Virtual Tour: A Reduced Carbon Footprint Concert Series

By Ken Waxman

Ever notice that people are never shown watching TV images on television programs? That’s because the concept of a viewer watching a screen showing someone watching another screen moves into the surrealistic realm of a René Magritte painting. This is one drawback of Virtual Tour. Intriguing in conception, the idea is that four San Diego-based musicians – pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, trombonist Michael Dessen and flutist Nicolle Mitchell – play in real time via high-speed uncompressed audio and high definition video connections alongside three separately linked ensembles in Amherst, MA, Stony Brook, NY, and Zürich, Switzerland. Oversized video screens are on stage with each, which at points provides some arresting close-ups of intricate solo explorations or intense responses to each other’s playing. This is especially obvious during lick trading from Dessen and fellow trombonist Ray Anderson in Stony Brook, But throughout the 193 [!] -minute program there are many shots of one group or another waiting to play following solos taken elsewhere. That is visuals of people watching other people on TV.

With a total of 26 audio, lighting and video technicians on hand compared to 15 musicians, the performances are about as close to a relaxed jam session as an NASA rocket is to a bicycle. Plus the reams of music paper on stands confirm that scores had to be shared among the individual collaborations. In interviews included as extras, Dresser and Dessen admit to the fragility of working with brand-new technology that could crash at any time. “The bandwidth is our instrument in a way,” says the bassist. But he admits that one reason these combinations work is the long history most of the players have with one another. More enthusiastic, Dessen affirms that such experiments teach everyone involved about contemporary music. “Tele-presence has the opportunity to reshape musical traditions and create new ones.”

For the viewer however some of the happenings may be a little too reminiscent of Frederick Banting going through painstakingly controlled experiments before producing insulin. For every instance when, Mitchell upsets the solemnity with a fiery breath, or Hemingway orients his rhythm to accompany a Melford solo, there are passages that don’t connect. Don’t try to watch the entire video all at once either. Best appreciation comes by isolating individual sets.

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2016