The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that have followed have left musicians isolated at home, unable to play together or perform to their audiences. Consequently, many have been taking their music online, heading out into the Internet to see how they can continue to make music together. We’ll be exploring some of the challenges involved in this in future posts, especially the constraints of network latency and bandwidth and their impact on liveness and participation, while also looking at how some innovative new approaches to music making appear to be emerging in response.
Today, we’ll set the scene by visiting Nottstopping, a unique online festival staged by the folks of Nottingham to show that music and the arts are still alive and kicking in our city. Held over the weekend of 23rd and 24th of May 2020, Nottstopping featured over 180 events spread over tens of venues. There was music, film, theatre, dance, comedy, spoken word and community projects. While you could spot some stars, most notably Nottingham’s own Jake Bugg, what was most striking was the breath of community participation featuring many local musicians, groups, orchestras and others, supported by local institutions who have all pulled together to deliver a celebration of the city’s creativity in defiance of COVID-19 while also raising funds for the NHS and Key Workers of Nottingham. It’s was genuinely uplifting to see so many contributions from such a diverse collection of people.
Carolan and Steve were invited to put together a half hour set for the Lakeside Arts stage, which proved to be an opportunity to attempt to combine playing music with explaining about Carolan being a storytelling guitar as part of a single live show, an idea that had been brewing for a while anyway. The resulting set featured a mixture of traditional tunes, including Carolan’s Concerto, a couple of songs, and also a demonstration of scanning Artcodes.
This demo used a new implementation of the Artcodes software as a webapp (rather than a conventional app) courtesy of Kevin Glover of the Mixed Reality Lab. This embeds the image recognition software directly into a conventional webpage, making it possible to use without having to download an app first, and also runnable on PCs and laptops. I used this in the performance to show how Artcodes works, including triggering a video from Carolan’s archive (the Shetland Molecule from Post 72) so that Carolan was able to jam along with itself. Here’s the demo section from the show ….
The experience of taking part in Nottstopping was thought provoking in other ways too.
I wrestled with various tensions about how to approach the performance. Should I make an ‘as live’ performance, in a single take, warts and all, or should I try and produce a more polished and edited video? The warts might be embarrassing, especially given that people can watch in catch up mode and the video could stick around for a long time. But trying to produce a polished video could also fall down when compared to the quality of professional productions, especially given my lack of skill, equipment and time.
Eventually, I opted for a broadly ‘as live’ approach, initially aiming to record a 30 minute set in one take. My first attempt, which turned out to be more of a dress rehearsal, involved recording a live show using the Streamyard platform. This gave me the confidence that a live show might work (with more rehearsal), but the quality of the recorded video was rather low and so I went for a second attempt recording on my iPhone. The final production ending up involving considerable editing in terms of choosing between several takes of the tricky Carolan’s Concerto, removing several minutes of retuning (on the advice of a friend who pointed out that no one really wants to listen to that however live it might seem) and some work to smooth out the guitar demo section.
On balance, I felt that I ended up approaching the performance with a ‘recording’ rather than a ‘performing’ head on. When recording, I often end up doing many takes rather than just playing through a set which I’m happy to do on stage. Why? Perhaps it was the lack of an audience in the room with me. Or maybe the equipment and the whole rigmarole – carefully positioning cameras and mics, cueing things up, pressing the red recoding button etc, rather than walking on the stage and getting on with it – that framed the experience as recording than performing live. Inevitably, this led to my usual recording nerves, which I find to be different from performing nerves, where I tend to listen to myself in a different way, observing on my own playing from the outside as it were, and also becoming acutely aware of background noise and so forth. In contrast, with performing, I tend to experience nerves beforehand, although these do sometimes spill over into the show itself.
A further dilemma that emerged was whether to be present at the Youtube premiere at 3:30 on the Sunday to watch my own performance from the audience. Of course the performer is usually present at their own live show, but this need not be the case here, at least not in the conventional sense. Was it somehow disrespectful to the festival not to turn up to watch myself? What is the etiquette about commenting as a performer from the audience and what voice would you use? In the end, I decided that it was already present enough through the video and opted to take a bike ride and then catch up with the comments later on.
As a festival goer, watching other people’s shows over the weekend, it takes a while to figure how best to engage. Again, is it important to watch video premieres live at the scheduled time or is catching up afterwards OK? Should I treat it more light a highlights show, like watching Glastonbury on TV. Might I even turn it into an event at home, dressing up, eating festival food or perhaps watching from a tent in the garden? In the end, I opted for the highlights option, but I’d be tempted to dig out my tent next time.
These various reflections serve to illustrate some interesting tensions in the experience of delivering a live set as a video performance, both in terms of recording ‘as live’ at home when no audience is present, but also what happens at the premiere and afterwards. I hope to return to these themes in future posts when exploring some other approaches to going live across the Internet.
Lastly, here’s the video of the full performance for anyone with too much time on their hands right now.