Improvising freely in lockdown days
The internet boom, that some thirty years ago started connecting networks of networks of digital data crunching machines, from its early days onward has inspired technologically gifted and visionary actors in the global electronic and electro-acoustic music scene to imagine ways to extend and cross-over their performance practice to the virtual. A fascinating example using the earliest available technologies for streaming audio, and again one close to my heart and personal practice, is the International Headphone Festival ‘Le Placard’, that was put on track almost twenty five years ago, in 1998, by electronic musician Erik Minkkinen. It was Erik who came up with Le Placard’s highly innovative concept, both artistically and socially, as an endless chain of global open-to-all experimental music events, using streaming audio servers to virtually connect performance spaces and listening spaces (the ‘placards’—French for ‘cupboards’) that in principle could be set up by anyone, anywhere and at any time.
The technical heart of a placard is a streaming audio server, like Icecast.
For this, each location needs to come equipped with its proper streaming audio server.
Each location also needs to be able to receive and play back the audio sent by the others (for that is what you’ll play along with).
And thirdly, each location should have the technical means (mixing consoles and separate sound projections for ‘internal’ and ‘external’ contributions) to strictly separate the music that is performed and webcast locally, from the audio that is received from the other locations. (This is necessary in order to prevent turning the set-up accidentally into an internet echo-loop, a ‘Frippertronic’-like feedback system; but one can of course choose to use this very interesting option as part of the performance and recording(s)).
[ Here is a sketchy abstract diagram of what a two-location set-up would look like (locations ‘P’ for Paris and ‘K’ for Korea, the ‘M’s are the mixing consoles used in local musicking and webcasting, the ‘R’s stand for the local receivers of the other side’s signals. ]
It is a fantasy, a dream of mine, to one of these days make this playing-apart-together set-up happen in a ‘round-and-round-the-world-we-go’ speculative performance, with participants not in merely two, but in all (seven or more) continents.
To extend this form of PATting into public events, it suffices to assign a PAT event-‘director’, who’ll be made responsible for the final mixing together of the different contributing audio streams. The director’s ‘final cut’ then is webcast by an n+1-th streaming audio server, now serving not the contributing performers, but their virtual concert’s audience.
Be well aware though, that this kind of musicking always will include jittering: time-lags. You cannot but play ‘out of time’. Or rather: each location has its own time. There is no such thing as ‘simultaneity’… Some lag already is inherent in the mere physical distance: a signal bridging a path like the one that separates Chuncheon and Paris—9000 kilometres as the crow flies—can not do this in less than 30 milliseconds. That’s the lower bound. That’s theory. In practice, though, the lag will be much more, and may run up to several tens of seconds. And due also to discrepancies in the buffering on different machines, it will take on different values in different places. In your playing-apart-together the streaming technology becomes a ‘creative’ actor, a crucial player, a pivot in what your audience is going to perceive.
Paris, December 2021