously heterogenous creative music community of improvisers, free jazzers, electronics wizards, instrument builders, alt-chamber musicians, idiosyncratic composers, and noise artists went dark when California locked down. Rehearsal spaces and music schools were shuttered. Drummers suddenly had nowhere to even practice their instruments without offending neighbors, singers were shunned as especially nasty purveyors of aerosols, and poor brass players had two strikes against them. In the months that followed, some of us hunkered down and practiced maniacally; some released recordings of new and archival projects in a steady stream; others were paralyzed by the barren wasteland of our empty gig calendars. Many musicians found ways to stay creative by collaborating through remote recording projects, and stay visible by playing pre-recorded and live-streamed solo sets from their living rooms and practice spaces.
In my community of improvisers, we pride ourselves on needing nothing to create music in the moment — but the pandemic took away the only thing we actually do need, and that is each other. We need real-time musical interaction (not pre-recorded sounds layered on top of each other), and we need the flow of energy and inspiration and ideas that comes from being around each other, hearing each other at concerts, catching up at the bar between sets, rehearsing each other’s new compositions.
Before the pandemic, I co-led an improvising large ensemble with drummer Jason Levis called the duo B. Experimental Band (dBxB for short). We played every other month at the DIY Temescal Arts Center in Oakland, where a pretty consistent group of fifteen to twenty musicians gathered to workshop and perform our compositions. The goal was to develop ensemble cohesion and chemistry by creating musical structures and compositional scenarios that would help us discover a shared sense of possibility and vocabulary as an improvising group. To expand our horizons, we immersed ourselves in the music of Anthony Braxton (performed at our final live concert in February 2020), and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s opus, People in Sorrow (performed at SF Music Day in fall 2019). To celebrate the dBxB’s first birthday, we performed a continuous four-hour concert installation featuring large ensemble compositions and solo performances by each band member.
The duo B. Experimental Band plays the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s People in Sorrow live at SF Music Day 2019.
In summer of 2020, after a couple of attempts at live concerts on Zoom, which were well-intending but artistically less than satisfying because of that platform’s limitations for live music, Jason and I committed to finding a better way to bring the ensemble online.
We decided it was more important to give people a way to authentically play together than to figure out how to produce and present polished live video performances for the public (which music communities in NYC and Chicago were already doing in a robust and organized way). Several free applications exist for making music over the internet, designed specifically to minimize the latency (time lag) between players logging in from different locales, with attention to audio quality and a visual user interface that allows players various degrees of control over what and who and how they hear through their headphones. We chose Jamulus, renting server space and hiring a graduate student to configure it so that we could get up to fifty people playing together in a private online “room.” Early on, Jason and I agreed we’d try to get good at one platform and stick with it rather than jump around to the next big thing, to make these sessions about the music rather than the technology.
We put out a call to anyone who had previously played in the ensemble, then soon opened it up to anyone who cared to join and had patience to troubleshoot their setup. Several participants were friends of friends; many have never met in person to this day, while some have played together for decades but haven’t seen each other in person for more than a year. From August 2020 through May 2021, we met online nearly every Sunday night to navigate this strange and compelling new musical environment together. Gradually an ensemble coalesced. The musicians ranged in age from early twenties to late sixties, and played saxophone, clarinet, flute, trumpet, bass, trombone, French horn, vibraphone, electronics, percussion, and drum set.
The duo B. Experimental Band plays Lisa Mezzacappa’s dBxB#1 Live at Temescal Arts Center, Oakland CA 2018.
Our first sessions clocked forty-five minutes of troubleshooting to fifteen minutes of playing; a month in we were all online and making music together within five minutes. We had a shorthand to assist newbies: “schmutz” was digital noise on your sound, fixed by leaving the session and coming back again; if you sounded high and squeaky like a cartoon chipmunk, you should reset your audio interface’s sample rate. Some people came only once, frustrated by the awkwardness of this sonic world; others stuck it out and were surprised at how good they got at being creative within its constraints. A shared impulse emerged: How do we play satisfying music together in this environment, instead of settling for a lousy version of real-life music making?
Within weeks, we realized this virtual space had some fascinating properties, coaxing us to interact differently than we would have in person. Headphones are usually isolating, placing an individual in a solitary sonic space; here, they became a portal to our friends, our community, a way to reconnect to our dormant musical practice. Instead of the usual experience of air and soundwaves vibrating and bouncing around in a physical room, we had the intimate experience of more than a dozen other people, their microphones close up to their mouths, strings, or drum skins, “creating a proscenium arch of sound in your brain between your two ears,” as one player, David Slusser, remarked.
The duo B. Experimental Band plays live on KFJC in a remote, online four-hour special broadcast, May 2021: Steve Adams’s Flocking #2 (excerpt).
We learned to listen more closely, more deeply. With so many people to keep track of without any visual cues, we leaned in to hear quiet, delicate sounds which were magnified dramatically by the close microphones. We self-orchestrated, creating smaller subsets of the group to allow other voices to be heard, just by choosing to listen rather than play at any given time. These are choices that improvisers often make in the moment in concert settings, but most of us agreed that we became more sensitive, more responsive, more alert to the dynamic ebb and flow of the individual voices in the ensemble.
The absence of visual cues, gestures, or eye contact could prove challenging (are we finished or is someone about to play again?), but it also removed a layer of distraction. People often used the word “landscape” to describe the experience, even though it was purely sonic — playing together this way had an immersive quality, filling our senses with the kaleidoscopic range and diversity of sounds we could make and hear. The absence of an audience had a similar effect, the subtle shift of focus inward toward the ensemble instead of outward toward a non-playing listener enabling a different level of interaction. Ultimately, the joy of playing together for no real reason and with no future concert in mind opened everyone to a spirit of experimentation and playful collaboration.
Week after week, we grew as an ensemble. Individual players brought in new and reworked compositions tailored to the quirks of the online environment, which allows for only a loose sense of rhythmic “togetherness” and great, often comic variability in the ability to play together to a shared pulse. Jason and I, previously the sole composers for the band, stepped back and let ideas, material, and direction bubble up from the others.
Time.gov: Self Distribution by David Slusser
Composers were wildly creative in inventing new ways for the ensemble to connect and cohere across barriers of time and space: Steve Adams’s Flocking compositions and Nora Stanley’s Murmuration modeled ensemble interactions on loose congregations of birds in nature. Jason’s Concerto for Flutes and Latencies exploited our unique abilities to pan each musician in space, embedding multiple flute players as soloists concerto-grosso-style within the larger ensemble texture. In his series of Time.gov pieces, David Slusser created scores guided by a universal clock/timer that each player called up on their monitor — the timer dictated how and when the group moved between sections of the music, offering an aspect of welcome “tightness” between sections that we could not have achieved by listening to each other through the haze of Internet latency. We also experimented with many improvisation ideas guided by Jamulus’s visual interface — by renaming or numbering everyone, we could arrange the group in any order, and create pieces based on that order. A favorite structure involved a long line of overlapping trios down the row of names – when a new person in line enters, the first person exits, and so on, until the trio has moved from the first three people on screen to the last three.
Fascinatingly, it was through Jason and I letting go of our authority as ensemble leaders that the group attained the level of interaction and intuition that we had set out to create from the start, back in 2018. Adversity, pragmatism, and a bit of shared desperation had created a pretty special large ensemble with a distinctive sound and a unique improvisational voice. By navigating dozens of compositions, musical experiments, what-ifs and how-abouts brought in by different players each week, the band had found its identity.
Concerto for Flutes and Latencies by Jason Levis
Flutist Polly Moller Springhorn observed that this online iteration of the dBxB was different from other musical experiences because it had “an emotional, mental health, artistic survival purpose.” Everyone got something different from our weekly sessions: Some players needed motivation to practice their instrument during the rest of the week, others came for the social connection; a few were really jazzed by the minutia of the technology. I appreciated the intergenerational sharing, and the kindness and curiosity we showed each other as a matter of course.
We wonder how this experience will translate into our musical lives once we can all play together again. Will the restraint, the focused searching for each voice in the mix carry forward into large ensemble playing once we are back in loud, boomy rooms with an audience? Will this generosity, patience, and openness extend into “real” life? Did this environment affect our sense of pacing, our intuition about moving through musical material in the moment in a lasting way? I am interested to see if this experiment, borne from necessity, reveals some new information to us about how we want to exist, operate, and thrive as a musical community in the future.