Marc Dooley, CoMA Board member, Head of Digital Content Development at Edition Peters and Co-ordinator of the CoMA Unlocked ensemble writes:

While there are very few things to celebrate at the moment, the Covid-19 crisis has revealed the fact that CoMA’s ability to connect musicians through contemporary music under impossible circumstances is unique. As the lockdown measures started it occurred to me that CoMA’s repertoire and network of wonderful ensembles might produce some interesting new opportunities for exploration and cross-ensemble connection. In the last few weeks the CoMA Unlocked ensemble has been meeting to talk, play and experiment with the tools and repertoire available to us. Our objectives have been to explore available technologies, to work on repertoire suited to the limitations of those technologies, to enjoy real-time live ensemble music making and to bring together representatives from ensembles who would otherwise rarely meet. From my point of view our initial meetings have been tremendously inspiring.

On the technology front, we have of course encountered the same difficulties that every ensemble musician has faced in the last weeks. There simply is no generally available software that will allow exactly synchronised ensemble music-making for a large number of people. I initially had some hopes for the JamKazam app, which offers a high degree of control over the audio settings for a group and minimises latency. But, while it was possible to connect with a small number of musicians, the complexity of the set-up for a larger group has meant we have not been able to connect a minimum ensemble. In the weeks ahead we will likely try again with this. For similar reasons, other apps designed for low-latency situations (music or gaming) like Jamulous or Mumble have also proved difficult to get past the “this seems to be interesting, but it’s very complicated to get going” phase. In any case, even working perfectly these apps do not remove latency issues – relying as they do also on hardware and connection speed. So, for now, we are working with Zoom, and all its limitations. What was immediately apparent however was the ability of the CoMA Unlocked members to overcome these limitations, and immediately start treating them as a creative opportunity.

After a call-out to participants we have brought together a group of 9 people from around the CoMA community. I have been delighted that our ensemble is from the start an international one and brings together ensemble representatives from ensembles in Maastricht, Glasgow, Eindhoven, Bristol, London, Truro, Leicester and Colchester. The ensemble is probably the maximum achievable size for this initiative at present. One feature of Zoom is that it only ever broadcasts a random selection of audio, so the overall sound picture becomes compromised very quickly with large numbers, even with settings optimised for music. But it has also felt a good number to work on the repertoire with.

We started with repertoire from the CoMA library that I felt would work in the context of non-synchronised audio. The CoMA library is packed full of riches and there is much potential to explore here. So far, we have worked on three pieces: Andrew Toovey’s For Morton Feldman, Sarah Hennies’ Growing Block and – a brand-new piece – David Machell’s The Coming of the Spring. Tonight, we plan to add James Weeks’s Stacking, Weaving, Building, Joining to the repertoire. All these pieces allow a degree of rhythmic freedom. It is unquestionably true that the technology guarantees a far from ideal sonic result, but what has been fascinating has been how the context has stimulated musical play, real group listening and responsiveness, experimentation and – it has to be said – enjoyment! We all found the experience of just being able to play together very moving. Already the group has moved into an interesting democratic-self-critical mode to explore getting different results. My role as a ‘conductor’ (already questionable perhaps!) has become far more of a facilitator among equals. I’ve been particularly delighted that the context has already brought about new music from one of our members – last week we sang and played David Machel’s ‘The Coming of the Spring’ (does anyone else know of another piece of music ‘designed to be sung live at a Zoom conference’?) which took account of all the issues we had found in the previous rehearsal and which I personally thought worked absolutely beautifully. I know at least one other member is also working on a new piece. This is exactly what sets CoMA apart, the ability to be creative under any circumstances. We’d love to have more new music and can easily welcome composers to the group.

We will continue to meet and play in the coming weeks. The group is meant to complement the fantastic work that many groups are doing within their own organisation. While we are forced apart by circumstances, this inspirational group of people will, I think, make a small contribution to bringing the CoMA family a little closer together.

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