Latency: the Magical Time Machine
Presented at Two Thousand + SEVEN, Sonorities Festival of Contemporary
Music, SARC, Belfast, April 2007
Why does the issue of synchronisation dominate network performance research?
As Alvaro Barbosa has commented, ‘real’ synchronicity is impossible,
for even at the speed of light the time it would take to send data over
a distributed network would produce enough time delay to make ‘real-time’
music making between remote users problematic. Nevertheless, this has
not prevented the fascination with attempting to achieve the impossible.
The fixation with simulated experiences through digital media and virtual
reality has been fuelled by such industries as defence, sex and computer
games; and musicians are being caught-up in the wake of these technological
This paper addresses the concept of a network becoming part of an ‘instrument’
and as a unique medium opening up new musical paradigms. Furthermore,
inherent latency in a network challenges the musician to re-evaluate tried
and tested conceptions of music as a linear time-based art form. There
are a number of pieces that have already explored latency creatively:
for example, Jesse Gilbert’s interaXis and Chris Chafe’s Ping.
However, even more focused research must be directed toward how the ‘network’
can shape the whole creative process both compositionally and in regards
to performance. What lies at the root of the success of network performance
environments is how the very music itself is conceived. The philosophy
of Henri Bergson points to a way of thinking about time and space that
moves beyond the synchronous, linear and vertical arrangement of events.
There are many examples too where musicians have sought to regard time
in a similar way to Bergson. For example, Morton Feldman’s Durations
and Piece for Four Pianos treat time as a pure and fluid process rather
than artificially frozen instants. Such composition and musical thought
lends itself to the asynchronous world of a distributed network. It is
through exploring ideas of ‘musical’ time that the true potential
of network performance environments will be met.