Andrew Dubber

“I can’t believe how hard you work.” High praise from Nitin Sawhney, composer, multi-instrumentalist and (it turns out) heavy-duty arts and culture thinker.

Of course, work’s a relative term when you’re doing something really enjoyable and fascinating in a really amazing setting, but given that I was completely focused on (almost) nothing other than the task at hand from 8am till 2am over 5 consecutive days, perhaps he had a point.

I was in Genoa, Italy with Birmingham web developer and entrepreneur Stef Lewandowski to work on the Aftershock Project – a pan-European collaborative music event. In short, Nitin Sawhney turns up in a town, brings about a dozen musicians together, and they workshop, compose, rehearse and eventually perform about an hour’s worth of completely new music over the course of a week. Stef had been commissioned to make them a website, and he’d asked me on board for my perspective as the “online music guy”.

The conversation I’d had with producers Debra and Jeremy was that it would be a shame to simply do the standard web approach, which is to make an electronic brochure. Rather than make a website ABOUT Aftershock, it would be far more interesting to put Aftershock ONLINE. A one off performance and the end result of the music that is created over the course of the week is interesting, of course – but far more interesting, engaging and interactive is the opportunity to actually present the process of Aftershock as it happens.

We considered that this was an opportunity for digital narrative; that the narrative would have a strong arc (from meeting to rehearsal to a final performance), interesting characters – and that those characters would interact and develop over the course of the week.

To that end, we decided to provide each of the musicians with small, cheap, portable digital video cameras, let them catch the interesting material (rather than impose a ‘film crew’ on them) and then make sense of that material through the website.

We agreed to make a prototype of this approach, and to develop the procedures and parameters on the ground in Genoa, so that we would have a model for working at future Aftershock events in Marseilles and Manchester.

Nitin was initially cautious of our idea. His concern was that the cameras would get in the way of the musicians’ attention to the material that he was workshopping, and that over such an intensive week, working in the service of the website, rather than in the service of the performance would potentially be to the detriment of the project. We reassured him that the ease of use of the cameras, and the musicians’ familiarity with the technology would quickly mean that capturing content would soon become a natural part of the workflow – but he wasn’t entirely convinced. Until he asked one very interesting question:

“Can they watch the video back?”

“Of course.”

And at that moment, Nitin transformed what we were proposing into a genuinely useful extension of the project and integrated learning technique for the musicians. If they filmed parts of the workshops on their personal, portable video cameras, then they could take that video away with them and study the complex bits, rehearse, and get it right overnight. As a result, more could be squeezed into the workshop time with less repetition, and the event could be more musically ambitious.

 

A great example of this was when Nitin taught the musicians his Hindi rhythmic vocal composition The Conference. The video above shows the musicians simultaneously capturing and learning the piece (which was later adapted and developed into a larger, collaborative piece for the concert).

Digital Narrative

One of the real challenges of the week for us was to develop a strategy to represent the narrative online. With over 500 individual pieces of footage filmed on a total of 15 cameras, sorting, tagging and contextualising was a real challenge – but we identified three main ways in which the material could be explored by visitors to the website.

1) Chronology

From the arrival in Genoa and meeting the other musicians for the first time, through the workshops and rehearsals and using the reality television convention of the ‘video diary’, audiences can get an insight into the process of music-making from idea to finished production.

2) By character

On a video that briefly introduces each of the characters in turn, explains where they come from and what they play, we get a glimpse into their individual character. Visitors to the website can select a character and view videos that include that person – whether in rehearsal, or in the break, interacting with their fellow musicians.

3) By song

Using the final setlist as navigation, audiences can trace the development of a single song (in any chronological direction) from its original, embryonic form through to its final presentation at the concert.

Approach

One of the most interesting things about this process, from a research perspective, was the difference in approach, rate of uptake in the technology, and comfort with the cameras between the different participants. My original assumption would be that everyone would more or less automatically become an ad hoc documentarian, contextualising and explaining the footage in front of them for the benefit of the audience. In fact, only one person in the Aftershock team took that approach: David the sound engineer.

Other approaches differed markedly from that style. One person turned the camera on herself and created her own story around (and separate from) the event itself, filming her trip into the centre, picking up foccacia for the other musicians and reflecting on her own state of tiredness (a recurring theme across all of the participants). Another simply caught short (10-15 second), anecdotal moments of humour and levity between the songs. Others conducted interviews, created set pieces just for the camera, or merely filmed entire songs.

The rate at which the musicians became comfortable with the technology was fairly uniform, with one or two exceptions (singer/songwriter Ila already has her own videoblog), but the use seemed to become almost second nature and casual by the third day. On the second day, we had removed the soft protective bags for the devices, which had added a stage when bringing out the cameras. As they were cheap (£35) pieces of kit, we were not worried about breakages or wear and tear – and this seemed to increase the amount of use for the devices overall.

On the final day, nearly everything was documented: the final rehearsal in its entirety; the bus trip to Camogli where the concert was taking place; the soundcheck; the performance itself and everything that happened around it. There were also quite a few reflective pieces, as well as instances where the musicians joked around, using the cameras as part of their ‘play’. In one instance, drummer Jason and Nitin interviewed each other – cameras facing each other – in a semi-ironic ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ parody. The camera had become an occasion for levity as well as simply the medium through which that levity was documented.

But as with their use of the technology itself, the musicians (with one notable exception) also became increasingly comfortable with being in front of the camera – and so the tone became increasingly conversational. Rather than try and present a camera-ready persona, the musicians relaxed by about the third day – as evidenced by the entirely conversational tone in Nitin’s post-soundcheck video above.

Into the future

There’s a lot to be written up from this week in Genoa – and Stef and I are still cataloguing, tagging and uploading the videos themselves, and reconfiguring the site so that it presents the different digital narrative approaches outlined above. I’m still drawing lessons from this process and there will no doubt be conference presentations and journal articles that spring from this. I’ve also arranged to interview Nitin further for a book I’m writing about Music as Culture.


Final performance of a collaborative piece called ‘Gondwana’

What was most interesting to me, though, was that the musicians asked the same question at the beginning of the process as they did at the end – but for entirely different reasons.

The question: “How long will this be up on the internet?”

Our answer: “Forever”.

Their response at the beginning of the process was to worry about their possible shortcomings in performance, mistakes made, how they might come across and how it might reflect on their future musical projects. Their response by the end was that they were delighted that they’d be able to go back and revisit this in future – and, for more than one artist, possibly even show their children or grandchildren one day.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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