The Cuban Music Room
The Cuban Music Room is a thought-provoking documentary film in which a series of educators and practitioners innovate audiovisually in order to find a faithful way of capturing sound in a way that is comparable to the live production and listening experience. The film is a highly collaborative piece motivated by the challenges faced to show and teach music in context, featuring musicians and educators from Cuba and the UK who are interested in Cuban and related music. It takes us to a recording space in Matanzas, where the performance and recording process are embedded within the socio-cultural context. We see musicians and academics getting ready, performing, recording and reflecting about the process, as well as audience members interacting with the film, through multiple screens that emerge from the flat split screen of this streamed version of the video. The Cuban Music Room does not only offer insight into Cuban music, it also suggests creative ways of addressing how the static dimensions of music, both written and visual text, can showcase and critically analyse sound and music.
Authors: Dr Sara McGuinness · University of West London, and Sonia Pérez Cassola · Independent Researcher Havana
Format: Documentary Film
Duration: 17′ 50″
Published: October 2022
The idea for this system of display grew out of discussions between a team of practitioners and educators working in the field of Cuban music on how to best present musical performance, with all of the interactions and communications therein, for educational purposes. While the musicians among us were all experienced in teaching performance in both formal and informal education, we had all identified the challenges that students faced when trying to grasp the intricacies of musical interaction. We also recognised the importance of the socio-cultural context in which the music was performed and considered how we could best represent this in our system of capture and display. Another key factor was access to any system that we devised. We wanted to keep costs as low as possible in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. To achieve this, the focus was on re-configuring available existing technology.
Our discussions started from considering how to separate the audio from each instrument in the playback system. We were inspired by installations such as Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Forty Part Motet’ (Cardiff, 2001) in which 40 speakers were placed in a space, each projecting one voice of forty performing ‘Spem in Alium’ by Thomas Tallis. We also reflected on examples from the field of ethnomusicology including Martin Clayton’s use of multiple cameras and multi track recording to document North Indian music performance (Clayton, 2013: 12,13) and Robbie Campbell’s research documenting chopi timbila xylophone performance in Mozambique using experimental multi-media formats (Campbell, 2012). Drawing upon these ideas we determined what our goal was in creating this system. The question facing us was ‘How can you create an immersive multi-media experience that allows the audience to interact communally with the performance in situ?’
Requirements of the display:
- Each audience member is able to determine what they view and listen to at any point in the performance
- Audience members are able to freely move around the space and interact with each other
- Audience are able to observe the musical activity taking place within the home community including all of the interactions and peripheral activity that takes place.
Today’s society is increasingly diverse and multi-cultural, and as such must face new challenges both in inter-personal relationships and in approaches to learning and teaching. In times like the present of multiple, accelerated globality coupled with rapid advances in technology and communication, it is important to develop an awareness of cultural differences and the sensitivity to know and value the culture of the ‘other’.
While technological advances have greatly expanded the possibilities of communication and cultural exchange, there is a divide in terms of economic power and access to resources. A common approach to ethnographic audio-visual archives has been to document cultural manifestations for consumption/study typically by a western, relatively privileged, audience.
In design of this project, we thought in terms of a two way exchange; not only would the project allow international audiences to experience a performance in a Cuban tenement yard (solar), there would also be the possibility of displaying performances both from other cultures and other Cuban traditions to that inner-city Cuban community. Since the advent of recording technologies, audio and visual recordings of musical activities have been an essential tool in music education. This is particularly true in the field of ethnomusicology, (John Baily’s ground-breaking ethnographic film Amir: An Afghan refugee musician’s life in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1985) and subsequent work being good example) where the music and culture has often been remote and inaccessible to the potential observer. However, there are restrictions imposed by the systems of capture which limit the usefulness of these for research and education purposes. Although visual playback has traditionally been on a 2 dimensional display, there have been rapid developments in recent years in 3 dimensional and Virtual Reality (VR) systems, allowing the viewer an immersive visual experience.
While there are, unquestionably, a wealth of high quality videos of musical activities, in all of the 2 dimensional systems, the director and sound recordist determine what the audience see and hear at any point in the performance. This is addressed, at least visually, in 3 dimensional systems, but these normally have the requirement that the viewer dons a headset, isolating themselves from the outside world and becoming a solo audience for the performance. Our method of display was designed to give the viewer control over what they watched and listened to and the ability to interact with other audience members, addressing these shortcomings. The end goal defined the parameters that were important in design of the project.
The recording of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, which features in this film, is a pilot project that enabled the team to refine the process and assess the viability of this as a means of capture and display of performance. The four screen footage and associated audio files are complemented by a set of supplementary materials: interviews with musicians, anthropological photos and videos documenting the process and time-lapse footage of the entire event.
As practitioners and practice-based researchers specialising in Cuban and related music, this project fits into our research trajectories. It provides a data rich and inclusive way of presenting musical performance in a socio-cultural context. The are many ways in which audience members might interact with this exhibition: researchers can gather detail of the context, interaction and communication, musicians can observe how the musicians play their instruments in detail, respond to musical and visual cues, viewers get a sense of being present in the midst of the activity in the space where this music was created and can observe home community interaction with the musical activity.
This work derives from the fields of media and film studies, sound design, experience design and ethnographic film. In order to capture the performance in a manner which suited the output format we had to re-configure our use of technology. The audio output required four stereo mixes, each of which contained the instruments on one side of the square, with as little spill from the other instruments as possible. The method of capture was similar to that used when recording an ensemble in a studio: we positioned microphones close to all of the instruments and multitrack recorded them. Initially we also placed microphones in all four corners of the space to record the ambient sound. However, on replay, we found that these had picked up all of the instruments and would make the separation of the instruments on the four sides on playback less defined. We therefore decided to return to the space after mixing the recording into four stereo mixes, representing the four sides. We played back each side one at a time through two speakers and recorded the ambience of the space for each mix.
The visual capture required a less common configuration of cameras. The desired output was four static screens, capturing the four sides of the square. These would not be distorted (e.g. through use of a wide angle lens) and would cover as much of the square viewed from the centre as possible. The cameras were set up in the centre of the square at 90 degree angles pointing towards the four sides. The image size was determined by the Field of View of the cameras and the size of the space we were working in. As can be seen in the video, there is a gap between the video screens but the performance, with the exception of some of the dancing, is in frame.
This project was devised and realised by a team comprising practitioners and academics from Cuba and the UK. Central to the team was a Matanzas-based artists’ collective ‘El Almacen’ who work primarily within their local community. They had an ongoing working relationship with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and the group agreed to be involved in the pilot project as they were interested in the concept particularly as it fed into their agenda of preserving cultural heritage. The Muñequitos de Matanzas were paid a fee for the session, which was paid directly to the band administrator as requested. The Muñequitos de Matanzas hold the copyright to the original material recorded and it was agreed that, if and when the project was exhibited commercially they would receive compensation. In addition to the participation of Los Muñequitos, the team working on the project was drawn primarily from the local community, the only exceptions being the two visiting UK members and the musicologist and anthropologist from Havana. The community in the solar (tenement yard) where the filming took place also participated, lending a house to record from and helping to set up and pack down. The project feeds into El Almacen’s ongoing work with the community in the neighbourhood of Matanzas known as La Marina, where Solar 17 is situated.
This format of exhibition, where the viewer determines what they view and when provides a useful tool for researchers, practitioners and students at all levels. The immersive format allows users to pro-actively explore a practice without effecting or disrupting it. It encourages them to move around the space, set their own subject-position and discuss with others. The location of the performance in a place significant to the creation and development of rumba provides socio-cultural context for the performance. The filming was not promoted or announced in advance, in order to capture the everyday life of the solar. The cameras film the action taking place around the music. Viewers are able to observe the comings and goings of people, both drawn by the rumba but also going about their everyday lives. Reactions and interactions with the music and dance can be observed along with chickens, cats and dogs scurrying around, negotiations and social interactions taking place around the perimeters of the performance. This project offers new knowledge in the re-configuration of existing technology to present performance in a low tech immersive audio-visual format. It also re-defines the roles of the cinematographer and the performers, challenging the existing power structure. Rather than the cinematographer using the camera to capture the action, the camera becomes a static point which the musicians interact with.
The objective was to present performance and all the nuances, interactions, verbal, musical and other communication in a manner where the viewer was immersed in the experience and able to ‘edit’ their own aural experience by walking towards a sound source and hearing it louder as they approached. In order to achieve results in the desired format, the set up and filming and audio recording of the performance was adjusted. That is to say, this was not a spontaneous performance in a tenement yard of Matanzas, it was staged. One area in which this manifest is the positioning of the band. Convention would have the audience in front of the performers rather than behind and the performers would not normally be facing inwards on four sides of a square. The reasons for this are to allow the future audience to have a clear view of the performers but it does detract from the idea of a performance at the recording stage. In order to achieve audio outputs where the different instruments had sufficient separation, we artificially added the ambient reverb of the solar, one side at a time after the event. This manipulation of the space to create the desired outputs can be best described using the concept of Sonic Cartoons (Zagorski-Thomas, 2013, Ch. 4), which considers recordings as a schematic representation of musical activity. The playback of the four separate sides of audio post-recording to capture ambience was a development which created a sense of reality, however the balance of the voices and instruments was not a representation of how they sounded live.
In conventional methods of ethnographic capture, the ethnographer usually attempts to be an ‘invisible’ observer. This format turns that idea around and rather than attempting the fly on the wall’ approach the musicians are involved in the production process. It demonstrates that it is just as valid to trust the performers as co-producers, giving them equal status employing embedded musicology. Another strength of the project is that the viewer choses what to see and hear and when rather than the camera operator and/or sound recordist. The fact that all instruments are close miked and there is no conventional mix reduces the control that the presenter has over what the viewer perceives is an ‘authentic’ performance.
This system of capture and display of performance has the potential to contribute to the democratization of culture, providing all types of audience with the opportunity to be educated, informed and enjoy the local, regional, national and universal cultural heritage. Currently opportunities to exhibit have been limited as the project have not yet managed to procure screens and projectors. However, the two screenings that have been held attracted a combined audience of more than 800 people from all walks of life. People interacted with the exhibition in many different ways, from young children running around and picking out instruments and gestures to musicians who stood and studied the exhibition for hours, focusing on details of playing and interaction.
The concept of bringing the performance in its home environment to the audience, rather than vice versa, provides access for audiences who do not have the means to travel. Not only does this contribute to cultural knowledge exchange, it also addresses the issue of carbon footprint and concern for the environment.
The issue of local access to national cultural heritage was much discussed among our team. In Cuba, in common with many countries with reduced economic means, there is little opportunity to travel around the country. Students and the general population will often not have been able to experience musical activities from other regions of the county. If we are able to procure a set of screens for Cuba, the exhibition can be toured, allowing Cubans to experience the performances in a more immersive manner than a TV viewing (currently the only format in which most Cubans can view these performances).
The next step is a set of ten recordings of a diverse range of musical performances across Cuba, to create the beginnings of an archive to be exhibited both in the UK and Cuba. In addition, in February 2020 work started on a University based set of recordings in the UK. Work on the project and funding applications were curtailed by the onset of Covid-19 but we do hope to continue this work as the world opens up post-pandemic. In fact, although this project was devised pre-pandemic, the global lockdown has accelerated development of means of remote collaboration and caused people to re-assess how they interact with others. In this climate, there is a strong case for the integration of immersive systems such as ‘The Music Room’ in music education, both formal and informal, at all levels.
Campbell, R. (2012) ‘Towards an Experiential Ethnomusicology of Dyslexia: a case study of Chopi timbila xylophone music in Mozambique’. PhD Thesis, SOAS, London
Cardiff, Janet (2001) “The Forty Part Motet’ Available at: https://cardiffmiller.com/installations/the-forty-part-motet/ (accessed 7th December 2021)
Clayton, M,Dueck, B and Leante, L. (ed.)(2013) Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. Oxford University Press.
Díaz Barriga, F. y Hernández, G. (2002). Estrategias docentes para un aprendizaje significativo. Una interpretación constructivista (2ª. ed.). México: McGraw Hill.
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All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
The Cuban Music Room is an audiovisual installation of a multi-visual and multi-aural recording of a performance by Muñequitos de Matanzas, one of Cuba’s most valued Afrocuban music groups, performing a style of music known as “Rumba”. The installation provides a view into a musical performance in a local setting and the environment in which the performance occurs, providing an original piece of exhibition with pedagogical values for music teaching. The use of multi-camera and multi-track audio recording captures the individual sounds and performers playing their instruments, which provides opportunities to develop interactive use of the audiovisual material for teaching of music performance. The project presents a novel approach to public engagement with cultural diversity in institutions like museums, and provides an example of the possibilities that can be explored with immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality. However, as the project statement points out, the low-cost approach to production and dissemination presents a cost-effective methodology that can be adopted by music communities to disseminate and preserve their musical and cultural traditions in a self-sustainable way. In this context, the Cuban Music Room contributes original outputs to the field, by describing a novel methodology to capture and disseminate original music performances with potential for archiving, research and knowledge dissemination, and by creating a novel recording of a performance by Muñequitos de Matanzas, a group with an important artistic output in sound recordings and performances, and considered one of Cuba’s most valuable traditional ensembles.
Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments
The focus of the work presented was guided by the idea of creating an immersive multimedia experience that would allow the audience to interact with the practice of Rumba music from an ethnographic perspective. The recording was developed in Matanzas (Cuba) with the participation of the musical group Muñequitos de Matanzas. The empirical field included the community located at Solar 17. In the work data was presented about the project, highlighting the processes developed on the audiovisual recording and a set of supplementary materials (interviews with the performers, photographs that document the process), reports on the creation of the video and on the exhibition of the results of the study in festivals.
The accompanying research statement and the video make a genuine contribution by describing an immersive visual experience proposal’s result. Through the immersive format, users could proactively explore musical practice and the environment around the music. This project proposed the presentation of a low-tech audiovisual format and redefined the roles of filmmaker and performers. Instead of the cinematographer capturing the action using the camera, the camera remains as a static point, with which the musicians and the community interact. The accompanying research statement brought the main elements of the research developed and is well structured, indicating the references that support the study and the methodological choices. In addition, the theoretical context is relevant and supports the present study.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.
Dr Sara McGuinness combines a career as a musician and academic, teaching at the London College of Music and SOAS, University of London. She specialixes in practice-based research, with a focus on Congolese and Cuban music. She leads two professional bands: Grupo Lokito and Sarabanda, runs a community-based Cuban big band and teaches regular music courses in Cuba.
Sonia Pérez Cassola is a musicologist, researcher, and media-maker. She is an Advisory Board member of the National Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Cuba. She is an Advisory Board member of the Scientific Committee of the Cuban Institute of Music, of the National Council of the Houses of Culture and a music consultant for television.