Flashback. One sultry Saturday night in the south of France last year I caught a glimpse of the near future hurtling towards us.

I didn’t know it then, of course.

Before going on holiday last September – from Edinburgh to Montpellier and back by alluring, long train journeys – I had been part of a team researching attitudes to digital technology among creative folk in remote parts of Scotland’s wildly beautiful but often digitally challenged west coast. Could live streaming, for example, help them reach a wider audience?

Some of the people I spoke to would soon be participating in a bold interactive event to be streamed live from Oban. One item on the programme promised to be enticingly unpredictable. ‘Jeopardy is inbuilt’ musician, producer, sound sculptor, and all-round innovator Giles Perring had told me with what sounded like maverick mischief.

So, there I was crammed into a tight corner of a crowded tram speeding through downtown Montpellier, trying to tune into his ‘garage gig’ some 2,000 km away.

And, yes! There it is on my battered old iPhone screen. Giles Perring in his studio overlooking the Sound of Jura. He’s streaming an extraordinary collaborative performance to a live audience packed into St John’s Cathedral in Oban. With the help of many more mobiles, the event known as The Exchange, is connecting and broadcasting the collective input of ten individual musicians phoning in from ten different distant places – from Stavanger to Rhode Island, Dublin to Dunoon, London to Lyth – in real time. And no breaks in transmission.  

‘Amazing’ is the word that bounces from the mainland at the end of the show. 

‘All thanks to the good old phone,’ says Giles.

The Exchange: ‘echoes created by calls bouncing back and forth across the ether, traditional songs, improvisation, a tune by Charles Ives…’

Simpler than zoom

Fast forward a few months to another world and time. In retrospect it all seems eerily prophetic. The Exchange was part of a peculiarly prescient experimental project. The inaugural showcase for Argyll’s Art and Culture organisation CHARTS – live-streamed on 14 September 2019 – set out to explore and demonstrate how digital technology might open up new opportunities for creative enterprise in remote parts of the west coast highlands and islands.

Prophetic was the word used by a journalist who contacted Giles recently. Those faces framed in small screens, their distant voices interconnecting in the ether. Yet that’s not really it. Giles has been working on different versions of The Exchange for 18 years since its first manifestation in an upstairs room in  a London pub. What interests him is something simpler but more profound than a Zoom event.

Teitur in the Faroe Islands with Esther Swift in Edinburgh

 ‘It’s really about connection,” he says, “How the telephone maintains intimate contact, person to person. It’s me connecting with people I know, using the telephone to establish a social engagement that is musical.’ 

I first ‘met’ Giles by mobile phone last August when I was gathering case studies in collaboration with Inner Ear UK for the CHARTS event. That led to fascinating conversations with a range of truly enterprising people; adventurers in visual art, community cinema, music. Responses raised stimulating questions about the meaning of culture, collaboration – and connectivity, or lack of it.   They had mixed feelings about the potential for digital developments in places where upload and download speeds can be painfully slow.

Giles was disarmingly frank. Live streaming held no real interest for the musician who runs a croft as well as a recording studio.  He moved 14 years ago to Jura from London with his wife and two of their four children when the older two had started higher education, ‘it was our chance to leap.’ Since then he had felt no need to ‘consume culture’.   Theatre, concerts, art exhibitions… they had become ‘just another industry, financial transactions’.

But he did see great value in online social connection, especially for young people, in isolated communities. And weekly Tuesday night music gatherings in his house were a real-life social activity, ‘nothing bought or sold’ – people go back down the road ‘singing new songs’.

Living on the edge

One comment in particular stuck in my mind. Living on an island is a challenge, Giles said. ‘It makes demands of you. But you learn you can survive.’ 

And he had been up for taking his own very personal, challenging approach to the CHARTS event in Oban.   He’d always been attracted by the unpredictability of late night phone in, he understood the happenstance appetite of the radio ham. Maybe we will pull this off,’ he said last August,  ‘Audiences want some sense of authenticity. They will be seeing something that could go totally wrong. That’s what excites me.’

Tuning in now (from my Edinburgh inner city island), the recently uploaded YouTube video hangs together beautifully.   There were some hairy moments on the night – not least the need for split second timing in making connections with contributing artists standing by their phones.  Something the speakers on the stage in Oban seemed in danger of forgetting. ‘I got a bit sweary,’ says Giles.

But some of the inbuilt jeopardy was reduced. For the first time, The Exchange had tech support. Edinburgh-based video producer Pete Linnemann travelled from the mainland to assist the event, and ended up spending three days on the island which he describes as an unforgettable experience, ‘a truly fantastic trip.’  Tech challenges sparked enthusiastic geek talk as video stream editor and creative director assessed the risks. In the end, Pete explains, ‘We dispensed with Giles’ woeful internet connection but used my iPhone as a hotspot to grab a decent and minimally contended 4G connection from the mainland. And that provided sufficient upload speeds with enough to spare that it wasn’t too nail-biting.’

As is the way of island life, Pete met someone, a visiting GP who knew his dad, a GP on Mull, and ended up at a 90th birthday party in the village hall.

Coincidental connection, virtual and real life experience – that’s all part of The Exchange and the unique intimacy of island life. The live event, streamed to Oban via Pete’s hotspot, was also enjoyed at close quarters by a local audience, the Tuesday night singing crew, over a drink of wine in the studio. 

Real rebels do physics

So how is island life now?  All things considered, Giles says when we speak again in early May, lockdown on Jura (population around 200) has not been too challenging. ‘We’ve got the island to ourselves, the weather has been beautiful and everyone is very well behaved.’ In fact, it would have felt ‘pretty wonderful’ apart from personal anxiety for his adult children working and living in places on the mainland where ‘They are fine, but not not at risk.’

Lockdown has also exposed grotesque imbalances of our way of life, not least the commercial exploitation of creative expression. With rueful self-examination, Giles says he often feels he is the only one of his family not doing anything useful (notwithstanding his lockdown labour cultivating 80 square metres under glass, and designing an irrigation system for raised beds to grow crops for sale).  His admiration is for young people who defy cultural trends to become nurses and doctors, anaesthetists, architects…‘They are the real rebels today.’ Prevailing culture has tended to disparage that kind of commitment, ‘They are the ones who have persevered, against the odds – sod media studies, I am going to do physics!’

Even so, he also perseveres. There are other collaborative projects such as Exposure a work in progress with artist Andy Metcalf, and another mind-blowing soundscape still in the beta phase.

But for now, there is The Exchange: 20 dream-like minutes of hauntingly beautiful sound.  At times, for reasons I can’t put my finger on, it is deeply moving. Then, suddenly uplifting – the look of infectious mirthful pleasure on Catriona Price’s face as she stands in Lyth, near Wick, phone in hand singing into the late summer night, interweaving with Melanie Pappenheim in London. The sheer pleasure of making contact. And, it’s actually working!  Or, as Giles described on XpoNorth when he completed his work on the video in April, pulling together the original streamed video with movies and audio sent from all the participants calling in from all over Argyll and the world: ‘an evocation of our solitude, and our connectedness’.

Catriona Price sings ‘Go to sleep you little baby’

The Exchange 2019 features

Melanie Pappenheim [who was situated in London], Catriona Price [Lyth], Teitur [Faroe Islands], Esther Swift [Edinburgh], John Cayley [Providence, Rhode Island], Kevin Godley [Dublin], Lorne MacDougall [Dunoon], Ian Stephen [Isle of Lewis], Jørn Snorre Andersen [Stavanger], and Kirsty Law [Oban].

This is also published on Sceptical Scot, in the new Saturday culture section (because there’s more to life than politics).