Music In Conversation
MARK DRESSER with Martin Longley
Suddenly, the globe is flooded with livestream music on various scales, either broadcast solo from bathrooms, or via the Zoom teleconferencing platform, its screen-spread routinely hijacked by entire bands. For bassist, composer, and improviser Mark Dresser, such instantaneously transmitted transcontinental gigging has been a regular reality for well over a decade. He’s an avid proponent of Telematics, a system that facilitates real-time audio-visual performance in multiple cities, taking advantage of the advanced resources usually found in the music studios of universities and other similar institutions.
In New York, composer and conductor Sarah Weaver is a major organizational figure presenting performances at NYU. Dresser provides a pivotal presence at UCSD (University of California San Diego). There are also strong connections with Seoul, Banff, Belfast, and Zurich. Regular players at Telematics concerts include drummer Gerry Hemingway, reedist Marty Ehrlich, trombonist Michael Dessen, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, altoist Oliver Lake, flutist Nicole Mitchell, pianist Myra Melford, and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar.
Telematics is newly invaluable when considered within the present live streaming lockdown existence. “The present life reality makes it completely clear why someone would participate,” says Dresser. “I had a similar motivation, but it was due to moving from New York to San Diego, and being cut off from my natural community of collaborators. The scene that I was, and am still very attached to, is centered on New York.”
Dresser, a native Californian, lived in NYC from 1986 to 2004, when he was offered a teaching position at UCSD. Dresser was introduced to the Telematics concept by composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros, who was teaching at UCSD when he himself was a student. Dresser was impressed by Oliveros performing as part of the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse in 2007, investigating the potential of a virtual community, and employing the Telematic process. He immediately decided to become involved.
“The level that we were doing it technologically at UCSD and other institutions was that we had access to high bandwidth internet,” Dresser continues. “What we do is not plug’n’play at all, it’s very resource intensive. To set up a concert would typically take months to organize: space, technical crew, production crew, and then all of the musically collaborative things that you would do. It was almost like a theatrical performance, at the level that we were planning. Of course, the sound quality is superior, but it’s not integrated audio and video. We’re still using the same audio platform, called JackTrip, that was designed at Stanford by Chris Chafe and his team.”
Participating musicians need high quality microphones and an audio interface for acoustic instruments, which is why universities are the axes for Telematics, rather than the bedrooms of performers. “Also, it requires ethernet connections,” says Dresser. “That has limitations for almost anyone. The challenge is how do you create a musical community, and work between levels of access?”
Now there is a practical need for Telematics, more than ever before, but amusingly, Dresser, ensconced at home, has also been toying with Zoom. “Now, we’re seeing concerts on Zoom, which has become the ubiquitous platform, designed for teleconferencing. We can record with relatively good quality, but there’s a limit of about three musicians playing at a time. Once you get over three, you start having dropouts, and it doesn’t really work well with visual content. You have to think of events in a very different way. Large ensemble events, using that technology, aren’t going to work.”
In past years, there was more demand for retaining control over the various stages of the process, which was best experienced as part of a live audience, in whichever city. Lately, the Telematics clan has been switching their thinking, as virtual existence is now the consumer reality. Zoom is easier—for a makeshift, spontaneous encounter—and for discussion or rehearsals. Even so, when returning to inviting live audiences, the Telematics emphasis will remain on high quality documentation as well as instantaneous streaming, conceiving an orchestral sound for the virus environment. Dresser’s final thought on Zoom, though: “It’s not the best, but it’s not bad.”
The bassist is currently performing on a regular basis, and just did a set with singer Lisa Sokolov, trombonist Steve Swell, and saxophonist Jon Raskin, bouncing between NYC, Sacramento, and San Diego. On February 13, the most recent large-scale Telematics work made its mark, as the second part of Changing Tides bestrode UCSD and The Seoul Institute Of The Arts. “Every time I go out, I’m figuring how to make it better,” says Dresser. “How to make it more dimensional.”
There’s a huge difference in production values between when the team began, over a decade ago, up to this recent performance. Lately, they’ve been getting into capturing visual footage and blending this into the mix, sometimes even after the event, feeding past images into a current concert.
As bandwidth has improved it’s now more likely that the end artistic perception will be a more accurate reflection of the intended experience. Even now, JackTrip retains its superiority on the audio quality front, unrivaled since 2007, when Dresser began appreciating having the lowest latency on the block (latency is the micro-delay that’s an unavoidable side-effect of sonic communication over thousands of miles). Dresser has been dealing with this during his entire involvement with Telematics.
“Depending on how you conceive of the music, that can be a non-issue,” Dresser concludes. “I played with Jane Ira Bloom the other day, something in tempo, it sounded and felt like we were connected. It defied what I know about the actual delay. If musicians are listening, strong in their own space, consistent with their own tempo, and stay open, the impact of latency is not really felt. It’s not like you just have to play open, you can play in time, but it depends on how you do it. I would not try to play unisons. Also, the bandwidth fluctuates too. When we played together, it defied our knowledge of what the latency was—the actual experience of playing—we’re talking two-thirds-of-a-second delay. I think of this as the Telematic swing. It’s a big, wide beat. All these issues become music performance practice, compositional issues. You’re not going to play fast funk rhythms in a church.”
Dresser’s talking about the big acoustics rather than any likely restriction of The One by The Lord. “You have to conceive of a musical space for what it can do. You can do some amazing things. The challenges of the moment are asking, well, what can you make work? If there’s one rule in improvising, it’s ‘make it work.’”
Even back in 2010, bandwidth capacity at universities and other institutions was impressive, so the Telematics crew has always been working at a sleekly-flowing rate. “What’s changed is our experience, in the last decade. How to work through all these problems. The thing that’s so wonderful about JackTrip is that we can do multi-channel, uncompressed audio at CD quality, or better. There was no other way, at the time, for us to do it in a meaningful way.”
One major aim that remains is to expand the number of artists who can be playing at the same time. “Up to now, in our work, we’ve chosen close-miking, because we hear the details of what someone is playing.”
This facilitates a sonic unity, jettisoning any problems with varying space acoustics. “We’re dealing with latency all the time. I’m dealing with latency in my brain. Being able to articulate an idea that I’ve got in my mind, to be able to verbalize it, and turn it around in real time. There’s a delay in that. I think that the whole latency problem is overblown. Sound quality is another issue, and I think we can get better at that.”