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How the Pandemic Made UCI Composer Michael Dessen’s World Go Zoom

Michael Dessen, composer, trombonist, bandleader, is also a professor at UC Irvine who studies telematic music. Credit: Photo courtesy of Michael Dessen/Bill Douthart

If you’ve ever been in a video meeting, you’ve had this experience: Someone’s lips move, and a fraction of a second later, you hear the sound of their voice. That millisecond of being out of sync, that delay between when a sound enters a system and when it comes back out again, is called latency, and it’s something Michael Dessen has been studying for more than a decade.

Dessen – composer, trombonist, bandleader and professor at UC Irvine – has been performing networked musical performances, “telematic” music, for years, creating live concerts via the internet with musicians from around the globe. He understands better than most how to work with that effect, and how reducing that latency gap can lead to better online performances. And now, suddenly, with every concert hall in the nation boarded up, that knowledge is very, very useful.

“I was doing (telematic music) before and will do it afterwards” he says. “It was never intended by any of us to replace live music making. We were not doing this work in case there was going to be a pandemic.”

But now that there is one, musicians are having to find new ways of practicing their craft. That’s bringing a lot more attention to the thorny technical aspects of coordinating a musical performance where the players are spread out across miles, the world of Dessen’s expertise.

“Telematic music and networked music performance are the two terms that have emerged over past two decades to talk about musicians performing together from different geographic locations,” Dessen says, “and networked performance implies the idea of reducing latency or sound travel time to a minimum, so music performance can be possible. Telematic music, a slightly more specific term, is typically used by people who refer to networks as a new artistic medium, not any kind of music but as a unique space where we could create new music that responds to the realities of that environment.”

It’s not meant to replace anything though.

“This expands the possibilities of music,” he says. “It’s not a substitute. The silver lining for this field in the pandemic is the huge influx of interest of people involved are making the tools better and expanding the community so more people are finding new ways to play together.”

This full story can be accessed for free in its entirety at Voice of OC.


Classical music coverage at Culture OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.



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