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Interview with ZEE / Zaboura Eichstaedt Experience

img  Tobias

When did you first start using iPhones in your performances?
The idea came up pretty spontaneously during the CeBIT 2009 as part of „Webciety“. Nadia Zaboura was going to give a lecture of her own texts about the social relevance of Web 2.0 from her perspective as a communications scientist. We were asking ourselves if there might be a way of presenting this in an interactive and multimedial way. After all, this is what an online society (Web-ciety) is all about: Social interaction, multimedia, progress. So we sat down and prepared a Reading-iPhone-Performance. Nadia did the reading and I accompanied her on Brian Eno's „Bloom“ for the iPhone. After that, we were keen on trying different things and the first result were the group performances, which were never just about music alone, but also about neuroscience, sociology as well as social media.

What's the appeal of the „Bloom“-app?
Foremost that it's an easy to use program. Essentially, it's a kind of sound surface, which means that it is ideally suited to free improvisation. It also lends itself well to group performances and it is easy to control. You don't need to be a musician to use it.

So how satisfied were you about the „musical quality“ of the performance?
That's a hard question to answer and I'd rather let others decide about that. To us, it's mainly about the „experience“. Each of the eight performances we've organised was unique. We only used Drums once, for example. And even though we did employ visuals on various occasions, they were different each time. The only thing that matters to us is that a group operates as a unit and that there's an audience that can somehow appreciate the information. Words, iPhone, music and image should constitute a coherent entity which should be more than the sum of their parts.

What was the feedback for the performances like from the side of the audience?

We received all kinds of reactions. This is certainly a project that divides the audience. To some people, it just doesn't work, especially if one merely considers the musical dimension. But then again, it's about more than just that. Spectators interested in the holistic aspects generally tend to like it. Professional musicians are regularly surprised by what you can do with an iPhone and love the approach. „Regular“ instrumentalists were often part of the package and this worked pretty well, too. If you're talking about the „iPhone musicians“, however, it depends where they're coming from. If they're not musicians, they will mostly enjoy the group aspect of the performance.

Were people mainly coming for the music or for the technical aspect of the show?

Both. There were certainly those who just heard about an iPhone performance and though it was cool. Then again, we once had a gig with the Secret Chiefs 3, a Mr. Bungle-sideproject. They're a great live-formation, blending oriental stuff with Surfrock. And we would play as their support band in conjunction with someone playing the Kanun. Within this context, the reception is entirely different. People are listening much more closely compared to a stint at a technology conference, where you often get people who feel provoked by the music itself, because it's their first encounter with experimental sounds and they consider it art for art's sake. But now and then you have guests who have no prior knowledge about what's to come and they're the ideal audience, because they simply take things for what they are. This actually reminds me of how I stumbled into an improvisation gig by some crazy Japanese guy as a fifteen-year-old and how that completely transformed my life.

In which way are you now moving forward with the project?

We're currently thinking about ways to emphasise sampling as an additional element. For our performance on March 5th at the CeBIT computer fare in Hannover, for example, we will not only make use of an improvisatory live-iPhone ensemble, but also build a meta-website which will combine various YouTube-videos. We have only just started calling on people to shoot music videos with their iPhones, which will later be used on the site in a similar way that a sample would. Which brings us back to the idea of social media: How can you integrate people into a performance, even though they're not actually physically present?

To me, this idea of communicating musically with someone else entirely somewhere else on the planet in real-time seems incredibly exciting ...

Currently, the problem is that there are technological issues which prevent things from happening in real-time. It's not a question of money, either. Even if you're working with Satellite connections, you're still experiencing a latency of two to three seconds, which is a no-go for improvisation. It does work with Ambient, but as soon as you have some form of rhythm or improvisation where you're searching for „the magic moment“, it doesn't work. So it obviously limits what you can do right now.

There are very tangible reasons for your interest in virtuality, aren't there?
Because Nadia has moved to Cologne, meeting up in person will no longer be as easy as it used to be. So we've asked ourselves the question of whether it is possible to not only integrate virtual performances, but to actually make the entire project virtual from time to time, with us no longer being present anymore. It can definitely be done, the question remains, though, where we want to go with this. One of the key topics of social media is the idea of loosing control, so we're wondering whether we're giving away control of what we are doing if we are no longer there to supervise the event. Essentially, this is nothing new – John Zorn's „Cobra“ works very similarly and on a „Guru“ basis, with Zorn instructing select people how to perform the piece. But he's doing this on a highly personal level, while we're interested in the possibility of an entirely virtual presence.

How, do you think, will this virtualisation affect the experience of a live gig?

What you need for something to be perceived as a live event is a focal point. A space where people meet. If we're gathering at home to watch a game of soccer, the centre of the action is in the stadium. That's where people come together, that's where they create a live feeling. So projecting people from all over the world on a huge screen will only work if this happens in front of an audience. What this means is that you're in a way turning the usual idea of a gig upside down: The audience is turning into the actual centre of the performance.

This reminds me of how a Stuttgart-based radio station once broadcasted an enormously successful chart show which would run for weeks and people would actually meet spontaneously to listen to the it. So the actual event was completely decentralised and wasn't even planned ...
Yeah, people were taking their radios to open air pools and parks so as not to miss the top ten. Of course, with the kind of experimental music we're doing, this kind of spontaneity is not going to happen. People are too much spread out for that. But we are looking for ways to make our performances more direct, for example, by inviting people just shortly before the gig.

Most iPhone music apps, for example, are also easy to use, so there's an enormous potential for otherwise „passive“ listeners to turn into „active“ musicians ...
Absolutely. In all of our performances, we combine „real“ instrumentalists with iPhone users without any kind of connection to music. It worked brilliantly. Don't forget that our art also consists in the way that we make use of videos and photos taken by visitors during the performance. The key term here is crowdsourcing. Lots of non-musicians are integrated into musical projects.

What, effectively, happens when a telephone turns into an instrument?
You get effects on various layers: For one, it maximises the aspect of mobility of instruments. Which ultimately means that the element of spontaneity will become more important in music. You have to plan less in advance. And then, it's a nice a side-effect that a „tele“-communication-tool is taken back to its original purpose: Enhancing social interaction.

The funny thing, of course, is that on a purely technical level it doesn't really matter whether these sounds were produced on an iPhone. You could just as well run the application on a laptop ...

Yes, but it does make things easier if you can tell people to just bring along their iPhone and download an intuitive $2.99 application. In the end you're right, though, and we certainly don't want to be stigmatised as the „iPhone-guys“. Once you present your musical results on a medium – which we intend to do later in the year – these distinctions are naturally without relevance.

An iPhone is not just a potential instrument, it is also a photo-camera and a video-camera. So how is this impacting the fusion between different media?

Music is going to be more multimedial. This is something you can already observe in pop music. For me, Lady Gaga is the David Bowie of the Twitter generation. She's an incredible mainstream role model for our project. Ask yourself: What, other than the actual music, differentiates Lady Gaga from David Bowie? Both have a chameleon personality. But while Bowie changed his characters every two years, Gaga changes them every week. And this is a reflection of the necessity of posting news on Facebook and Twitter – a new thrill every day. That, to me, is what art will look like in the future. It caters to visuals, fashion, music, even horrormovies.
We're also working on this, even though we've only just set about exploring the theme. Currently, we're collaborating on a range of t-shirts for the ZEE-project with a designer, for example, and are thinking of integrating this into an iPhone fashion performance. And from there, you could go on to produce related pieces of „fashion music“. We're talking about all kinds of people from the most diverse directions right now to make this happen. Ultimately, we're of course also looking at producing our own app – or to turn our own website into an app as a first step.

And the album you referred to before, is surely not just going to be a regular CD?

(laughs) No, no! It's going to be a double-vinyl-7inch in a gatefold cover. We want to limit it to 50 copies, but are thinking about the idea of not actually making them available for sale. Rather, you would have to earn your copy by performing particular activities. For example, by performing in a certain amount of our events.

Which is also a way of making the relationship between you as artists and your audience more personal ...
On the one hand, yes. This is something brought about by the internet anyway and it's important. On the other hand, there need to be aspects separating artists and their audience again. Movie stars from the 50s were much bigger than those from the here and now, because there was no intermingling between their glamour life and  quotidian routine. What we need are moments of exclusivity and non-availability. So we're thinking about ways of transferring this to merchandising. When we use the term „merchandising“, we're not referring to products. Rather, we're considering it to be part of the art itself. And we're therefore looking for ways of sharing this exclusivity with those who are contributing to the project.

iPhone performances are obviously a hot topic in the media right now. Do you think they will turn into the regular way of performing on stage in the long run?
Nadia and I both don't think so. For things to happen, you need pro-active people. Actually, that's the main issue: Taking the initiative to make music happen. Regular musicians are better at this, because they already had to show at least a bit of initiative when they were practising their instrument. The iPhone is a nice element and will undoubtedly be used as a gadget here and there – just like the Nintendo DS, which we also take to the stage. On her most recent record, Yoko Ono is using Yamaha's Tenori-On, which stands somewhere between an instrument and an iPhone. Just like a Netbook, which is somewhere between a mobile phone and a laptop. To put it more concisely: There will be more of these approaches, but things will not end there. There will always be artists using other, newer technologies.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Kathrin Aue


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