vs. Interpretation




Jason Robinson

Toward an Understanding of Latency and Interactivity in Networked Performance


A saxophonist, composer, and scholar, Jason Robinson (PhD, UC San Diego) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Music at Amherst College (with affiliations in Black Studies and Film & Media Studies). His teaching and research focuses on jazz, improvised music, African diasporic music, and interactive music technologies. His current book project, “(Re)Sounding the African Diaspora,” investigates the role of improvisation in collaborations involving African American and continental African musicians. Jason Robinson delivered this presentation at the vs. Interpretation Festival and Symposium in July 2014.

In recent years, an increasing number of performances take place that involve musicians distributed across two or more sites linked in real time using specialized audio and video networking technologies on the Internet. Such performances go by several names—telematics, networked music, distributed performance, net music—and strike a revealing balance between remarkable new aesthetic and technological possibilities and the “believable,” that is, the boundaries at which certain technical limitations push against deeply held assumptions about musical performance (and, by extension, improvisation). One such limitation is latency, a kind of time delay intrinsic to all networked communication. Research suggests that the presence of more than fifty milliseconds of latency between two or more performers limits their ability to play in synchronous time together, a threshold often crossed in telematic performance.

The use of improvisation in telematics, however, further complicates the impact of latency on performance and accentuates the complicated distinctions and similarities between co-located, traditional performance and networked performance. Drawing examples from Virtual Tour 2013 (a multi-site networked performance involving musicians in California, Massachusetts, and New York, in the United States, and Zurich, Switzerland), I illustrate the impact of latency on two distinct forms of improvisation used in networked performance: “open” improvisation (in a rubato tempo without a predetermined synchronous “beat” or time structure) and “groove-oriented” improvisation (with a synchronous “beat” or time structure). I bring together two different temporal frameworks from traditional co-located performance—microtiming (via Vijay Iyer) and participatory discrepancies (via Charles Keil and Steven Feld)—to examine the impact of latency on telematic improvisation. My conclusion is rather surprising: both the aesthetic strategies and the “believable” in telematic improvisation recast perspectives derived from traditional co-located performance, thus reflecting larger, more deeply held assumptions about embodiment, communication, and interactivity in improvisation.