photo courtesy of Toshi Tsuruoka
Watching live music during this time is difficult.
Even if the performers have great internet streaming speed, the right microphones, and the perfect acoustic presence in their room, there’s just something that’s missing. Maybe its watching the musicians play in their offices or living rooms or just the overarching feeling of voyeurism, but the energy and magic seems drained from the experience.
Many months before countries began closing down concert spaces, Toshi Tsuruoka began formulating a new way to conduct live shows centered around improvisation and group composition with Consensus, a collective of musicians led by Leo Chang who create works based around group listening.
This project grew and was eventually dubbed Ear Talk.
“About a year ago, [Consensus] had a difficultly staying connected as many of the members had relocated to different cities and countries,” Tsuruoka explained. “So the need for an online remote collaboration grew out of necessity.”
“[The] Ear Talk project enables people from remote locations to collaboratively share, shape, and form music through an interactive score,” Tsuruoka continued. “We ‘misuse’ [the] YouTube Live platform as a playground for people to showcase their sounds and interact with them through the YouTube comment [section]. For example, you can comment 'Hey Ear Talk, please make sample1 louder by 100%!' Through this type of interaction, we challenge viewers to amalgamate sounds of different origins into one coherent piece.”
Tsuruoka expanded the project further and masterminded the creation of the unique program that could handle the online group collaboration.
“I played a major role in conceiving the idea and prototyping the system (made with Max/MSP) that could facilitate online co-compositional collaborations,” Tsuruoka said. “Now I act as a principle researcher to conceptualize Ear Talk as a new online music making method, while also acting as a lead developer of the system itself. But from the beginning, Ear Talk project has been a close collaboration with the Consensus Ensemble, Leo Chang, Oliver Hickman, and now we have joined forces with Brian Ellis for future iterations.”
The drive to collaborate not only drew from geographical impracticalities, but also the desire to explore new forms of sonic communication.
“I also wanted to explore social media as a place where people can come together and make a cohesive something, instead of becoming a dumping ground for self-obsessed thoughts and selfies,” Tsuruoka said. “I wanted to challenge social media by transforming their content that are often oblivious to one another into a meaningful whole. And what better way to do this than through music. By limiting the shareable content to only sound, Ear Talk also directs our attention towards the sonic features of our lives, which at times is very calming in today’s [noisy] world.”
Despite the novelty of this project, this won’t be the first instance of an Ear Talk online performance.
“We curated a series of YouTube Live stream performances with Consensus Ensemble starting in November 2019 (the 5th performance concluded this series in February 2020),” Tsuruoka said. “In March 2020, a new iteration of Ear Talk named Ear Talk: A Sound Adventure was scheduled to put on a workshop for children as a part of the Community-Engaged Performances and Workshops at the SEAMUS 2020 National Conference. The cancellation of this conference due to COVID-19 was the impetus behind Ear Talk: Online Sound Gathering with SEAMUS 2020 where we repurposed the system to host an online gathering with the SEAMUS community who had missed the opportunities to connect at the conference.”
“This project was made possible by the support of the SEAMUS National Conference 2020 president, Ted Coffey as well as the SEAMUS community and public participants who volunteered to submit their sounds."
One of the most exciting elements of this new performance comes from the fact that anyone could have submitted electroacoustic sounds to the work and anyone who joins the livestream can participate, making it a truly technological democratic performance.
The inclusive nature of the project led to a variety of design choices.
“[Designing] the system so that music novices can participate was important. The fact that we implemented the Google ecosystem (Google Drive and YouTube) as the main platform, as well as many of the GUI and comment syntax designs were always centered around the user friendly perspective,” Tsuruoka explained. “I believe that the more experimental a project/work is, the more it needs to be digestible. Otherwise the work becomes wastefully unappetizing to most audiences.”
Even after the quarantine ends, being part of this experience proves useful in rethinking how we experience and process music. The blurred zone between audience and performer morphs into a true reality few live concerts ever achieve, resulting in something that might be the true future of digital performance.
“This project has definitely influenced the way I think about composing as a collaborative experience,” Tsuruoka said. “Interestingly, collaborating with other people to write a piece of music reminded me of what I used to do as a guitar player. Before seriously getting into composition and somehow getting more comfortable with writing music in my cave alone, the process of composing was always organically collaborative in a band environment.
“I love both processes, but there is definitely something special about getting out of my own ego and being inspired by other creative minds. It’s good to open all windows and doors sometimes, or even better, break all walls and abolish the concept of possession, creatively speaking of course. And if it rains, just let it. Especially when it comes to electronic composition, it is often rare to work with others, in my experience anyways. Ear Talk makes it really easy to collaborate with people and often with strangers!”
Whether you choose to help manipulate the performance or watch passively, the experience shouldn’t be missed. Tsuruoka sums it up best:
“Passively participating is also an interesting experience, when it comes to Ear Talk, as you can observe an amalgamation of active participants’ thoughts transforming into a piece of music. But I think the satisfaction of active collaboration and being a part of something simply comes from the core of human desire—our desire to improve together.”
Participate in the performance of Ear Talk today (Thursday, May 14, 2020) at 7 PM EST and this Saturday (May 16, 2020) at 2 PM EST. Click the links to access the streams.
Learn more about Toshi Tsuruoka and his music here and more about his work on Ear Talk here.
Watch a previous Ear Talk performance below.
photo courtesy of Kasey Pocius
When Kasey Pocius began their performance at Montreal’s La Vitrola in early 2020, they took to the stage with a T-Stick, a digital gestural musical instrument connected to a laptop, and performed a choreographed work with the accompaniment of a laptop orchestra. This performance resonated with me specifically because it was the first time I ever witnessed a laptop orchestra outside of an academic setting and out in the wild and made me realize the how complex the intricacies lay when it comes to conceptualizing not just a work for such a contemporary ensemble, but to also pair it with an experimental gestural controller.
Writing for this emerging medium doesn’t come easily and having a keen understanding of how digital music functions lies at the basis of what made this work interesting to watch and enjoyable to listen to.
“I'm really drawn to the way [digital music] can transform spaces, particularly in surround sound contexts, and that you aren't bound to what is possible in a physical phenomenon,” Pocius said. “Every possible aspect is malleable, and the ability to break sounds out of their normal time scales is really exciting for me.”
The focus on the in’s and out’s of a space’s acoustics has lead Pocius to establish themselves as a unique voice when it comes to writing in new digital mediums in Quebec.
“You're ever really limited by what techniques you have the patience to learn and the amount speakers you have access to” Pocius continued. “The combination of electronics and acoustic instrumentation is also really exciting for me, particularly live electronics. Getting to work as an extension of another musician's performance, and getting to play with their expectations as well as the audience creates some connections I never experienced when I was playing as an acoustic instrumentalist.”
After finding their way to Montreal for university, Pocius stuck around and found themselves engrained in the city’s experimental electronic music community. Their initial drive to compose more digital works led them to collaborations with Concordia University’s laptop orchestra, CLOrk.
“I came into the laptop orchestra having played in the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Orchestra as the principal violist for a few years as well as some other chamber and orchestral, so I was already pretty comfortable making music in a group, but that first rehearsal I sat in on while visiting Concordia for portfolio day really excited me like nothing else, and so I went into the course super motivated,” Pocius said. “The challenge of democratically getting an hour of music concert ready with a rotating roster of guests every few weeks is really rewarding.”
Despite the challenges of writing for laptop orchestra, Pocius has found several ways to streamline the process.
“In terms of what I've learned - simple ideas often work really well, and less is always more,” Pocius said. “It's really easy to over complicate things with electronic composition, and if everybody is playing every idea they have as dense as they liked all the time you'd lose the detail. I've found in CLOrk it's often a lot more rewarding to stick with one idea, and weave it in and out of the overall soundscape, and just pull back and wait for those perfect moments to bring it and then get out of the way of someone else. I also found working with as many different possible interfaces as I can to be a great way to keep what I'm doing exciting, every new interface brings some novel interaction that changes how I think about the sounds I'm building which in turn changes how I'm working with those interfaces.”
Pocius’ understanding and development working in the confines of experimental electronic music also drew from their appreciation of minute details in music.
“Texture manipulation is really what draws me to electronic composition, though when I reflect on my work as a violist it's definitely there too - I was always playing around with different fingering and articulations to find the right timbres to portray the pieces I was interpreting,” Pocius said.
“I don't necessarily see harmony & melody as separate from this, especially the avenues possible from microtonal & modal compositional techniques, but as a another layer of texture to be manipulated. I am really excited by the melodies and harmonies of natural objects & phenomenon and how we can extract those for compositional processes, I continue to find intricate systems in the world around that are so much more interesting that what I normally results from me writing out melodies and chord systems in the traditional way.”
With a solid footing in new digital music, Pocius now looks forward to several upcoming projects that expand on their work engaging with new technologies.
“I've got some really exciting performance pieces I've been collaborating on - some will be pushed back to next year, others we're exploring as 360 video experiences with 3D sound for Youtube & Facebook's VR systems,” Pocius said. “I've recently gotten involved with Exit Points, an experimental improv collective based out of Toronto that has moved to telematics, which I'll be doing a show with in June. I'm chipping away at some more solo works for High Density Loudspeaker Arrays, which I hope to premiere as soon as the facilities can host audiences again.”
With textures, spatial control, and more at the heart of their music, Pocius continues to find ways to impress us with their control over the medium. At the end of the day, their inspiration comes back to the natural world, creating a beautiful cyclic nature at the core of their work.
“I love water, texture wise there's nothing like it, it's become our barometer for how we describe the sounds of other fluids, and there's something really special about about being surrounded by waves, the spatial cues as the tides flow and the overall cycles and rhythms that form are always pleasing and exciting, at least for my ears.”
Kasey's music can be found on their Bandcamp and on Sonus
Erich is a musician and writer living between Montreal and New York whose work appears on Best Life, Eat This, Not That!, MSN, and more and has represented artists for years as a PR rep. He likes weird music. If you want to find his music, it's over here.