Listening with Elephant Ears is a composition by the Elefantöra ensemble and Hugo Boothby. This piece seeks to explore the auditory aesthetic of voice over internet protocols (VoIP) and the listening spaces they afford. Performances of voice, guitar and piano are treated using VoIP technologies and combined with domestic field recordings generated by the ensemble. The exploratory and collaborative making of this piece focused on practices of communal listening and worked to interrogate experiences of online communication under the conditions of a global pandemic. Listening with Elephant Ears is part of continuing PhD research conducted by Hugo Boothby at the School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University. This is an interview with Hugo about the process of the collaboration with Elefantöra.
What are your aims of the collaboration with Elefantöra?
I was very happy to be invited to work together with the Elefantöra ensemble as part of a collaboration between ShareMusic and Malmö University. I am currently doing research for my PhD thesis at Malmö University’s School of Arts and Communication and the collaborative composition work that I am doing together with the ensemble is an important part of this research.
I am interested in understanding better the work that ShareMusic do and how the process of composing and performing music together with an inclusive ensemble can work to promote inclusion and artistic development. Using arts-based research methods I work together with the musicians to compose and perform music together. The music we create and the performances we give, as well as my conversations with participants and observations of the artistic process, all produce important “data” for this research.
I am particularly interested in how the aesthetic experiences of the music that we produce are connected with the work of promoting inclusion and artistic development. How does listening to this music that we produce, as either a performer or an audience, make us feel or affect us? And how are these experiences of listening together important for understanding the work of ShareMusic and its significance for musicians, composers, audiences, and the society we live in?
I work in the field of Media and Communication studies, so I am particularly interested in how ShareMusic and Elefantöra use technology to create music and how that technology influences the sound of the music and the experience of composing, performing and listening to music together.
Together with Elefantöra I hope to produce an immersive, inclusive, communal listening experience that encourages composer, performers and audience to critically reflect on the significance of sound and listening for promoting inclusion, and what creating and performing music together might mean for our experiences of living together with difference.
Where are you right now in the process?
During three intensive workshops the Elefantöra ensemble and I have produced pre-recorded audio material and written a text score for a composition titled Listening with Elephant Ears: A Score for Multichannel Audio Recording, Voice, Guitar and Piano.
I started working together with the Elefantöra ensemble in October 2020, but due to restrictions on travel and physical meetings we have so far only been able to collaborate using the video conference application Zoom. During our workshops we have done improvisation exercises, made field recordings and discussed the significance of inclusive creative practice for the group. The digital workshops have been very productive, and we have already recorded music for the multichannel audio used in the performance and devised a ‘text score’ that will direct the live performance of the piece. The text score provides instructions for the musicians to perform using voice, guitar and piano in combination with the pre-recorded multichannel audio recording.
The generative and process-based nature of the work that we have been doing seeks to interrogate the significance of listening, to ourselves, our surroundings and each other, in musical composition and performance. The use of text scores and an emphasis on listening in musical composition and performance references specifically the work of Pauline Oliveros and Cornelius Cardew. The workshop methodologies from which this composition emerged were influenced by Oliveros and Cardew, but also the Search and Reflect improvisation methods of John Stevens. Field recordings produced by the ensemble are also an important element of this work and in this way the composition process references traditions of acoustic ecology and soundscape work that come from R. Murray Schaffer and Hildegard Westerkamp. All the composers referenced in this process emphasize not only the importance of listening within musical composition but also the value of devising compositional strategies that include both expert and non-expert musicians in collaborative creation.
The creation of processes that embraced diverse musical knowledge and experience emerged as an important, perhaps guiding principle, in the inclusive composition work that the Elefantöra ensemble and I created together.
When restrictions on travel and physical meetings are relaxed I look forward to rehearsing Listening with Elephant Ears together with the ensemble and exploring how the composition can be performed using a multi-speaker sound design. Following rehearsals we look forward to performing the work in the summer or autumn of 2021, and exploring how the work might be performed and interpreted by other ensembles and musicians in both concert and educational contexts.
What’s it like to co-create on a distance, online?
Working under the conditions of the global Covid-19 pandemic and accommodating restrictions that have prevented the Elefantöra ensemble and myself from meeting and working together in the same room, have introduced some complications and challenges to this collaborative creative work. But it has also forced us to explore experiences of digital communication and remote music making that have contributed in important ways to this project and the composition that has emerged.
Doing collaborative work during a global pandemic has meant that for many of us our meetings and creative work are done using video conference applications, and for this project the video conference application Zoom provided a simple and accessible way for myself and the Elefantöra ensemble to meet and share our ideas.
Zoom was chosen as the communication technology for this work not because it has the best audio interface or superior sound quality but because it is easy to use and was accessible to all participating in the project.
Although Zoom has become a useful and accessible technology for many during the pandemic, the software and algorithms Zoom uses for processing and recording sound make it problematic as a tool for musical performance. Zoom applies severe compression, or data reduction, to its audio to make the streaming and storage of audio more efficient, resulting in what professional sound engineers would describe as “poor quality” live sound and recordings. Zoom also applies processing to its audio that is designed to make the human voice more intelligible, but this processing can also remove the nuance from a musical performance or make some instruments difficult to hear when they are played at the same time as someone is singing.
Zoom like other audio and video conference software also introduces latency into communication, small time delays, that make it very difficult for musicians to synchronize and play together in time. These limitations meant that improvising, performing and listening to each other was challenging over Zoom, but it also meant that we had to think critically about how we can use Zoom to listen to each other in a different way. Singing on their own over Zoom could sometimes make the musicians feel isolated and vulnerable. While playing piano and waiting for your cue from another performer could force a musician to listen even more attentively, through the noise and distortions that Zoom produces.
Taking inspiration from this remote collaborative creative experience we decided to embrace the aesthetic qualities that Zoom introduced, its compressed and processed sound, and use this as a musical element within the composition. For this composition Zoom became another musical instrument within the performance. The performances of voice, guitar and piano, that we recorded using Zoom became an important part of the pre-recorded audio used in this composition, with Zoom’s compressed and processed “poor quality” recordings providing an important texture or aesthetic to this piece.
In embracing the limitations of online communication and listening I hope that the Listening with Elephant Ears composition reflects some of our experience of working together at distance under the conditions of a global pandemic. Embracing Zoom as a musical instrument within this composition and exploring its possibilities and limitations also became an important way to examine the role of communication technologies within inclusive artistic practice.
All photos were taken at the first workshop with Hugo Boothby and Elefantöra. Elefantöra met live at Elementstudion in Gothenburg, and Hugo led the workshop through Zoom. Soon after, restrictions were tightened and the rest of the collaboration was performed completely online. Photo by ShareMusic & Performing Arts.Listening with Elephant Ears