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Together Apart

​Thoughts on Collaborative Improvisations via Zoom with Bex Burch, Vula Viel.

The Question

While the business world seems to have transitioned with relative smoothness to virtual meetings, with Zoom dominating as the primary technology, for musicians things are quite different. Music teachers transitioning to online teaching have been frustrated at being unable to play together with students, while ensembles of all sizes are going to elaborate lengths to record separately and layer tracks together in a semblance of making music together.

So the question for musicians becomes - is there a way in which we can make music with others while each in our own homes?

Someone who is answering that question in an interesting way is Belfast-based Bex Burch, percussionist of Vula Viel. Originally classically trained, she is now known for her performances on the gyil, an instrument from traditional Dagaare music of Ghana, which she learned over a long instrument-building apprenticeship. She recently performed in Dublin with Vula Viel as part of Jazz Connective in December 2019 and will be familiar to audiences in Belfast through her series of improvised music nights, created with Adam Pultz Melbye, Hand Made Music (musicians can apply here).

As an improvising musician, Bex has been finding new pathways for music during lockdown, creating remote improvised duos over Zoom with instrumentalists based in a myriad of places, from London to Boston. Improvised music, being as adaptable as it is, may be uniquely placed to work in these new contexts, and Bex has explored the drawbacks and advantages to making music together from afar.

One of the lockdown duos was recently broadcast online, on an episode of Drummers Inc. on WorldWide FM, presented by Bex, airing on the 30th of May. The duo featuring Bex and Leafcutter John can be heard from about 5:50, while the rest of the programme, besides some amazing music, features interviews with renowned percussionist Evelyn Glennie and singer Rita Ray.

The Concept

The first such duo was one she recorded with saxophonist and multi-wind-instrumentalist Tamar Osborn, who had been scheduled to come to Belfast to perform at Hand Made Music. ‘We’d never played together,’  Bex notes, ‘she’s a great friend and a musician I really respect, and I was looking forward to playing with her, we said ‘Let’s do this over Zoom’.’

After getting used to the technology, this has become a somewhat regular collaboration, and the pair have created 9 improvisations together. Since then, Bex has duetted with musicians including Leafcutter John, Magnus Mehta, Evan Ziporyn, Liam Noble, Oren Marshall, and Peter Zummo, some of whom she has played with before but many of whom she hasn’t.

‘It’s a time when playing with my usual band members is just as difficult, and just as accessible as anyone else, so I’ve just been reaching out to people and saying ‘Hey shall we play?’ and most people are up for it.’  Some are collaborations she might not have managed in person, ‘Tamar was coming to play, but we wouldn’t have done something every week! Leafcutter John, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken us to meet in person… Evan Ziporyn over in the States, I don’t know if we’d ever have done a duo together.’

What about that element which scuppers many ensembles, the lag?

During the interview we experimented live with the lag, with a clap after a count of 3, which left Bex a solid beat (somewhere around 80-90bpm) behind me to my ears, while to her ears she was with me. A whole beat is more than I would have thought in lag, but as Bex explained, in its way that whole beat is more useful.

Having tried some of the other technological solutions available, she has come back to Zoom because ‘The Zoom beat is actually kind of cool,’, and can become part of the improvisation. ‘Even though my perspective is going to be different from yours, we can each play something that’s ‘in time’, neither person has to ignore the other person.’ The improvisation will then usually have some relationship to the beat as created by the Zoom lag, ‘Say the lag is 80bpm, they’ll be 80 or some relation to that, but the relationships can be quite varied - it could be 3 against 4 or 4 against 5, it can still feel in time.’

Once the musicians can accept that their auditory experiences will be different, a full beat of separation is easier to work with than a very short lag. 'Some of the low-latency technology makes the lag so short that it’s much harder to make it musical, but still long enough not to be together.’

Making music apart means leaning into the separation, physically, musically, rhythmically, and allowing that to become part of the music.

The Reasons

And are there any advantages to making music in this way?

We discussed some of the reflections that Bex is finding through these projects. While we are all lamenting the things that are lacking in not being able to come together in the same space with fellow musicians and audience, there are different ways to see the online experience. For Bex, while of course being in a room with other musicians offers advantages, ‘what about the difference of me being in my own room? What that actually gives the music, the relaxation of being in my own room, without having to travel, without having to worry.’

It’s interesting to reflect on some of the inherent disadvantages to making music with others while traveling and touring, ‘I don’t have to pack up all my gear, we’re not in a darkened practice space, I’ve got my beautiful view onto Belfast Lough.’ Live gigs can also have their flaws and disadvantages, ‘If the sound is really bad on a gig or something, and you can’t hear anyone, you work through it, and it makes the improvisation what it is.’

All of these elements can inform the music in an improvisation from her perspective. 'The reality of life at the moment, limitations of the technology and of the circumstances, are just part of the improvisation, those limitations also bring something.’

In the end, different situations of making music will have different advantages and disadvantages, and making music means working with those differences. ‘Glitches, you’ve just got to play through them or something. It’s just like any other gig in that way, stuff happens and you go, okay, this is what’s happening.’ Occasionally she acknowledges, things do glitch that bit too far, ‘it feels like there’s too much impediment to the music, it’s frustrating.’ But not often. ‘Most of the time, it’s just enabling us to make music together.’

Why is it important to be finding new ways of creating music together?

Bex reflects that while musicians are always used to a certain amount of time alone, practicing and writing, collaboration is also an essential part of their lives. ‘I spend part of my year in isolation writing, and it’s normal and really creative and positive, but there’s a time for that and a time for the build up to sharing it out in the world. I’d just been building up to sharing at that point COVID-19 happened, so I had all that energy of wanting to share music with people.’

The duos were a partial answer to that need to share music, and a way of dealing with the uncertainty and shock of a collapsed music industry and tours which had vanished ‘I’d lost a lot of touring, and the shock of that, I think a lot of musicians were dealing with - the loss of income, but also the loss of the build-up of energy. In that first few weeks I really needed it, it was feeding me and feeding the loss of what was gone.’

The Set-Up

Practically, the set-up as mentioned above has always used Zoom for the interaction between the two musicians, each listening through headphones, while they record their parts of the duo separately to be synced and mixed later.

When using Zoom as the platform to monitor each other, there are a few key points for musicians to be able to hear each other. ‘Because it’s set up for meetings, Zoom takes whoever is playing loudest, makes them audible, and then the quiet person disappears, which is not useful when you’re improvising.’ In Audio Preferences, it’s best to switch off the ‘automatically adjust volume’, and in Advanced Preferences to disable ‘suppress intermittent noise’ and ‘suppress persistent background noise’. It’s also useful for each player to ‘pin video’ for each other.

They begin each recording with a timed clap as a reference point (i.e. 1, 2, 3, clap), which illustrates how far apart their aural experiences are. Then, when syncing the two tracks together, there is a range of what’s real. Often it comes down to two versions, representing either person’s realtime experience. ‘I usually tend to prefer my experience,’ Bex says, although she tries both, ‘which is really wild actually, syncing up stuff that’s not what I experienced in the improvisation at all.’ Sometimes depending on the music she will find syncing to the other person’s experience suits the track better,. She laughs, 'Some of the time that actually makes me sound like a better musician, because I’m playing less obvious stuff!’

For syncing and mixing, which she finds ‘really creative as well,’ she uses Reaper, which was recommended to her by Alex Bonney, sound engineer, electronic musician and trumpeter. She finds Reaper more intuitive and easy-to-use, and more about the audio when working with acoustic music. Alternates are ProTools, Logic, and Ableton, which tend to have more features, and may be very useful for electronic music.

Her hardware set-up uses a Focusrite Scarlett audio interface to connect her microphones to her computer. Her gyil has pick-ups underneath which go into a mixer, which is also the way she creates sound on a gig, through the combination of the DI from the mixer, and the microphones. Inputs into the audio interface are the DI clean and DI pedals and then 2 inputs from a stereo pair of microphones. For mallet instruments and percussion sounds she prefers a stereo pair and not too much close-miking.

Bex has also found that this project has given her the opportunity to develop her home recording set-up and skills ‘I’m using this time to sort out my home recordings, which this Zoom playing has really helped me do, and it’s also helped me get my head around very beginner mixing.’

The Conclusions

We also discussed the other implications of lockdown. Although the difficulties experienced by many people in lockdown are huge, some musicians are also finding space and distance to reflect without pressure on ‘normal’ life, and consider what could change. ‘The enforced space - to ask myself what sort of music do I like, to practice what I want to practice, to be playing just for myself - has been so enriching. It’s a good deep constructive time for me.’

One realisation she has found is the desire to capture more good live performances via video. Filmed just before lockdown, Vula Viel recently released a gig with Peter Zummo at London’s Café OTO. ‘We got so much engagement from people saying we’ve never seen you, we’d never be able to get to a gig, people with accessibility issues - that was such a positive thing.’ The possibilities for remote music-making are something to consider into the future, however they develop. While touring is of course important to her, ‘I want to be gigging, I make albums and do all this so I can tour,’ the current touring model for musicians comes with plenty of its own drawbacks. ‘There’s environmental issues of course, now that we’ve stopped flying across the whole world, it’s such a relief, and it’s such a relief on the planet.’

Bex acknowledges that she is in a lucky position, compared with a large part of the music industry which may be dealt a fatal blow by this pandemic. ‘Right now I think I’ll be able to continue, so I’m in a privileged space.’ With that privileged space she finds a certain drive to take time to consider ‘I’d like to use these experiences to reshape how I create my career. It does feel like everything’s come to zero and we will have to build things up again.’ It may not be clear where reflection or new possibilities will lead, but it might seem to some musicians at the moment that (to paraphrase), an unexamined musical career is not worth having.

‘Sometimes asking the right questions is the only thing you can do. The answers are less obvious, less tangible, but they do come, through the years, after you’ve asked the right questions.’

The importance of making music to musicians cannot be underestimated. In the most difficult circumstances, musicians still act on the drive to create music together, whether those circumstances are a global pandemic, economic hostility to the arts, or the emotional toll of battling for a career in music. If improvising in duos over Zoom is a new way in which we can create music together, it has to be worth exploring.

A huge thanks to Bex Burch for taking the time to share her project and reflections with us.

You can buy music from Vula Viel HERE, follow them on Facebook HERE, or Twitter HERE and listen to Bex’s show on WorldWide FM, Drummers Inc., HERE.

For musicians who may not be frequent improvisers but interested in developing those skills at the moment, a recent episode of the Bulletproof Musician podcast has some interesting reflections on overcoming improvisation anxiety. A number of Ireland’s improvising musicians are also offering remote lessons at the moment, you can find a list HERE. For more ideas regarding recording at home, take a look at our resource article on budget recording and streaming.