How the Pandemic Made UCI Composer Michael Dessen’s World Go Zoom

Photo courtesy of Michael Dessen/Bill Douthart

Michael Dessen, composer, trombonist, bandleader, is also a professor at UC Irvine who studies telematic music.

If you’ve ever been in a video meeting, you’ve had this experience: Someone’s lips move, and a fraction of a second later, you hear the sound of their voice. That millisecond of being out of sync, that delay between when a sound enters a system and when it comes back out again, is called latency, and it’s something Michael Dessen has been studying for more than a decade.

Dessen – composer, trombonist, bandleader and professor at UC Irvine – has been performing networked musical performances, “telematic” music, for years, creating live concerts via the internet with musicians from around the globe. He understands better than most how to work with that effect, and how reducing that latency gap can lead to better online performances. And now, suddenly, with every concert hall in the nation boarded up, that knowledge is very, very useful.

How Does Latency Work?


Source: NPR Music

“I was doing (telematic music) before and will do it afterwards” he says. “It was never intended by any of us to replace live music making. We were not doing this work in case there was going to be a pandemic.”

But now that there is one, musicians are having to find new ways of practicing their craft. That’s bringing a lot more attention to the thorny technical aspects of coordinating a musical performance where the players are spread out across miles, the world of Dessen’s expertise.

“Telematic music and networked music performance are the two terms that have emerged over past two decades to talk about musicians performing together from different geographic locations,” Dessen says, “and networked performance implies the idea of reducing latency or sound travel time to a minimum, so music performance can be possible. Telematic music, a slightly more specific term, is typically used by people who refer to networks as a new artistic medium, not any kind of music but as a unique space where we could create new music that responds to the realities of that environment.”

It’s not meant to replace anything though.

“This expands the possibilities of music,” he says. “It’s not a substitute. The silver lining for this field in the pandemic is the huge influx of interest of people involved are making the tools better and expanding the community so more people are finding new ways to play together.”

Dessen became involved with the field after joining the faculty at UCI, when it was the academic institutions that had powerful enough networks to push audio and video out at high speeds. Today, comparable consumer products are much faster than they were, but it wasn’t always the case.

Changing Tides II: A Telematic Translocational Concert


Michael Dessen performs during a collaborative networked concert with musicians from the Seoul Institute of the Arts in South Korea, UC San Diego and CultureHub NY.

“So many of the experiments in this field were happening in the early 2000s because of the infrastructure that universities had,” Dessen says. “I would have access if I wanted, as a faculty member, and as I got to know others in this field, the idea of being able to perform or collaborate at a distance opened many new possibilities for sustained collaboration with people over time who are very far away.”

That said, experiments with live music traversing over long distances have been going on from way before the Digital Age. Experimental composer Pauline Oliveros explored the potential of using videophones to create networked music well before the internet, and Dessen tells the story of how singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson performed for miners in South Wales via transatlantic telephone cable.

“In the late ’50s, Robeson was restricted to the United States because his passport had been revoked by the McCarthyites,” Dessen says. “So he was stuck in the U.S., but he had a relationship with some union mine workers in Wales, and they’d invited him to perform at a festival, so he performed over transatlantic telephone line, submarine cables that connected Europe and the U.S.

Paul Robeson Sings Across the Transatlantic Telephone Cable


Source: Science Museum, London

“The quality was nothing like what we can get now, but Robeson used this new cable connection to sing to the audience and other musicians in Wales, and they sang back to him. It’s been recorded and released, you can hear it, and it’s a great example of how musicians use networks to transcend space and distance. Many people have explored music across distance, so this is not so new, but the technology is new. In most of the years I was doing it, it was a small field, with not much interest. Musicians didn’t want to go to the trouble, and didn’t have the need, so most musicians and teachers weren’t interested. Literally overnight with the pandemic, everyone became interested, and it went from a novelty to an urgent necessity. That’s been good for the field. There’s a hundred times more people involved making the tools and using the tools, to push the tech forward. Now it’s hard to keep up with. There’s just tons going on.”

And with those advances, Dessen points out that how communities make and experience music can be changed in unexpected and transformational ways. There’s huge potential for teaching and collaboration at the high school level, and Dessen himself has led a collaboration between high school students in Santa Ana, and their counterparts from a school in Colombia. More than a musical collaboration, this project served as a cultural connection, a way of deeply understanding the very different struggles of people thousands of miles away.

Closer to home, Dessen also works with Ph.D. candidates in UCI’s Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology program, an innovative, interdisciplinary program he co-founded in 2007.

In short, the technology has been boosted through necessity, and once we all find our way back to a sense of normalcy, there’s hope that much will have been changed for the better.

“It’s bringing a lot of new ways of thinking,” says Dessen. “New ideas, new initiatives, new ways of creating music if your imaginations can extend on to what we do even after the pandemic.”

Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at [email protected].