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.
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.