Our Rehearsal Room: OurEyes Collective

Our Rehearsal Room: OurEyes Collective

Composer Benjamin Heim on the possibilities of live streaming, and being okay with throwing out ideas and starting again. 

Our Rehearsal Room: OurEyes Collective

Composer Benjamin Heim on the possibilities of live streaming, and being okay with throwing out ideas and starting again. 

First up, you've recently made the transition to working and studying in London, and already you've set up an ensemble that's making waves in the new music scene! What has that move been like for you, and can you tell us a little about setting up a new ensemble in a new city? 

The move has been incredible, and studying at the Royal College of Music has opened so many doors for me. This year alone I have presented a project that sonifies live drawings using machine learning (and Lotte Betts-Dean’s voice!) at IRCAM in Paris, and performed in Tallinn music week in Estonia thanks to my new friends at Nonclassical. Having Europe on your doorstep is just amazing.

As for setting up a new ensemble in a new city, that is a little more difficult - it’s like starting from the bottom again and learning how the scene works over here as you go. Back in Australia my old group Argo had formed a great community of people: mentors that helped us out, music departments willing to lend us gear, performers we loved working with, and an audience base that showed up to all our concerts. It’s really hard doing without all that! I am really lucky that I get to work with my talented girlfriend Courtenay Cleary (violin) on this project though, so I guess you win some and lose some.

OurEyes focusses on art-through-social-media, which is a really exciting concept particularly because of the ever-increasing engagement young people have with sharing their thoughts and art online. How did you come up with this philosophy, and why is it important to use social media to engage people with contemporary music?

I am always searching for something new, the next evolution of artistic expression, and to me technology and social media are exciting fields with untapped musical potential. Social media is changing the way we experience the world, shaping how we consume media, and fast becoming a core facet of human existence. Whether this is a bad thing or not, it means that the ways we experience and consume music are also changing. As an artist I am incredibly interested in this shift and what exactly the future of music may hold, so I therefore seek to explore it in my work. I want to go beyond simply using social media as a tool to engage audiences by having it become an intrinsic part of the performance. The way we are engaging with this in PHANTOMS is by having a live stream that allows the online audience to interact with the live performance, even though they may be over the other side of the world. I also have a lot of ideas to work on in the future, perhaps producing live streamed pieces that sonify data from Facebook or Twitter in real time, so lookout for more work like this!

This production, which allows the audience to interact with space as well as art and sound, is also being live streamed for those who cannot make it. What excites you about the possibilities that live streaming allows, and what has been the process in setting this up for PHANTOMS? 

I really think we are on the brink of a new age where live streaming will be an essential part of the marketing and delivery of any event. Music festivals like Coachella are now live streaming all their sets and it's great to see arts organisations hopping on the bandwagon too; I really love this new trend of live streaming rehearsals and behind the scenes material. I worked with live streaming for Argo’s ILLUMINAE and it was great to see all the people watching online and engaging our music in such a way. For PHANTOMS I wanted to push the concept as far as I could, to create an interactive live stream that simulates what it is like to actually be at the concert. Luckily I am working with the Royal College of Music on this project, and was able to draw upon their previous experience with live streaming. The first idea we came upon was to stream multiple camera angles at once, something the College had not done before. The ability to stream three angles at once is incredibly important for the nature of this concert as it occurs across three different rooms, with the action in one room being fed into others and reconfigured there. Having three angles means that the online audience can experience the event in a similar way to the live audience: they can watch a solo performance in its raw form, then see the live manipulation of that feed by switching cameras. They could even watch a room where nothing is happening yet, seeing the performers getting ready for the next section. This makes the audience a much more active participant in the experience and immerses them more in the music. The final layer to the live stream is the interactive element whereby the online audience can contribute to the live visuals by drawing on a sketchpad below the stream. The shapes they draw in response to the music are then incorporated into the live concert visuals in real time. I think interactivity is the missing link to creating an online immersive experience. I hope the realisation that they are part of a performance that may be occurring on literally the other side of the world will make them feel they are something more than just a spectator.   

Five new works are being premiered for a pretty diverse range of instruments. Can you tell me about the process of writing these pieces, including what the timeline and rehearsal period was like? 

Planning and writing music for an immersive concert is a very unique process, but luckily one I have had some experience in. My main focus in designing this concert was to produce a seamless flow between each piece in the program while making sure the performers knew what they should be doing at all times. Drawing on my experience from Argo I developed a system of auditory and time synchronised cues, which guide the performers through the concert and correspond to directions in their music.

The writing of the pieces also gave me some new experiences, as I hadn’t written for pipe organ before. The instrument is fascinating as it is basically a huge additive synthesiser, but a lot to wrap your head around. Often the keyboards don’t even play the same note as the one you are pressing down! You have to write damn good music for the pipe organ too, because there is no way to effectively shape the sound over time - you just have to write really good notes and rhythms.

The timeline for this event was carefully planned out months in advance, and then carefully tossed in the trash. Best laid plans of mice and men… There are so many variables in a concert like this that you just have to roll with the punches and make everything happen whenever you can. The rehearsal period is actually much more laidback than normal because of the way the event was planned. Everybody can just show up and do their in, and it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle - this means that we get to focus much more on the expressive side of things, and technical things, like the visuals.

What's next for OurEyes Collective? 

Nothing is set in stone as of yet, but I can tell you that there may be some recordings coming, as well as few more audiovisual performances around London. We are looking at building on the base of this concert and developing a larger season in 2018. More coming soon! 

OurEyes Collective presents PHANTOMS - An Immersive Multimedia Experience at the Royal College of Music on April 30 2017. Watch live or online - more information here