Experimental Musicians Turn to Multimedia Art During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Left to right: Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, Eliza Bagg (photo by Enrico Brunetti), Yvette Janine Jackson

One day in March 2020, the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) cancelled their weekly rehearsal. The COVID-19 virus was rapidly spreading, and it didn’t seem like a good idea for 20 musicians to gather in one room to play. So they paused their work, and they weren’t sure when they’d be back.

The pause ended up being fairly short, thanks to a Zoom call that randomly sparked musical inspiration. “I don’t think anybody had any big expectations, it was just a way of us sustaining our community,” said Raymond Macdonald, a founding member of the GIO. “But what happened almost immediately was quite revolutionary in the sense that we found that we were…enjoying the music that we were creating. It was completely different.”

Zoom became a tool in the group’s improvisatory toolkit: Musicians would transform their background into outer space, or split the image of their face into a pinwheel, or invert the colors of their screen to look like night vision. MacDonald even hung a greenscreen in his office so he can play around with his Zoom backgrounds. The visuals became a game of experimentation, just like the music. 

GIO Improvises on Zoom, Fall 2020

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, artists like those of the GIO relied on in-person concerts to make a living and to share their music with audiences. One year later, digital platforms like Zoom have established themselves as the place where people can make and experience music. And because virtual spaces use both visuals and sound, many musicians have turned to working on multimedia projects, or to using videos of their performances as a means of exploration.

In the GIO’s case, nearly every week, a group of improvisers came together on Zoom, and each musician played from his or her own home using whatever tools were available. MacDonald called this “the theater of home.” And the unexpected quirks of Zoom, like a bad WiFi connection, felt just like the surprises that happen during an in-person improvisation. “I think because we were using improvisation as the primary process, we were able to fold all these unique features into an improvisation and not see it as a hindrance. The latency was never a problem, [it] was actually quite fun to play with,” MacDonald said. 

For Eliza Bagg, an experimental vocalist who goes by the stage name Lisel, learning software like Adobe Premiere, a video making program, and Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation, in her newfound downtime during the COVID-19 pandemic helped her to create the dystopian multimedia projects she’d always wanted to make. “My dream was to create something that looks like Blade Runner 2049, somewhere between that and [Pedro] Almodóvar,” she said, “trying to go for something that has that same element of an uncanny environment, with our relationship to technology and the digital world at the forefront.”

The Vanishing Point, the multimedia project she focused on during quarantine, blends dance, music, and video to tell the story of environmental destruction and to emulate the feeling of chaos that exists in the digital world. She and her collaborators, the percussionist Booker Stardrum and dancer Gwendolyn Gussman, created the project while residing in different cities across the United States, using the Internet to rehearse and workshop ideas. Projects like The Vanishing Point were able to come together through a COVID-19 pandemic-propelled Do-It-Yourself spirit.

“Before COVID, I was traveling all the time and performing all different kinds of things, and so my life had basically gone through the wardrobe doors of a Narnia version of the world that was completely different,” Bagg said. “With this extra time, I could just invest in trying to figure out how to enact that visual world myself…even if I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Excerpt from The Vanishing Point

Electronic composer Yvette Janine Jackson also found herself learning new visual technologies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s most known for her radio operas that explore historical topics, like slavery or marriage equality in the United States. They’re theatrical works that are meant to be experienced live and in pure darkness—two things that aren’t possible in cyberspace. So when the pandemic hit, and live performances of her works were cancelled, she began to wonder what a radio opera with video might look like. It led her to return to some visual projects she’d put away.

“A few years ago, when I was starting these radio operas and demanding that they be performed in darkness, because the whole idea was I want the listener to create their own images, I had been tinkering around with having some really basic animation and motion graphics. And a couple of months ago, I’m like, ‘well, why don’t I jump back into that,’” Jackson said. “I’m approaching it in the same way I would treat sound, so thinking about phrases, and sequences, and loops, and patterns, but still having the imagery be abstract.”

She made her own animations and collected videos made by friends and collaborators, splicing each snippet together into one video that reflects the emotions and stories of her composed music rather than explicitly telling a story. The first piece she made using these techniques was The Coding, which uses Samuel Delany’s science fiction novel, Babel-17, as a vehicle for exploring the function of language and body ownership. It was presented for the first time on April 30.

Yvette Janine Jackson’s The Coding, premiered spring 2021

The art Jackson is making now is more than just a response to the COVID-19 pandemic—it’s also provided her new ways to visualize music, and inspired her to keep exploring the multimedia world. “I guess it’s time in the evolution of being me to introduce this idea that I’ve been mentioning for X amount of years and actually start doing it,” she said.