This September Southbank Centre will showcase twenty-three music and dance pieces created by an international band of seventy-two members. Justin Spooner explains how digital technology was integral to the project
We were working with artist Dean Rodney from Heart n Soul, a disability culture-focused arts organisation, when he shared his vision for a global band. The Dean Rodney Singers needed seventy-two members from seven different countries to make twenty-three songs in time for the Olympics. The band would have a mix of musicians, singers, dancers, languages and cultures, and would bring together people with learning disabilities and without. It was our job to work out how members could collaborate individually, together within their own countries, and then internationally, with the central figure of Dean.
The obvious solution was the web. Platforms like Audiotool.com and OhmStudio.com are designed to allow collaborative music making. However, on closer inspection, these promising platforms and others like them were a bit too fiddly and not developed enough for our needs. We seemed to have arrived six months too early!
After much discussion we chose the iPad, as it is a great platform for sharing creativity – it's easy to plug in a microphone and capture vocals, and has a camera that can create video. The iPad also has some great drum machine apps and we envisaged Apple’s GarageBand as a kind of hub.
Everyone on the project was given an iPad with the GarageBand app, allowing them to create files and share them with other collaborators. However, we soon found that the apps were disjointed, and GarageBand did not easily facilitate the file exchange we were looking for. We identified some apps that helped fill some of the gaps, these came from Korg, Moog and a raft of small developers. With these in mind we plotted a creative process that allowed band members to create loops and upload material to SoundCloud, where they could be discussed and reviewed among the group.
We were lucky: GarageBand was updated three times during the project, with each update bringing some new functionality we urgently needed. The biggest challenge, however, was importing files uploaded to SoundCloud back onto band member’s iPads, to create a proper creative cycle. Apple seems to focus so much on the export of material that it overlooks simple ways to import things back in. We were forced to do this manually: emailing the files, sending them back via iTunes, and finally pulling files over a cable back on to band member's iPads! It was a time consuming process, but once instated everyone could develop each other's work.
We used Google+ and the comments section of SoundCloud, (where you can make reference and add notes at specific points in a track) to feed back our thoughts, and develop tracks from initial sounds and loops through to the final finished draft. For six months, around forty members of the band also collaborated on Posterous (a blogging platform) to share their thoughts and post ideas about the progress of the project. Sadly, the site went down without warning and we could not retrieve everything we had worked on. We switched to Tumblr, but it was an important lesson: choose your platforms carefully.
When collaborating this way, it is important to consider the project from the point of view of the participants. What degree of ownership will they want? How much control should everyone have to help them feel fully engaged? How much effort can people put in? And how can the tasks be broken down into clear stages so that it does not feel overwhelming?
Instead of creating a rigid project plan at the start, it is better to just consider what the experience is you are trying to create, for both participants and the audience. Then develop some general project principles that will allow you to change direction and tools without losing sight of the goal. Don’t focus on one tool or digital platform and think it can do everything, mix and match between two or three, so that if one goes wrong you don't lose everything. The tools themselves will change during the project as they get updated; adapt to their new uses as you go. Brief your team at the start that there are certain decisions that will have to be made later when the project is well underway, and that it is their role to keep a close eye on the tools and how they are used in order to help make the best choices as they arise – something which often feels uncomfortably, like flying by the seat of your pants.