Back in the early days of ARPANET, a few musically-inclined researchers thought it would be interesting to experiment with whether or not the connection technology would allow chamber music to be performed with some of the musicians in California and the rest in Massachusetts. This was a time when just getting one nationally distributed computer network to work was a major project. The idea that several such networks could talk to each other at a higher level, a concept that would eventually be called the Internet, was, at best, a pipe dream. Even more remote was the possibility that a large portion of the world’s population would be connected to that Internet through a variety of different mobile devices.
That initial ARPANET experiment did not do very well. The bandwidth of the technology did not have the strength to support the kind of immediate coordination required of a string quartet or a wind quintet. At best it might support some of the avant-garde experimental music in which simultaneity emerged from performers deliberately unaware of what the others were doing.
It was hard to avoid reminiscing about those early days while reading Allan Kozinn’s account of “Signal Strength,” posted today to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times. This was the brainchild of filmmaker Chris Shimojima in what amounted to a test of the power (signal strength) of Wi-Fi connectivity in New York City subway stations. Simply put, Shimojima wanted to see if buskers in different subway stations could perform together as an ensemble.
Shimojima recruited eleven such musicians covering a diversity of instruments and distributed across nine subway stations: Albert Behar (accordion), Ian Baggette (bass), Adam Matta (beatbox), Leah Coloff (cello), Amit Peled (guitar), Natalia Paruz (saw), Llamano (theremin), Jordan Hirsch (trumpet), Allyson Clare (viola), and the J & J Drumlink duo of Jeremiah McFarlane and Carl Jacob (playing djembe and shekere). He then commissioned Lev Zhurbin (also known as Ljova) to provide them with a brief score. Zhurbin also served as conductor, situating himself in Bryant Park in front of a semicircle of chairs, each with a MacBook providing a video feed from one of the stations.
Shimojima then documented the performance in a three-minute film entitled “Signal Strength,” which has now been uploaded to YouTube. Zhurbin took a layered approach to his composition, with all of the parts based on a common beat. His primary role as conductor was to cue the entrances of the individual parts; but all the performers had headphones, suggesting that this really was an ensemble experience. Nevertheless, Shimojima’s video gives the impression that the only real place to listen to the score was through the speakers in Bryant Park.
As an experiment, however, “Signal Strength” definitely demonstrates how much things have changed since that infancy period of the ARPANET. Still, there are a few ways in which this project was better geared for success. Most importantly, all the performers were in a relatively limited radius (particularly when compared to the distance between California and Massachusetts). This would suggest that, while transmission delay could not be entirely avoided, everyone had to work with about the same minimal amount of it. It would not surprise me if the experience was not that different from distributing musicians around the space of a very large cathedral. Also, it is easy to see that Zhurbin was conducting with very broad gestures, hearkening back to the seventeenth-century practice in which a conductor did little more than keep time by banging a very big stick on the floor (causing the tragic death of Jean-Baptiste Lully due to gangrene brought on when the stick struck his foot).
However, none of this should detract from the fact that Shimojima came up with a very engaging video. It may not have risen to the heights of the ensemble music that Lully used to conduct or, for that matter, the large-scale free jazz improvisation of John Coltrane’s “Ascension;” but, at the very least, it offers a pointer for new directions in which the practice of making music may proceed. I am less interested in my personal reaction to the listening experience associated with watching the video and more curious as to the impact this project may have on what happens next.