Advanced Networks and the Arts: SFJAZZ's Mount Allen Keynote Address
Live demonstrations of the power of advanced networks have always been a hallmark of CENIC’s annual conference, and when those demonstrations also showcase the ways in which such networks can support the arts, they invariably make for extremely well-received sessions.
Monday’s Keynote Address, given by SFJAZZ Director of Operations Mount Allen, was a perfect example of this kind of mind-expanding look into the potential of advanced networks to completely change the way we interact with things that many of us consider a significant part of our lives beyond what we think of as traditional research and education institutions.
In fact, that question was central to Allen’s thoughts when SFJAZZ obtained connectivity to CENIC thanks to a sponsorship from Stanford University: “What do we do with this?” Allen then observed that CENIC President and CEO Louis Fox’s response was, “Well Mount, that’s for you to figure out.”
Allen and the staff at SFJAZZ have done precisely that in grand style, as conference attendees witnessed when SFJAZZ Director of Education Rebeca Mauleón joined the Keynote Address remotely from the Bay Area to teach a network-enabled, high-quality remote masterclass to pianist Satya Fuentes, who was located in the UC Irvine presentation venue. The high-quality video and audio was shared over UltraGrid while the performers played Yamaha Disklavier DC6XE3PRO pianos, revolutionary network-enabled – and fully acoustic – instruments capable of being “joined” across distances, such that the keys on both pianos moved when either was played, as if Mauleón and Fuentes were playing a single piano existing simultaneously in two separate locations. Thus, thanks to this technology from Yamaha and the advanced networking provided by CENIC, both pianists were effectively playing in a single distributed studio though separated by hundreds of miles.
The masterclass consisted of a study of rhythmic patterns and chord modulations in Afro-Cuban jazz piano, which interlaces with the base rhythmic structure of the music or “clave” (KLA-veh, or “key”) typically counted out during the performance on a pair of hardwood sticks also called claves. Many such rhythmic patterns are used in Afro-Cuban jazz, and as a member of the rhythm section, the pianist must interlace precisely with them in intricate ways in order to provide a stable foundation for dancing and the other players, while still retaining the flexibility and freedom of expression that is a hallmark of all jazz.
Such events were for so long the unrealized dreams that motivated the advanced network community for decades beginning in the 1990s, and seeing these dreams finally take shape with all of their promise drew enthusiastic applause from attendees upon the demonstration’s successful conclusion. “This,” stated Allen, “is the direction of education for the arts.”
The video part of the demonstration was made possible by UltraGrid, what Allen referred to as “Skype on steroids,” software that enabled low-latency, extremely high-quality video exchange, and a virtually imperceptible latency – crucial for interaction music performance. (The bandwidth that such applications require of course is provided by CENIC and other advanced networking organization.)
One interesting observation made by Allen was the amount of time that passed between the delivery of the Yamaha Disklavier piano to its Bay Area location, and when SFJAZZ actually began using it – two full years during which the institution hasn’t “unraveled the power cord.” That situation changed when SFJAZZ came on board CENIC, demonstrating the ways in which the two means of erasing the distance between two widely separated locations can enhance one another.
Allen’s phrase for this is Virtual Marginalization of Distance or VMD – the result of minimizing the impact of perceived distance within communication cycles by use of advanced networking technology, and the establishment of what he referred to as “ba,” a concept taken from UC Berkeley Professor Ikujiro Nonaka, which was enthusiastically adopted by a large number of people at the conference, including later presenters.
Allen further described the “ba” of CENIC and SFJAZZ, where “ba” was defined as a shared space for emerging relationships, a sort of rich soil where interlaced and productive ecosystems can grow. Thanks to VMD, this space can be physical, virtual, or any combination of these and opens up opportunities for relationships and community creation. In Allen’s vision, network-enabled “ba” will propel the arts into an ultimately global collective, not just a series of one-off experiments.
He then introduced attendees to the ways in which this can open “portals into the world of jazz” and indeed any other part of our human cultural heritage. For example, exchanges can take place from the stage, integrating with existing SFJAZZ programming. This can include interactions that share Saturday matinee performances with public libraries, which are in the process of coming on board with CENIC in California. SFJAZZ can also interact with jazz education opportunities and programs throughout the country, reach out to aspiring musicians and jazz study programs in high schools and higher education, and create an assistive pathway for university admissions. Lastly, it can include the exploration of the use of the network as well, which can be challenging for cultural and other institutions that may not have a big IT staff. (To this end, Allen has committed part of his team to document how successful such collaborations have been achieved to develop best practices.)
Allen then speculated as to the ways in which participation in research and education networking can expand the demographics of jazz itself, addressing concerns put forth by Thelonius Monk Jr., son of the legendary jazz performer, who expressed concerns about the future of jazz when it is pulled into an academic environment. To allay such concerns, Allen put forth the concept of a “directorate,” a group of academicians (with tenure, who have the freedom to express themselves perhaps a bit more) who can create thoughtful dialogue and create a safe academic space where discussions about the future of jazz can take place.
In addition, the network can have a significant impact on the demograhics of jazz enthusiasts outside of Academe. “When my board asks me how we can change this,” Allen stated, “I say that we need to approach kids,” making SFJAZZ’s participation in a network that serves all of education from kindergarten to post-graduate study and beyond essential. Allen observed that many Boards of arts institutions create five-year plans, but stated that his impression was that “that’s about 20 years too late. We need to do some longitudinal activities that recognize the value of starting the conversation far earlier.”
CENIC, he then stated, provides a gateway to that opportunity as a kind of “ba” bridge. The deep, ultimate purpose of advanced networks is to connect people with people – the shared mission of both SFJAZZ and CENIC.