By Professor Raymond MacDonald
Music has a fundamental quality to help us connect with others, to satisfy and nourish our need for companionship. Its unique and universal capacity to engage and connect us, socially and emotionally in enjoyable ways, lies at the heart of why music is implicated in a huge number of health related interventions. These features of music also help explain why music has been used in many different ways to ameliorate the negative effects of the isolation we have all experienced during lockdown.
I work with a group in Scotland, The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) and at the start of lockdown it was clear that we would not be able to meet and play music together for sometime. We didn’t realise quite how long that would be but we decided to try and meet online and play music together. To begin with it was just a means of staying connected, meeting weekly and maintaining our community but very quickly we began to find new ways to be creative, new ways to collaborate using the specific features of the online environment – virtual backgrounds, time delays, etc and the meeting became musically and conceptually ground-breaking, as well as socially important. The creative process of improvising over Zoom became exhilarating in itself and not just a pale imitation of real-life improvising. As we explored our new stage, complete with virtual backgrounds, domesticity and dodgy WIFI, new ways working, listening, seeing, hearing and being together started to emerge.
The virtual nature of the meetings meant we could invite friends from around the world to join, and over the course of the pandemic, over 100 musicians, cross generational and with a pretty much 50/50 gender split, from 14 countries (including Shoeb Ahmed, Aviva Endean, Rob Burke, Peter Knight, Alister Spence, Sandy Evans, Tony Gorman from Australia), spanning all five continents, all experiencing their own type of lockdown, joined our sessions. The idiosyncrasies of Zoom, the latencies, the glitches, the thinning of concurrent sounds, the flattening of the curve of our music, did not hamper our interactions. Quite the opposite; since we were using improvisation as our means of communication, all these features became emergent aspects of the music. We were able to learn from them and to create new improvised audio-visual compositions. Most importantly, the sessions were not only sustaining our community, they were enhancing it. Talking, laughing and creating together became an important artistic process, providing not just social sustenance but creative and conceptual breakthroughs about how to collaborate in these challenging times.
The screen became two-dimensional stage, flattening the normal horseshoe curve of our regular setup. We were simultaneously audience and performers, watching ourselves play, each occupying the same sized rectangle on the screen, liberated in many ways from some of the normal expectancies of our in-person music making. We marked the passing of close friends, musical legends, with improvised requiems and attempted to engage with geopolitical upheavals while appreciating our privileged position, connecting over the internet.
I was lucky to be able to also carry out some empirical research and along with my fabulous colleagues Tia De Nora at the University of Exeter, Robert Burke at Monash University in Melbourne, Ross Birrell at Glasgow School of Art and Maria Sappho at the University of Huddersfield we interviewed many of the participants at the session and published a paper in Frontiers in Psychology.
Participants reported enhanced mood enhanced mental health, reduced feelings of isolation, and strong feelings of being connected with their community in terms of sustaining and developing community. They reported making significant artistic development in their practice. The results also suggested that Improvisation as a universal, real time, social, and collaborative process facilitated these important creative and social interaction, allowing the technological affordances of software (latencies, sound quality, and gallery/speaker view) and hardware (laptop, tablet, instruments, microphones headphones, and objects in room) to become important aspects of the Zoom sessions.
Over the past year I have also been involved in a number of other new collaborations that have been shaped the online world we are currently in. “Duet for Two People Who Have Never Met” is a collaboration with Opera singer and composer Rachel Joy Weiss who I have never met and is based in Miami. We produced a new piece for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. (https://hcmf.co.uk/programme/raymond-macdonald-rachel-weiss/)
Theatre of Home is a duo project with Maria Sappho that explores the integration of film and music into improvised yet significantly edited audiovisual compositions. (https://www.mariasappho.com/with-raymond-macdonald)
I also was lucky enough to produce a new piece “This is not improvised but that is” with my daughters Eva and Maria for a Canadian Festival during the depths of the first lockdown. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kny7lEPTb4E )
Whatever world we find ourselves in post COVID, there is no doubt that the tectonic plates of global communication have shifted. While we are desperate to get back to working together in real life what is clear is that we have all been changed by the experience of lockdown and that our creative practises and possibly even view of the world is fundamentally different from what it was before.
 The paper can be read at this link: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.623640/full?&utm_source=Email_to_authors_&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=T1_11.5e1_author&utm_campaign=Email_publication&field&journalName=Frontiers_in_Psychology&id=623640&fbclid=IwAR1c9D7Bn5j5JBIwL-82WX1nWc3v7_-inxHAtKkTR3K9a4LA9zqWxutyyus
Raymond MacDonald is Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at Edinburgh University and an adjunct Professor of Music at Monash University. He has published over 70 papers, was editor of the Journal Psychology of Music (2006-2012), Head of Music at Edinburgh University (2013-2017) His most recent book, The Art of Becoming: How Group Improvisation Works (co-authored with Graeme Wilson) was published in 2020. As a saxophonist and composer his work is informed by a view of improvisation as a social, collaborative and uniquely creative process that provides opportunities to develop new ways of working musically. He has toured and broadcast world-wide, playing on over 60 CDs and producing music for film, television, theatre and art installations. He is a founder member of The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.