19 August 2020

Gigging in the Age of Covid

Live performance with an audience is gone, for the moment.
SensiLab's Dr Alon Ilsar reflects on what this means.

I’ve dedicated my entire artistic practice to live performance. 

In 2018 I premiered a piece that at its core invited the audience to continually engage with the relationship between sound, movement and visuals. I wanted the audience to be absolutely immersed in the experience, present in space and time, and constantly questioning what was happening before their eyes and ears. The piece starts with the manipulation of a spoken introduction, in real-time, on a custom gestural instrument I co-designed with a close computer programmer friend. Both sound and visuals, created by another invaluable collaborator, are then triggered with a clear strike through the air – laser like lights float in between me and the audience on a transparent scrim as sounds, originally created by another long term collaborator, magically fly around the room as if they were on the end of long sonic whips. I wanted to set up an expectation of control over all elements of the performance that would be broken down and reassembled over the course of the hour long set of electronically produced music, revealing an intimate completely acoustic drum solo in the middle and ending with an entrancing geometric tunnel-vision polyrhythmic onslaught to invite the audience to attain a different state of consciousness. A shared consciousness, a shared experience with those around them, and the ability to have a drink and dream up new technologies after the performance.

Now, the reality of performances since COVID-19, at least in Melbourne for the time being, is to stream live shows. And though the quality and originality of streams is constantly  improving and evolving, most performances are solo bedroom performances, and they feel more like safe ‘content’ than risk taking ‘art.’

Alon performing live pre-Covid

As a drummer of 27 years, I deal with playing with our perception of time. And I have always done this within a public space. The feeling of risk and fragility in performing live spans across the human and the technological. Will I forget a section or hit the wrong note? Will the power go out, the projector disconnect, the computer go to sleep, a speaker blow, the USB hub fail, will Windows try to upgrade in the middle of the show? All these have happened in the past. On one occasion the second computer went to sleep, a bright blue light filled the screen and time stood still as I realised I would have to stop the show. Someone screamed out, ‘you broke space and time!’ I had a beer with him after. It stuck with me.

This is why we seek social performances and shared experiences. The ephemeral nature of live performances, the unpredictability, the irreplicability. And the audience, however small, has to be there, otherwise it’s a rehearsal, not a gig. Everyone involved in the journey of getting to and from the gig is part of the ‘musicking’ experience – the verb form of the noun ‘music’, coined by musicologist Christopher Small. In his 1998 book, Musicking, Small argues that all involved in a performance, particularly the audience, should be participants and not mere spectators. He treats the concert hall as a utopian space where performances should bring into existence ‘a set of relationships that participants feel to be ideal and that enable participants to explore, affirm, and celebrate those relationships… To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance… or by dancing.’

Trigger Happy Visualised, filmed for Mycelium TV

I would argue that this term can be expanded significantly further. Singing in the shower, listening to birds, recording the sound of an malfunctional appliance, talking about your favourite bands, streaming music online or meeting new people at gigs are all part of musicking. We each have our personal and social relationship with sound and music. Sound and music can help us explore, affirm and celebrate relationships within all parts of our life, whether this is with ourselves, other people, nature, or the cosmos. 

There is no replacing the live music experience. No technology will truly take us to our favourite venue in VR. And is a Travis Scott performance to 12 million people through Fortnite the future of musicking we want to have? Technology can’t replace our experience of going to a gig, walking through nature, or swimming in the ocean, but technology can give us new experiences and lasting relationships. It can, through this lockdown, bring some of our favourite elements of music to our homes, not to mention increase accessibility of live performances for people living with disability or living on the other side of the world. Technology allowed me to create an instrument I’d been dreaming of playing for years, which has led to relationships with musicians, dancers, programmers, researchers, music therapists, visual artists and audiences that I could have never imagined. 

Maybe, just for a little while before we can start attending local socially distanced gigs (in Melbourne at least) and then finally start traveling the world again and enter our favourite mosh pits, we can keep connecting through music. We can share a song we like, press play on an album at the same time as a friend after curfew, or watch an online stream with a beer in hand and some of it on the carpet. Or go for a walk and listen to the birds, or sit at home and listen to the fridge. Or not. Your relationship with music is yours and yours alone. We all music in different ways.

Dr Alon Ilsar is a professional drummer and a SensiLab researcher. Experience Alon Ilsar’s one-hour audio-visual feast, Trigger Happy Visualised, at the Melbourne Fringe Festival Digital, online here.