By Ricky O’Bannon
Composing is usually a private act, but one mulit-instrumentalist and composer known online as Jaztica is using the video game website Twitch to make her composing process very public and even a form of live entertainment.
Twitch is a spinoff of the website Justin.tv, where users live stream themselves playing video games. The site draws more than 50 million unique users monthly, and many of its most popular users make streaming a full time job, drawing their living from advertisements and donations from viewers.
A few years ago, Jaztica started a channel on Twitch to broadcast herself playing competitive World of Warcraft. Away from Twitch, Jaztica Lys goes by Kara and is a graduate level music conservatory student focusing on composition. Kara said music was always a part of her channel and she would occasionally play electric bass or Navajo flute to entertain her viewers.
In January, Twitch decided to create a section on the site for musicians who wanted to play an instrument for a live audience. Kara said she saw this as a new opportunity.
“When Twitch said they were opening their doors to musicians, I right away thought about streaming Finale,” she said.
Finale is one of a handful of versions of music notation software commonly used by composers to transcribe their music. Kara said she hoped streaming music with the same layout and format of broadcasting and commentating and interacting with the channel’s chat would feel familiar to viewers that were used to watching video games be streamed.
Last month she broadcast herself working through a piece for wind ensemble, and she is currently working on a choral piece that will be performed at her conservatory.
“I really had no idea if people would even tune in when I first [tried] this. But I knew it was something that was probably never seen before, and that alone can have value on Twitch,” Kara said. “At this point I tend to get more viewership when I'm doing music than games, which is kind of surprising to me.”
Often more than a hundred viewers will watch her as she works, asking questions and giving comments in the stream's chat. While Kara said that in her experience many gamers have musical backgrounds, she said the appeal for some who don't might be the same draw for those who watched painter Bob Ross create landscapes on the PBS show The Joy of Painting.
“Most of [Bob Ross’] viewers aren't painters,” she said. “There's something else that we're tapping into.”
While there are some portions of the choral piece Kara is working on that she says she needs to spend time on away from her stream, she says the format in general is actually helpful to her composition process.
“I’m in my own space, and to the degree I want to I can have that total introversion,” Kara said. “But there are perks to having this ongoing and non-intrusive dialogue with a live audience. When I reach a creative lull for instance, I can pause to engage questions or comments, and that often refreshes my own energy and creativity.”
DJs working on electronic dance music were some of the first musicians to open up their process for anyone on the Internet to watch. In their announcement on the expanded format, Twitch cited DJs like Deadmau5 who have live-streamed their work from their studio previously as part of what the gaming website hoped to achieve. Deadmau5 had one semi-famous moment in 2012 on his stream where a viewer submitted vocals for a track that the artist would later incorporate, and the viewers got to watch the DJ hear the vocals for the first time live on stream. (Disclaimer: video is loud and contains a lot of NSFW language.)
Moments like that, which bring viewers in to observe a piece as it changes and grows, are part of what Kara said makes streaming a work-in-process compelling.
“When you’re dealing with a work of music that’s evolving and you’re seeing things added, I think as a listener, you can tap into [this] evolving meaning and it becomes personal for you,” she said. “And then when you hear the whole thing in its final premiere, you have a totally different experience.”
In another context, the idea of having strangers watch your composition process could be the premise of a high-minded piece of performance art. But for Kara and a handful of others on Twitch, bringing classical music into this very 21st century online space just seemed like a natural extension of her interests. It also was a way to meet potential listeners in a place they are already going for their entertainment.
So far, Twitch’s music section is dominated by electronic dance music DJs, but there are a handful of channels featuring classical musicians. The classically trained pianist Kyle Landry who became a YouTube star with covers of movie and video game music regularly performs on Twitch taking requests and donations from a live audience. A streamer who goes by J Karesh regularly performs his cello in a sort of 21st century version of busking.
Classical music will probably never be a major player on Twitch, but Kara thinks live-streaming presents a great opportunity for the music and composers.
“There's a mystique that surrounds the idea of being a composer,” she said. “I think just about everybody has seen someone paint or draw, or an artist on the boardwalk, but the word composer makes people think of legends like Bach or Debussy and that’s not something that's readily connected to the real world.”
There is a certain Romantic image of composers we hold to be true. Composers are mythical beings who toil in splendid isolation. Tucked away from distraction or prying eyes, they work alone in sequestration, channeling and transcribing the divine until one day they descend from Mount Sinai with a musical score ready for performance.
While probably a touch dramatic, much of that idea persists in the listeners’ consciousness. Composing is a private act, and because we do not see it, its processes, pitfalls and triumphs remain all the more mysterious.
For composers like Kara, new technology allows the chance to showing that process and show that composers are not extinct but real people working in the real world.