FLO at Physically Distant 2: Online Talks on Telematic Performance 2020

Prior to March 2020, ‘telematic music performance’ or ‘networked music performance’, was a niche area of music performance, mainly of interest to researchers at academic institutions with high-speed internet and hobbyist musicians who wanted to jam with other musicians from the comfort of their bedroom. Whilst researchers had access to technical know-how as well as resources necessary to stage fairly complex audio-visual networked performances, the regular bedroom musicians had very little control over their internet providers’ upload/download speeds and just had to accept that poor sound quality, latency and network dropouts were a part of the deal.

Cue in Covid-19 pandemic, closure of performance venues, cancellation of major music events, summer festivals and world tours and all of a sudden, playing music over the internet became a hot topic! A global and interdisciplinary network of researchers and musicians (initiated by Niels Chr. Hansen from the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies & Center for Music in the Brain and Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics) aptly named Musicovid, was formed to support and facilitate research across the globe on the role of music during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Video conferencing platforms that were usually reserved for daily meet-ups with remote teams (and considered as tools we only used for work purposes), become the tools we used every day, for purposes of just about everything, from working from home during the lockdown, to socialising with our friends and families (who might be living down the road, but were not allowed to visit us in person due to lockdown) as well as for watching music performances that were played in places with no audience and streamed to audiences globally.

The sudden spike in numbers of subscribers to one of the popular video conferencing platforms, Zoom, led to an even bigger global panic than the arrival of Covid-19, when the platforms’ encryption, security, privacy etc. policies (which most of us didn’t even bother to read through properly when we signed up) came to everyone’s attention as being erm… seriously flawed. In spite of this, in a matter of days, Zoom became a household name, even earning its own slang term Zoom fatigue (which relates to tiredness we all started to experience from countless video conference calls which, besides, washing our hands a thousand times a day and wearing a face mask (on public transport, in shops etc.) become the ‘new normal’.

Since the very first concert, Female Laptop Orchestra played at Klang Festival in June 2015, we always aimed to bring together as many performers in the physical space as possible and connect over the network to performers we could not have in the space. For the first few FLO performances, we used a myriad of software solutions, with varying degrees of delay, which we incorporated into the performance.

Over the years we kept searching for platforms we could use that would enable co-located FLO performers (playing in front of the audience) to play alongside globally distributed (remote) FLO performers, in real-time (+/- milliseconds of delay :-).

We played concerts that were organized by universities as part of academic conferences (with fast reliable networks allowing for as much as 8 channels of audio being streamed in real-time using JACK). We played at different art venues with unreliable network speeds dropping in and out throughout the concert. We even played at home venues, where we had the network issues of art venues + restrictions on the equipment we could use (everything had to be PAT tested) + restrictions on the audience (if the audience was even allowed!).

Along the way, we learnt that any performance which involves remote performers needs longer ‘tech-rider’ and longer tech set-up (both of which the event organizers need to be aware of, well in advance!). We also learnt that this kind of performance needs a lot of testing with remote performers, who mostly performed using their home internet network or a mobile phone network (the reliability of which varies greatly from country to country).

We learnt that the most satisfying performance experience was when we felt like ‘musicians’, rather than ‘technicians’, and when the performance platforms we were using and the speed of the network allowed us to play synchronously (ie together) rather than asynchronously (ie one after another with varying degrees of delay and varying degrees of ability to monitor what was actually happening in the performance).

We also learnt that enabling remote performers (playing laptops or instruments, streaming from a soundwalk, drawing VR visuals, doing movement etc.) to use different ways of connecting to co-located performers in the concert venue, also meant borrowing a lot of extra gear (computers, audio interfaces, mixing desks etc.) so this can be facilitated.

FLO_technical_rehearsal_Zagreb_Academy_of_Music_June2019
For the perfomance of FLO & Friends: City Jam – Zagreb we used 6 speakers, 3 computers, 2 mixing desks, 2 audio interfaces, 5 microphones and 1 projector (not to mention cables galore!)

When Covid-19 pandemic started, many of our colleagues asked us for advice on what platforms to use for telematic performances. Ximena (whose research project INTIMAL uses embodied interfaces and networking technologies), wrote a great article for The Sampler about the history and practice of Telematic Sonic Performance, whilst Anna (a regular contributor to live coding and networked music scene), wrote a blog post on available software for network music performance, including the technologies we used for the performance of Transmusicking I at Audio Mostly 2017.

Many of our colleagues also assumed that FLO will now be performing on regular basis, as they remembered us doing this ‘performance over the internet thingy’ and that appeared to be the only possible way to perform during the lockdown!

When everyone started jumping on Zoom to play together, we paused to think about how this would actually work in our case scenario. Performing a FLO concert ‘from home’ requires a lot more equipment than we usually use to perform at a venue, as well as faster and more reliable network than most of us have access to. All the streams arriving from different platforms would need to be gathered in one place, so they can be mixed and streamed to another (for the audience to hear). More gear would be needed if we wanted to stream live VR visuals (which, of course, we would want to do!). Even more gear would be needed if we wanted to also use video feed from remote performers (ie video of Magda playing her cello etc.).

Whilst we were brainstorming where to get the gear and how best to execute a fully telematic FLO performance, Franziska Schroeder, Ximena Alarcón and Nela got invited to do a talk about their telematic practice at the Physically Distant 2: Online Talks on Telematic Performance hosted by ‘Federico Visi and Stefan Östersjö from the GEMM))) research cluster at the School of Music in Piteå,  Luleå University of Technology. As part of her talk, Franziska was planning to present the AHRC funded LiveSHOUT mobile app for ‘distributed listening’, that she developed with Pedro Rebelo at SARC, in collaboration with Locus Sonus research group from Ecole Superieur d’Art d’Aix. She got in touch with her SARC colleague, Matilde Meireles, and together they developed a concept for a LiveSHOUT distributed performance called “Absurdity”, that could be executed with a lot less gear usually needed for a FLO perfomance (and a lot less tech prep!) and was based around a short excerpt (see below) from one of Portugal’s most mysterious, elusive and peculiar writers, Fernando Pessoa. 

Absurdity by Fernando Pessoa (Bernardo Soares), The Book of Disquiet

“Let’s act like sphinxes, however falsely, until we reach the point of no longer knowing who we are. For we are, in fact, false sphinxes, with no idea of what we are in reality. The only way to be in agreement with life is to disagree with ourselves. Absurdity is divine.

Let’s develop theories, patiently and honestly thinking them out, in order to promptly act against them — acting and justifying our actions with new theories that condemn them. Let’s cut a path in life and then go immediately against that path. Let’s adopt all the poses and gestures of something we aren’t and don’t wish to be, and don’t even wish to be taken for being.

Let’s buy books so as not to read them; let’s go to concerts without caring to hear the music or to see who’s there; let’s take long walks because we’re sick of walking; and let’s spend whole days in the country, just because it bores us.”

FLO used LiveSHOUT app on regular basis since being introduced to it by Franziska for our performances at Audio Mostly in 2017 and SARC in 2018, so when Franziska reached out to the rest of the FLO troops, Anna Xambó, Ariane Stolfi, Maria Mannone and Maria Papadomanolaki all chimed in they are able to join in for the performance, and the ball started to roll! 

Franziska and Matilde’s performance concept involved the two of them delivering fragmented excerpts of the poem (in English and Portuguese) at Franziska’s home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, whilst also gathering incoming LiveSHOUT streams arriving from UK by Nela (streaming from her garden in London), Ximena (streaming from Bath) and Anna (streaming from Norfolk Heritage Park); from Brazil by Ariane (streaming from her home in Porto Seguro, using playsound.space platform she developed – on the day of her actual birthday!); from Sicily by Maria M (streaming piano improvisations from her home in Palermo) and from Crete by Maria P (streaming a soundwalk from her hometown of Chania). 

The mix of all the audio (local and remote) was then fine-tuned by Matilde and streamed back via Zoom to the audience (virtually) attending the Physically Distant 2: Online Talks on Telematic Performance event.

Franziska and Matilde felt the quote “I’ve always belonged to what isn’t where I am and to what I could never be” (Pessoa In: Ciuraru, 2012), was particularly pertinent to this type of performance, further noting that “Pessoa’s multiplicities and his ways of thinking about life, engendering ideas that can feel manic-depressive, filled with buckets of self-pity, while being able to scratch the innermost parts of one’s soul, lie at the heart of this distributed performance”. 

During the testing phase, we experienced some issues with the Locus Sonus soundmap server (which Franziska sorted out by getting in touch with the Locus Sonus folks!). So, if you ever see a message ‘LOGIN FAILED’ (or other type of error when you use the LiveSHOUT app), email contact@locusonus.org as soon as you can to get it sorted!

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On the day of the perfomance, Nela was streaming from her garden in London, using iPad, RØDE i-XY and Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones (courtesy of our lovely sponsors!) with the assistance of her cat Oscar, who was periodically checking the sound levels and adding ‘miaows’ to the overall soundscape mix, to make everyone aware it’s way past his lunchtime! Word!

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In Porto Seguro in Brazil, Ariane’s cat was also in charge of keeping an eye on things in the studio 🙂

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Ximena popped out after her talk to grab some fresh air and streamed a lovely soundscape from the river Avon in Bath …

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… whilst Anna was getting lost in the ancient woodlands in Sheffield grappling with mobile network coverage challenges.

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Maria (Mannone) was enjoying the view of Monte Pellegrino, whilst improvising on her piano inspired by the poem and the sounds from the sea off the coast of Sicily.

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Franziska and Matilde were reading the fragments of the poem, mixing LiveSHOUT streams and streaming the mix from Belfast to the audience at the event in Sweden. In other words, working very hard to make the performance happen (albeit being stuck indoors!).

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After the perfomance, we circulated our thoughts, reflections and photos via email. Maria (Papadomanolaki) wrote a poetic reflection on her process of streaming sound from Chania (the island of Crete, Greece) …

“Located in Kalathas, a seaside suburb just outside of the city of Chania in the island of Crete, I explored my neighbourhood using an iPhone 6, a RØDE i-XY and a pair of Audio-Technica headphones to monitor the soundscapes I was transmitting via the LiveSHOUT app on the Locus Sonus soundmap.  I started from my house, moved through houses and concluded the soundwalk by focusing on a footpath away from the residential area. Using techniques I have been developing over the last 15 years as part of my ‘A Certain Geography’ project, I interacted with the textures, surfaces, atmospheres of the location using my voice, my footsteps, my body and an arbitrary object (this time an iron knife I found lying on the ground). In an effort to transmit the granular details and performative poetics informing  the soundwalk (in response to the poem used in the performance), I focused on actions of dispersion, breaking, throwing, breathing, smelling, running, running out of breath. I also focused on the arid character of the landscape/soundscape, on excavating to find soil, on trying to hide from the sun, of sonifying foliage (fresh and dried), stones, pebbles, objects exposed and metamorphosed by the sun. This constellation of actions, objects, textures and mediated artefacts created a sonic perceptual ecology that was transmitted to coexist with the many layers of the final performance in a process of cohabitation of collocated, distributed, human, non-human, technological and natural micro-cosms”.

… accompanied by lots of beautiful photos she took on her soundwalk 🙂

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Aaaaaah … if only we could be ‘teleported’ to Chania ‘over the network’ and avoid situation like getting on public transport (full of folks possibly having Covid-19), arriving to an airport (full of folks possibly having Covid-19), getting on a plane for 4 hours (full of folks possibly having Covid-19) going into quarantine at our destination for duration of our holiday (for possibly contracting Covid-19 during our journey!), than doing the same journey back and enduring another quarantine at home (for possibly contracting Covid-19 during our holiday!). We desperately need to change our current ‘reality’ to a ‘telematic reality’ so we can have a break from all things pandemic related! Can somebody invent this technology ASAP??? Pretty please??? Zoom????

Ok … that’s a little Covid-19 rant over and done with!

This turned out to be the most unusual FLO perfomance we have ever experienced, due to the fact that most of us were busy streaming the sound from different locations and thus could not experience the final mix in the same way the audience did, or in the same way we were used to. Instead, we experienced little fragments of the performance whilst monitoring our own streams, and ‘imagined’ what the final mix of the performance might have sounded like through reading emails we exchanged straight after the performance, the photos, the reflections and the blog posts.

A few days later we asked the event organizers, who recorded the whole event through Zoom (at their end in Sweden), if they were able to edit just the performance part and forward this to us, so we can post it on FLO YouTube and Soundcloud channels.

Whilst waiting for this to arrive, Matilde wrote in an email:

“I like the idea of not listening to the recording though. It seems poetic to have it as a really ephemeral event. It is so rare these days. It makes it special :-)”

Usually, we would be very keen to have the full documentation of the performance in textual and audiovisual format published on FLO blog. However, due to Covid-19 pandemic affecting everyone who was participating in this perfomance, the circumstances under which we got together to perform were so unusual, that  doing the things ‘in the usual way’ somehow felt redundant.

More info about the event can be found here.

Anna wrote a super blog post detailing here experiments with technology, network speeds and audio quality (a must read for anyone looking to get into LiveSHOUT and streaming over a mobile network) and Ximena wrote a blog post inspired by discussions we had about the future of telematic music perfomance during the event.

A follow-up event is planned for the 2020 Piteå Performing Arts Biennial taking place online on 26-27 October 2020. If you re interested in attending, get in touch with Federico: mail@federicovisi.com

A BIG THANK you to the following peeps and organisations who supported FLO performance of Absurdity at ‘Physically Distant 2: Online Talks on Telematic Performance’ event in various ways: 

  • The awesome event organizers Federico Visi and Stefan Östersjö from the GEMM))) who invited Franziska, Ximena and Nela to talk about their artistic practice exploring the affordances of network and telematic performance and invited FLO to do a fully telematic performance that was streamed to the audience at the event (something we have never attempted before!)
  • Franziska Schroeder and Matilde Meireles for coming up with the concept for Absurdity, getting the ball rolling, mixing and streaming the performance to the event. Without this, erm… there would be no performance to talk about!
  • Our gear sponsors: Bitwig Studio, Audio-Technica and RØDE Microphones

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A BIG THANKS to EVERYONE who attended the event, asked questions and offered thought-provoking comments about the needs for the development of telematic platforms that would provide alternatives to what we have available at the moment and afford many different ways of performing using the internet 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

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