Using Glitchy Google Hangouts to Make Beautiful Music

Slate's Culture Blog
April 10 2013 4:18 PM

Glitchy Google Hangouts Make Beautiful Music

ACO_coLABoratory3
George Manahan conducts a rehearsal of Latency Canonsvia Google Hangout.

Courtesy of American Composers Orchestra.

One of the thrills of attending a world premiere of contemporary art music is that the success of the pieces on the program is entirely uncertain. This kind of “new music” is often heavily conceptual, meant more to experiment—with a new technique, a new instrumental mixture, a new structural idea—than to entertain. The composer has typically set for herself an artistic problem—for instance, to use an old example, how to introduce jazz-like improvisation into an orderly organization like the orchestra—and goes about finding a compositional solution. It’s generally better, then, to ask not whether you liked or disliked such a performance (experiments are rarely “pretty” on the first try), but whether the concept being explored is promising or engaging.

Last Friday, the New York-based American Composers Orchestra presented a slate of five pieces that each tested a different concept, from scoring slow-motion analog-video “portraits” to mixing sounds from old-school Speak & Spell toys with a live ensemble. All of the pieces—commissioned and developed over the course of a series of workshops as part of the ACO’s “coLABoratory: Playing It UNsafe” program—tried to make fresh use of the traditional symphony orchestra. And they were not each equally successful, of course. The most inspired experiment, in its marriage of concept and music, was Raymond J. Lustig’s Latency Canons, which took its musical problem from an unlikely source: The inherent glitchiness of Google Hangouts.

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Lustig was intrigued by the use of video conferencing applications to unite musicians performing in different locations, sometimes thousands of miles away. One major obstacle with such arrangements is the unavoidable “latency”—the delay in signal transmission—that can occur with computers and Internet connections. Anyone who has had a jumpy Skype call knows what that’s like. But where many composers might bemoan a technical difficulty that must be overcome in the service of precision, Lustig saw an opportunity. What if he could make a virtue, even compositional principle, out of latency?

In a video about the piece, Lustig says the idea is for “the delay that you get when you’re video-conferencing to [produce] a canon.” A canon is a basic form in which a simple melody is echoed either exactly or with variations at staggered points to create a complex texture. Pachelbel’s may be the most famous; kids often do this in school choirs with songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Lustig’s musical materials are, of course, more complex (and more hauntingly beautiful) than a nursery song, but the general idea is the same. The ACO, along with four string quartets stationed around the auditorium, elsewhere in the building, and in Manchester, U.K., would work from the same score and two conductors, but the live and unpredictable latency introduced by the Google Hangout would be used to create the canon effect.

On the evening of the concert, the Hangout was projected on a large screen for the benefit of the audience. There were feeds from the various ensembles, the two conductors, and a final one in which Lustig held up cue cards marking the progression through the score. The overall result was arresting—who could have guessed that such a complex and striking piece of music might have come from such a simple idea? What’s more, the fact that this music was being created by musicians in different parts of the world, their collaboration only enhanced by the imperfections of technology, was genuinely moving. The canon effect worked perfectly, and other unexpected “problems,” like the occasional occurrence of static and feedback, added to the piece’s appeal. Perhaps the most affecting and fitting moment was when the Google Hangout asked us, about three quarters of the way through the performance, “Are you still there?” We were indeed—rapturously.

That said, the uncertainty of conceptual music is most exciting (perhaps excepting John Cage's exhilarating 4'33") when everything is not totally left to fate. “While the original conception of the piece had a lot to do with letting the chips fall where they may,” Lustig said, “they can’t fall too far. We do need there to be a concert.” Thus, the use of Ethernet cords instead of failure-prone wireless connections. Thankfully, Lustig managed to balance chance and control, experimentation and execution. The music fulfilled the promise of his idea, producing a glitchy, gorgeous success.  

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.