The Gig: Darn That Stream

To be there or not to be there

A heavy sense of consecration filled the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art one mid-March evening, during a 75th-birthday celebration for Charles Lloyd. Onstage with his totemic accoutrements—tenor saxophone, sunglasses, beret—Lloyd faced the carved-sandstone gates of the Temple of Dendur, around which an audience of hundreds had been seated. He was flanked by the members of his working quartet, poised to pounce on the subtlest of cues. The spirit in the room was calm but intense, registering clearly even miles away, on the screen of my MacBook Air.

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Charles Lloyd at North Sea Jazz 2011
By Stephen Hotsma
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Charles Lloyd with Jason Moran

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That’s right: Technically speaking, in a physical sense, I wasn’t among those in attendance for Lloyd’s momentous performance. Family obligations and deadline pressures had kept me from venturing out that evening, so there I was in my living room, watching a live stream of the concert on the Met’s website. In an attempt to soften the compromise, I’d routed the laptop through my stereo system and set the high-definition video to fullscreen mode. I sat quietly engrossed as Lloyd opened the concert in gospel duologue with pianist Jason Moran. To my relief, I didn’t feel as if I were watching from much of a remove at all.

Gradually, as I was pulled deeper into the concert, this feeling began to harden into an unexpected conviction: My experience of this music was, in fact, substantially better than it would have been from a chair in front of the stage. Which sounds blasphemous, I know, and maybe like a delusional bid for consolation. But I’ve slogged through a concert or two in the Sackler Wing, a cavernous expanse of hard surfaces that has a predictable set of acoustical problems. What I was hearing sounded more like a board mix, probably too rough for a live album but plenty vibrant through my stereo speakers, and in real time. With the possible exception of Lloyd and his bandmates and his sound technician, I doubt anybody at the Met fared quite so well.

What’s more, the crew filming the event demonstrated a kind of ninja subtlety, capturing close-ups and other angles that wouldn’t have been accessible to someone in the audience. One shot, used sparingly, was from a point high above the stage, so that the Temple of Dendur and the surrounding throng formed a gorgeous visual tableau. I was reminded of an acquaintance who has long held season tickets to his hometown NFL team, but confesses his preference for the ace camerawork of the network broadcast. Absorbed in the live stream from the Met, I was dimly aware of a privileged degree of access—Lloyd’s saxophone fingerings were often front and center—but very rarely distracted by it. There was no downside, only enhancement. If anything, the camera crew, invisible to me, was a mild distraction for those in the actual, corporeal audience.

I can guess what you’re thinking: None of this is an acceptable substitute for, you know, being there. It’s hard to argue with that logic, which is one reason why I’ve often viewed webcasts as a fundamentally degraded proxy for the genuine article, like tempeh burgers or electronic cigarettes. But the demand for webcasts has been growing, along with the technological capacity. Perhaps you’ve viewed a video stream at NPR.org, broadcasting from the Newport Jazz Festival or some other locale. Perhaps you’re one of the many thousands worldwide who have accessed a recent webcast hosted by Jazz at Lincoln Center, either from its main complex in Manhattan or a satellite club in Qatar. In my experience, these are welcome tools of outreach, though it’s an open question whether they also cannibalize a club’s live patronage—and whether musicians should be giving it away, so to speak, for free. (ShapeShifter Lab, in Brooklyn, addresses the latter point by charging a few bucks for most streams.) Beyond all that, webcasts of jazz events tend to be limited in production value, with a single stationary camera, maybe two. And that Just-the-Facts-Ma’am style lets a lot of the air out of the aesthetic experience, somehow. Usually I’d rather just hear the audio.

What was striking about the Met webcast was its marriage of musical and visual context, presented with enough style to seem worthy of the occasion. Which is not to suggest that for any jazz performance to work in broadcast form, it should be staged in the shadow of an Egyptian ruin. I’ve seen a lot of immersive footage taped on festival stages, in television studios and sometimes even in jazz clubs, and it often meets the most baseline professional standard. Crucially, though, these tend to be archival documents, to be consumed well after the fact.

The beauty of the live stream lies in its temporal dynamics. This is really happening right now, it tells you, wherever “you” may be. Maybe it was the solemnity of Lloyd’s performance, maybe it was just wishful thinking, but I really felt this aspect. The concert stretched to a leisurely two hours, and I was along for the ride. At one point I noticed that the lighting had shifted onstage, and realized that it was because the vestigial glow of twilight—outside the north-facing glass wall of the Sackler Wing, and the humbler windows of my living room—had receded into night. I lit a candle (true confession) and poured a glass of red wine (even truer).

Lloyd had moved through the first phase of his concert by then. What followed was a brilliant mini-set with the quartet, and then a section focused on African-American spirituals, featuring Moran’s wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran. The final stretch, and in many ways the evening’s culmination, involved the Greek contralto Maria Farantouri and her regular accompanist, Sokratis Sinopoulos, on politiki lyra. I’ve spent some time with Athens Concert, the ECM double-album on which Farantouri first appeared with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, but this performance reached me on another level. The singing was clear and deep and calm, and the sound of the group swirled soulfully around me. I’m so glad I was there.

Originally published in June 2013

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