UC Instructors Build Bridges Via Telematics


Michael Dessen (left), Steph Richards, Nicole Mitchell and Mark Dresser perform in San Diego at a 2018 telematic concert. Images of musicians collaborating with them in real time from New York City and Seoul, South Korea, are projected on video screens.

(Photo: Felipe Rossid)

During the pandemic, educators have wrestled with a pragmatic and philosophical question: How can music students effectively play together when they cannot be together? During the past few months, as DownBeat has spoken with collegiate educators in formal interviews and in casual conversations, the names of two trailblazers have popped up repeatedly—and for good reason.

Trombonist Michael Dessen, who is on the faculty at the University of California at Irvine, and bassist Mark Dresser, a faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, have spent many years studying the intersection of music performance and internet technology.

They have performed many concerts that involve musicians who are in different locations, playing together through a network. In some cases, all the musicians are located in the same state. But they also have staged ambitious productions in which the participating musicians are located on different continents.

Dessen and Dresser frequently collaborate as educators. For example, they use videoconferencing so that students in a San Diego classroom can learn simultaneously with students in an Irvine classroom.

DownBeat spoke to Dessen and Dresser via videoconference to learn more about their craft. The educators began by explaining some of the basic terms related to their discipline.

“The phrase ‘networked music performance’ refers to the idea of playing with people in multiple locations, through a network,” Desssen said. “But usually Mark and I are talking about music that we make specifically for that environment. When we talk about a ‘telematic concert,’ we mean a concert that we conceive of and we put on knowing that it’s going to be over a network, and we make it with that in mind.”

Although many educators are excited about high-tech tools like JackTrip software that can make it possible for students within a certain geographic distance to play uptempo tunes tightly in real time, Dessen and Dresser focus on projects that run much deeper than that. Their performances often revolve around ideas about overcoming cultural barriers—and how they could be related to overcoming geographical barriers in order to make music.

“I think it’s apropos to think of the network as an instrument that requires practice, just like learning to play [any] instrument,” Dresser said. “Just because you have a Selmer saxophone doesn’t mean you can get a [good] sound on it. You have to have skills. You need to practice. There’s a learning curve [for creating telematic music]. You know, it isn’t ‘plug and play.’ But compared to how labor intensive this used to be, this [discipline] is so much more accessible than it ever has been.”

Part of Dessen and Dresser’s advanced artistry involves accounting for sonic latency—the delay between when a sound is made and when someone hears it through a network.

“The speed of light is kind of insurmountable. So, the greater the distance, the greater the latency,” Dresser said. “So, if we’re playing between San Diego and Irvine, the latency is basically insignificant. But if we’re collaborating with [musicians in] Seoul or Zurich, it might be a quarter of a second or more. So it’s interesting. You can think of it as an acoustic property. And we have worked on tactics or strategies to create the illusion of synchrony. This is like the way that people composed [music to be performed in] churches centuries ago. So, you take the acoustic property and think, ‘Well, what can I do with this?’”

Dessen and Dresser actively teach students on their respective campuses how to use technology to create telematic music. Often, this gives the young musicians a valuable skill set.

“It’s much more important to teach students how to learn technology than how to use it,” Dessen explained. “How do you find the right keywords to [search] online to solve your problem? A lot of people write into forums for tech advice and they don’t even know how to ask the question in a way that they’re going to be helped properly. So, students have to learn those kinds of skills.

“And if you learn that, it doesn’t matter if you’re even in music. You might go do something else for a living, but you’ll know how to fix your home Wi-Fi or help do the PowerPoint presentation at your company. It’s all about transferable skills.”

For these forward-thinking educators, being a musician is about so much more than simply playing notes.

“The thing that keeps surprising me about telematics is not the technical level: It’s the human dimension of how people collaborate and work together,” Dresser said. “We’re doing projects with people playing in completely different cultural traditions, but who share improvisation. You would think that there would be more dissonance of concept than not. But in fact, if someone has musicianship and improvises, we can transcend so much. The ability to communicate and share—and the will to collaborate—can transcend so much.” DB

This story originally was published in the November 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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