Music and associative vernacular media

This is a short video taken by one of the artists involved in the Aftershock Project in Manchester earlier this year. In it, some musicians are composing a song together. A week earlier, most of them had never met. A week later, they had performed that song together on stage in front of a packed audience, and returned to their homes in England, France and Italy.

By itself, the video is fairly unremarkable, though it does give a brief insight into the creative process, which normally would be hidden from an audience. Musicians traditionally tend to like presenting finished things.

But what it represents in terms of a methodology, a process and a way of ‘making internet’ with respect to music (and musicking) is something that really interests me – and has formed the basis for much of my academic work over the past year or so.

Because what’s interesting is not the video itself, but the way in which that video potentially links to other, related videos from within the same context – and makes connections from which narrative meaning can be constructed.

Call it associative vernacular mediation.

In other words, just as you can build something unique with a set of Lego bricks, you can create a multi-perspective story using these rough-and-ready vernacular video clips.

Here’s another video from the same event:

In this clip, composer Nitin Sawhney is sitting in his hotel room on a Sunday morning, reflecting on the previous night’s DJ set, and the impending full band concert in which he would be performing the song we saw above as it was being written.

Here’s a third, quite different video, filmed from the perspective of one of the musicians on the stage, during a rehearsal:

Individually, these video clips are perhaps interesting in passing, and if you’re a fan of Nitin’s work (or one of the other musicians shown) then you’d have cause to watch one, and maybe go ‘huh’ at the end – having seen something you might not otherwise have seen, but for which there is little context or framework through which to arrive at some sort of meaning.

But when seen together, you can start to build up a story. Individuals become familiar characters, songs become recognisable, even in embryonic form – and even short, throwaway clips begin to take on contextual meaning.

Aftershock as prototype
Aftershock is far from the only project I’ve taken this approach with – but it was the first, and it was where the idea both originated, and was fine-tuned over several events in Italy, France and the UK. The ideas were developed in partnership with web developer Stef Lewandowski, and later advanced with my colleagues from the Birmingham Center for Media and Cultural Research – particularly Jez Collins, Simon Barber and Tim Wall.

It is, however, a fairly simple idea, and Aftershock was an ideal testing ground for the concept.

Rather than make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the project, or subject the musicians to a Big Brother-style reality show production, the aim was to use the more conversational, rough-and-ready vernacular attributes of the world wide web – and, for that matter, allow them to select what should and shouldn’t be filmed.

To that end, the musicians were each supplied with cheap, portable, easy-to-use, handheld Flip video cameras nd told to point them at whatever they thought was interesting. My interest was more in capturing and presenting the dynamics of creative moments than in creating a definitive text.

The footage was collected from the musicians at different times throughout each day, and then posted on a blog, unedited.

The idea was to provide audiences with the ingredients to build their own stories from the kitset pieces provided and rather than impose a narrative on events or let the chronological events themselves impose a final narrative on the mediation, the individual pieces provide a mode of “narrativisation”, rather than a linear and definitive story.

That is, it wasn’t just enough to upload the videos and make them available on the website – and it would have been too much of a imposition of meaning and interpretation to edit, assemble or present the videos in a particular predestined order.

So I established a set of tagging conventions for each of the videos, so that there would be clear ways of connecting the clips, but without either dictating the narrative paths, or demanding that certain videos be seen in a certain order. As a piece of practice-based research, what I was essentially working on was a way of allowing the artists to choose what to show, and allowing the audience to choose how to make sense of it.

Making sense of it all through tagging

Musicians were encouraged to capture video in all sorts of different contexts: while performing, while learning pieces, while socialising in the evening, or over breakfast at the hotel, or while wandering around the city. We encouraged them to share their thoughts and reflections in video diary pieces, or interview their fellow musicians, as well as simply capture performances, or “official” parts of the Aftershock event.

The short video clips (we suggested between 30 seconds and 3 minutes for each piece) were each given a title and tagged with metadata that would enable audiences to navigate between the videos in ways other than merely chronologically. Tags used to make sense of the clips included the name of each of the musicians appearing in the video; the name of the song being performed (if a song was indeed being performed and if it had a name), the context such as rehearsal, or socialising and any other tag that may have emerged as meaningful.

The tags were selected based on their descriptive, rather than interpretive value, and a set of tags were usually agreed in advance, though developed as new meaningful terms emerged, such as song titles. However, care was taken not to impose too much meaning onto the video entries by adding keywords that expressed a judgment or interpretation. So, for instance backstage, Denis and rehearsal were acceptable tags, but confrontation, successful and panic would not be.

Web visitors could watch a video, and be presented with a set of choices concerning what to do next. They could ‘See more videos about…’ a list of relevant tags, names of musicians who had appeared in that video, etc. – or they could simply go and watch another clip chosen at random from the blog.

Given the sheer number of videos available to view – and from so many different perspectives (including my own), it’s possible to assemble many completely different mediated experiences of the Aftershock Project – and significantly, experiences that could not be accessed or replicated in any other way.

Music events as narrative
Clearly, in a case such as this – where diverse and accomplished creative individuals are brought together to learn to collaborate and perform as an ensemble, it is not simply the music that is interesting. As a piece of digital narrative, the Aftershock Project has strong characters, a clear story arc, and opportunity for both conflict and resolution.

The Aftershock Project online raises questions not only about how music mediation is produced, but how we imagine music mediation might be consumed in the absence of pre-packaged closure or the idea of a definitive performative artefact. The “electric age” concept of a closed “read-only” work – the recording or the broadcast as the item for consumption is neither a necessary nor an ideal arrangement for the production, distribution, promotion or consumption of music.

At the performance, the audience were also in on the act…

This project is, in part, intended as a provocation and exploration toward what a natively “read-write” form of music mediation might be in the digital environment. And while it could be argued (and often is) that this sort of technological intervention “devalues” music, or that the deprioritisation of a controlled, ordered, finished and idealised definitive product constitutes a form of cultural net loss, that proposition does have an air of nostalgia to it, and also asserts an ideal form of mediation that is always problematic and conservative.

I would argue, as a form of media communication itself, rather than simply something that requires mediation, music (and the activity of making music) is not simply a fixed artistic expression, but a very human activity – a set of practices, shared symbolic meanings and discourses that connect people: the people making the music as well as the people for whom the music is performed.

Composition and improvisation
As a methodology, the ‘add video cameras and stand back’ approach has been very interesting one – as has the practice of assigning titles and tags to those videos to provide signposts of meaning to the eventual “consumers” (if that’s a useful concept here).

It’s an approach I’ve now taken to a number of different music-related events and contexts.

At the Scarborough Jazz Festival, my colleagues and I gave the cameras to technical staff, organisers, musicians and audience members, as well as intervening ourselves with interviews, written concert reviews, photography and our own experiences of the event.

By inserting ourselves into the narrative, and using our own social connections online, we were able to engage in and reflect upon the discussion around that event and its mediation – as well as offer people who weren’t at the event a view of what it was like to be there (in near-real time) that they could not otherwise have accessed.

When bassist Dave Holland visited the BCU Conservatoire for a week as a composer-in-residence, visiting lecturer and workshop leader, the same approach was taken, and different challenges arose.

When UB40 played a gig to save the Rainbow pub from closure, and bring media attention to the issue of noise control as a problematic for local live music culture, Jez Collins and I teamed up with the band’s saxophonist Brian Travers, who has since gone on to embrace the vernacular medium, and shares the behind the scenes world of the band for its fans on YouTube.

With the Music Basti project, which is still very much a work in progress, some colleagues and I recorded an album with Delhi street kids, and plan to use the videos we recorded as a way of telling the story behind the music, which will be released as an online album to help raise money for the Indian music charity we worked with.

I’m currently also developing some ideas along these lines for the Rhythm Changes European jazz research project I’m involved in, and hope to be building on this framework as we try and do some more sophisticated things with it, and get some more nuanced insight into how the approach connects with music, musicians, audiences and other stakeholders (such as funding organisations).

But while the key ingredients are the same (vernacular video, tagging and blogging), each context has its own unique parameters, challenges and opportunities – so in effect, there is a composed element to what we are doing, and then there is an element of improvisation.

Much like my favourite music.

The whole point
We’ve all seen YouTube videos, and understand well that there’s a type of mediation now available to us that wasn’t before.

However, while video production tools are no longer exclusively in the hands of media professionals with expensive equipment, and making those videos public no longer requires a studio, a transmitter and a broadcasting licence, the shift in the kind of mediation made possible through blogging, digital video, mp3s and digital photography also afford an extra layer of narrativisation through connection – and I believe that this extra dimension of associative mediation could offer rich possibilities for individual artists, labels and music events – as well as further afield into other, non-musical contexts.

My interest here, though, lies the way in which this kind of mediation of music relates to our understanding of its composition, production, distribution, promotion and consumption, and how this can be organised and expressed differently in the digital environment than it has been in the electric age of studio recordings, live concerts and broadcasting – which are, of course, mediations of a different kind.

This is what I’m working on.

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