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The Jazz Pianist Using a Computer Program to Play with Other Musicians in Quarantine

By Fred Kaplan, The New Yorker

Last April, in the midst of the pandemic’s first wave, the jazz pianist Dan Tepfer was on a call with his friend Ben Wendel, a jazz saxophonist. Wendel had flown to Maui just before the lockdown, and now he was stuck there—not so terrible, except that he was desperate to play music with friends back in New York. He asked Tepfer, a self-taught coder, whether any technology existed that would let him play in real time with someone so far away. Tepfer, who lives in Brooklyn, did a quick calculation: Wendel was forty-nine hundred miles from New York; a flawless signal, travelling at the speed of light from Maui, would take twenty-six milliseconds to arrive. Studies showed that faster rhythms couldn’t be coherently sustained with time lags longer than twenty milliseconds or so. He told Wendel, “Conclusion: it will never happen by sheer laws of physics.”

But the question made Tepfer wonder whether there was a computer program that would allow real-time music-making across, say, the tri-state area. He put out the query on Twitter. A reply came in the next day: two musicians on the West Coast had been playing duets over the Internet for years, using an open-source software platform called JackTrip. Tepfer downloaded it right away. The next day, he texted the bassist Jorge Roeder, a friend and frequent collaborator, who lives less than two miles away. It took them a while to set up the software on their laptops, but soon enough they were playing tunes, taking solos, and trading fours.

“We had tears streaming down our faces, because we hadn’t played with anyone else for six weeks,” Tepfer recalled. Ten days later, Tepfer worked out a way to synch JackTrip audio with video streaming. (Zoom’s audio delay can be as much as a half second—fine for conversation, worthless for music.) On May 11th, he gave a virtual solo concert for members of the Arts Club of Washington; he brought in Roeder on JackTrip to join him for an opener.

Soon, Tepfer began live-streaming duet concerts with various New York-area jazz musicians—twenty-nine concerts over the next ten months, including one with Wendel, who was just back from Maui, and also with the pianists Fred Hersch and Aaron Diehl, the singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, the saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and the bassist Linda May Han Oh. He charged five dollars for tickets, with an option to make a larger donation. “We make almost as much as I used to make for a set at a club,” Tepfer said. During the sets, between songs, Tepfer would read aloud from the comments page and ask the viewers to send in song requests. “I want the people to know that this is happening in real time, at this moment, and it’s dangerous,” he said.

Tepfer, who is thirty-nine, had never live-streamed before the pandemic, but he was well suited to the medium. Born to American émigrés in Paris (his father was a biologist, his mother a chorus singer in the city opera), he took piano lessons at the Paul Dukas Conservatory from the age of seven and taught himself how to code a few years later. He majored in astrophysics in college and did graduate studies in jazz at the New England Conservatory. In recent years, he has used computer programming in his music, plugging algorithms into a specially modified Yamaha piano that plays along with him as he improvises. Last March, for #BachUpsideDown, he programmed the piano to play an inverted rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

For his JackTrip duets, Tepfer devised a setup using two laptops: one for the software and the other for the audio mix and the live stream. He also installed a pair of studio lights and Scotch-taped aluminum foil to them, like a shade, to darken his back wall, giving his modest living room the feel of a professional studio. There were many glitches along the way. (“This technology isn’t plug-and-play,” he said.) At one point, the audio and the video were drifting out of synch. He figured out that the problem was an overheating laptop. “I put an ice pack on it; that solved it,” he said.

He also worked with JackTrip’s creator, Chris Chafe, and Anton Runov, a programmer based in St. Petersburg, to improve the program’s ability to balance speed and clarity during concerts. By early November, the music was coming across seamlessly. When he live-streamed duets with the bassist Christian McBride, who lives thirty miles away, in Montclair, New Jersey, the time lag was virtually undetectable. McBride marvelled, “It sounds like we’re playing in two booths of the same recording studio!”

Then Tepfer got ambitious: he decided to live-stream a trio, with Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Harland on drums, a hundred and thirty miles away, in the woods of Pennsylvania. Neither Harland nor Roeder had a fibre-optic Internet connection. (Tepfer had signed up for one only a couple of months into lockdown. Before then, he would unspool a hundred-foot Ethernet cable to his laptop from a neighbor’s apartment.) They all got together remotely on a Sunday afternoon, the day before the live stream was scheduled. Tepfer thought tech setup would take an hour; it took three.

At first, the trio had trouble finding an acceptable balance. “Darn That Dream,” a ballad, sounded fine; a faster one was way out of synch. Maybe they’d have to stick with playing slow songs? Tepfer typed in some new settings. After another hour of tweaking, they managed to stay in synch for an up-tempo Charlie Parker bebop tune. “Whoo, I feel like we’re in business now!” Tepfer said. The trio launched into Miles Davis’s up-tempo “Solar.” They were buoyant, tight and loose at once. Afterward, Harland laid down his drumsticks and sighed.

Fred Kaplan is a columnist for Slate and a jazz critic for Stereophile. His most recent book, “The Bomb,” is out now in paperback.


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