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Chops: Mark Dresser and Michael Dessen Play Telematic Music

Technology that the bassist and trombonist have been using for more than two decades could help a locked-down jazz world

Mark Dresser (on screen) and Michael Dessen using telematics during a June 2020 Live and in Lockdown event for WBGO
Mark Dresser (on screen) and Michael Dessen using telematics during a June 2020 Live and in Lockdown event for WBGO. (photo: Jim Carmody)

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, musicians of all stripes have repeatedly, whether in interviews, in casual conversation, or on social media, said the same thing: What they miss the most is playing with other people. That familiar refrain has led to the increasing currency—particularly in jazz circles—of an unfamiliar word. The word is “telematic,” and it offers something of a solution to the problem of social distance in music.

“Telematic music is where performers play together, live on the internet, with other musicians who are in different geographical locations,” explains bassist Mark Dresser, who teaches at the University of California at San Diego. “Michael Dessen, the trombonist, is at UC Irvine [about 70 miles north of San Diego], and he and I have been experimenting with this for years.”

Dessen neatly summarizes their conclusions: “It is possible to play music with other people via the internet, with no synchrony problems and great sound, up to a distance of several hundred miles.” Since quarantines began in March, he has been amplifying his efforts to make the music world aware of the possibilities.

Dresser and Dessen held their first telematic concert, a bicoastal affair between New York and Los Angeles, in 1998. They’ve been working this way more steadily since 2007, as the internet became increasingly entrenched in the everyday world. Yet they weren’t in the everyday world: They were at universities, working on ultra-high-speed networks. Home internet service has been slow to catch up, especially in the U.S., but it has now done so to a great degree. That, says Dresser, is one of the major distinctions between their work in 2007 and in 2020.

“The technology is essentially the same,” he says. “What’s changed is quality of service. The network in the country is higher-quality today: We couldn’t do this at home back then. But we’re using the exact same audio software as we were in 2007.”

Mark Dresser
Mark Dresser (photo: Jim Carmody)

The software in question is JackTrip, a free and open-source program developed by Chris Chafe and Juan-Pablo Cáceres at Stanford University. It allows for lossless audio to travel across multiple channels, with little to no discernible delay from the source of the audio to its receiver. (The technical term for this delay—which users of Zoom and other online video conferencing platforms may be all too familiar with—is “latency.”) If musicians have an audio interface and a microphone, they can produce and transmit high-quality sound across cyberspace in (nearly) real time.

“I sometimes play with [New York soprano saxophonist] Jane Ira Bloom,” Dessen says, “and on JackTrip you can hear her sax sound like she’s right next to you. It sounds amazing: better than CD quality.”

Dessen and Dresser frequently work with flutist Nicole Mitchell (Dessen’s colleague in Irvine) and pianist Myra Melford (who teaches at Berkeley) in a “core California quartet.” The four don’t only work with each other, though; they’re not even limited to working with New York peers like Bloom. Dresser likes to play with Matthias Ziegler, a flutist based in Zurich, Switzerland. Moreover, in February, Dessen and Dresser put together a sextet in San Diego and performed a telematic concert with musicians at the Seoul Institute of the Arts in South Korea. “The synchrony was remarkable,” Dresser says. “We’re 6,000 miles away, but when we were actually playing together, there was no sensation of it being latent.”

Certainly, some quarantined musicians are looking for ways to put on concerts over the web. Most, though, simply want to rebuild the musical connections that have been dormant these past several months. Telematics offers the potential for both—and even for making studio-quality recordings.

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However, Dessen cautions, neither JackTrip nor telematic music in general is a plug-and-play proposition. Few musicians have access to the very high-speed university networks that have enabled his and Dresser’s experiments. Commercial broadband is still nonexistent in some places, and is often inconsistent where it does exist. “Networks are really unpredictable—they can vary from one street to the next,” Dessen says. “Some people can pay for upgrades, some people can’t.”

It’s not just the bandwidth, though—telematics takes practice. Two partners in a duo might need to make adjustments for lighting (so they can see each other), microphone bleeding and feedback, and levels on each audio channel. These issues become more complicated with more participants, as does the likelihood that latency will arise.

Michael Dessen
Michael Dessen

Dessen has spent some time documenting workarounds for these and other problems, and he posts the information on his website. He also says that creative practices can be more effective than technical practices—such as composing and arranging that account for latency issues. “I wrote pieces where Mark and Myra and Nicole and I might be grooving together in a quartet, and I float Jane over that in a looser way,” he says. “It sounds beautiful, and not everybody has to be synced into the grid in that precise, tight way.”

With patience and resourcefulness, then, telematics can offer musicians at least a stopgap way of making music together until the crisis passes. “Do I see telematics as a replacement for live performance? Of course not,” Dresser acknowledges. “But if I can’t travel, but I can still do something meaningful and broadcast that to someone at home, I see potential in it. Not everyone has the same access to things, but if we join our uniqueness, musically and culturally, audio and visual, that can be a really rich possibility.”

Overdue Ovation: Bassist Mark Dresser

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.