Behind the Beat: Here, There and Everywhere

Musicians often pass around recordings in progress, getting other musicians to add parts until there's sufficient material to mix everything into a finished product. But Amherst College visiting professor Jason Robinson and his collaborators go one better—this week, as part of Amherst's Faultlines Festival, saxophonist Robinson, trombonist Michael Dessen and saxophonist Adnan Marquez play together while inhabiting opposite coastlines. Robinson plays in front of an audience at Amherst College while Dessen and Marquez simultaneously do the same at their own campuses in California, each accompanied by the sounds of the other two.

This may sound like a daunting challenge, and indeed it is. In a recent conversation, Robinson discussed the high-tech logistics of multi-site concerts, and his habit of playing in many genres while firming up, academically and in his playing, the notion of experimental music and its relation to more calcified notions of genre.

Advocate: How is this concert going to work? How does it all sync up?

Jason Robinson: There's a pretty heavy tech side to it that really is pretty much on the leading edge of what is possible to use the Internet to connect musicians who want to make real-time music. At all three locations, there will be a live audience. What the audiences will encounter is one performer onstage. Each is a wind player. We're going to be using a computer to do live electro-acoustic processing. At the same time, we're going to be connected via Internet 2—the fastest available connection. The concert will start here at 8 p.m., and on the West Coast at 5 p.m. The signals get mixed together so for the audience at all three, there's a kind of real-time mix in the room—a PA, speakers and whatnot.

Essentially, the technology is like Skype or iChat, but on steroids. The particular software was developed at the center for computer research at Stanford. It's designed to prevent latency [lag time], but that's somewhat governed by distance. My two collaborators—they're about 400 miles apart. When everything's running well, there's almost no delay at all between them, maybe a hundredth of a second. On those good days, the 3,000 miles between here and there turns into maybe an eighth of a second.

Doesn't that eighth of a second turn into a problem?

Well, all three of us are composers in addition to performers, so one of the things that intrigues us is how to incorporate those latency times, because most listeners will notice a hiccup with an eighth of a second. One of the pieces has a section where [the other two] are playing an astinato, a repeated rhythm—a groove, essentially—and I improvise on top of it here. To the audience here it will sound like we're playing in time, but to them [on the West Coast] it will sound like I'm a little off. It comes together in an interesting way on an artistic level. We're trying to use this as a jumpstart to think about different ways to compose and perform.

Do you think this kind of long-distance collaborating will become more common?

We're certainly hoping it will. One of the issues right now—an enabling factor, too—is that in order to use it, all the computers require a hardwired ethernet connection and they really require Internet2. It's like a parellel Internet with incredible bandwidth. It's currently not used that much. Right now, the types of places that have access are government institutions and some educational institutions.As it happens, Amherst College is wired with Internet2. You can do it with the slower version of the Internet, but all sorts of things happen when you try it.

What does the term "experimental" mean for you?

When people ask me what I do, I almost always say I'm a jazz saxophonist. That's what my roots are. It's close to my heart. I take my cue from figures in the history of jazz, like Duke Ellington or some of the beboppers. They started to feel uncomfortable with the term jazz. As an artist you face expectations, what people expect you to sound like. The history of jazz is full of all sorts of innovations.

If I can, I try to present my music in a different light. "Experimental" is one term that's emerged for that—it's typically been applied to new directions in concert or classical music. But a lot of people have started to write histories that center on new kinds of music coming from African-American communities, and I see a natural connection between jazz and what's come to be called experimental.

I do a lot of different kind of things—reggae, jazz, abstract experimental sounds. There's always a similar ethos of searching and discovery, and that's why I like the term. It doesn't mean "weird" or "strange."

You've played in a wide variety of configurations and in all sorts of genres and genre combinations. Why do you think music that isn't readily categorized or that is more challenging than pop often gets marginalized?

In the development of the music industry, there have been a lot of smart people, very crafty business people. The marketing of music along genre lines has been one of the prime strategies to maximize profit. You can look at the history of the music industry in America and see how genres were created, challenged and maintained over time.

We have to confront it one way or another, because our music isn't so readily classified. Some musicians operate [within genre], but for a lot of us our music naturally goes beyond those boundaries. I think that, then, makes you have to rethink the way your music is being presented to the public.

The Internet has been a way to present your music on its own terms. It's had a profound effect in the way people find and listen to music—they can hear more local musicians, musicians that don't have access to the commercial marketplace. They can put it out there, and listeners from around the world are able to find it.

You also play solo. How do you approach saxophone as a solo performer? Seems like the one note at a time nature of it would provide an interesting challenge.

One of my obsessions, for lack of a better term, for the last 10 years or so has been solo saxophone. There are a variety of historical threads that inform that—in classical music, especially in France, people were composing for saxophone. The other thing that started to happen, coming out of jazz and African-American music, is that people started to rethink how the saxophone functions. The Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, for instance. There's been a whole host of others. & Almost all of them came out of jazz or African-American music. They pushed the sax beyond the kind of role that you would normally hear it in in jazz.

If you were to ask a jazz saxophonist to play an unaccompanied solo, they would probably play just like if they had accompaniment. These historical figures—they saw the sax more as an instrument that creates sounds. It can create an incredibly broad range of sounds. If you've heard a beginner, you know that. If someone's been playing a while, they've usually refined their sound. I try to utilize the whole range. It becomes a different process of imagination, but just like in straight-ahead jazz, I want the listener to come on a voyage, I want to tell a story. The story in a solo performance might be in full color, have more nuances, explore more of that territory. Sometimes it comes out sounding quite conventional, but sometimes there's more dialogue with other traditions.

There is a certain risk to playing solo—the safety net is really different. I've grown to really enjoy that feeling. There can be excitement that creates anxiety, or it can create some fusion-like energy. I've come to like it. It's like being a thrillseeker for me, because I've done a lot of different things. I really enjoy playing more popular, mainstream music because I like playing in front of an audience of 10,000 people. That same kind of excitement is very present in those big audiences. But it can also be present in a solo performance in front of four or five people. I enjoy all of those.

Jason Robinson, Adnan Marquez and Michael Dessen play April 3 at 8 p.m. at Stanford University, UC-Irvine and at Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College. Admission is free. Call (413) 542-8417 for more information.

Author: James Heflin

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