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Music Made Miles Apart

Above: One of the virtual concerts performed by musicians/composers/improvisors at UCSD.

Aired 4/4/13 on KPBS News.

Some UCSD musicians will perform a concert this weekend with musicians from Massachusetts. Not that unusual — except that the concert will be on two stages: one here in San Diego, and the other in Massachusetts.

When I walk into the black box rehearsal space at UCSD, I find two sets of musicians. One group, composed of four, is here in the room with me. The other, a trio, is in a rehearsal space at Amherst College in Massachusetts. They may be miles apart, but they’re performing one piece of music together, in real time.

I can see the Amherst musicians on a large video screen in the center of the stage. The two groups are working out the kinks of performing together from two different coasts. There are some delays and audio snafus. But it’s still pretty remarkable to watch the bassist in San Diego set the groove with the percussionist in Amherst.

This is all possible through a high bandwidth, high-speed Internet only available at research institutions. It’s sort of like they’re Skyping, except with a much better connection and an HD video camera.

Mark Dresser is a music professor and composer at UCSD. He plays double bass. He loves collaborating with musicians all over the world. He says when they collaborate virtually, they save money and fossil fuel. “We’re not getting on a plane,” said Dresser. “Yesterday morning, we rehearsed with Zurich and in the afternoon with Stonybrook, New York.”

There’s about a quarter-second delay in the connection with Amherst (it’s a slightly longer delay when they collaborate with musicians in Zurich). The music has been composed with that in mind. Dresser says the compositions for these virtual concerts create the “illusion of synchronicity.”

The compositions also allow for a lot of improvisation, which means Dresser is improvising and playing off of a musician who’s in a completely different location. “The real deal is that musicians play predominantly not with their eyes but with their ears,” Dresser said. “And we hear much quicker than we see.”

Just as recording technology transformed jazz in the early 20th century by allowing improvisations to be captured and shared, 21st century networking technologies are allowing for groundbreaking collaboration among cutting-edge musicians.

Three of these virtual concerts — dubbed the Virtual Tour — are scheduled to take place this weekend at UCSD Conrad Prebys Music Center’s Experimental Theatre. On Friday night, the UCSD musicians will perform with the musicians from Amherst. Audiences will be in attendance at both locations.

Two concerts will follow on Saturday and Sunday, where the UCSD musicians will perform with musicians in Zurich, Switzerland and Stonybrook, New York respectively.

The Virtual Tour concerts take place at 7 p.m. April 5, noon April 6 and 4 p.m. April 7. Tickets are available online, through the Department of Music Box Office (858) 534-3448) and at the door.

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