Online Improvisation and The Art of Chance: An Interview With The United Isolation Ensemble

The United Isolation Ensemble was created during the pandemic as a technology-driven attempt to find escapism through aleatory music. It's a remote, non-realtime equivalent of the monthly open jam night Quadelectronic, which has been running since 2008 in Leicester. When lockdown began in March 2020, Chris Conway, who had been the ringmaster for Quadelectronic, came up with the idea for the United Isolation Ensemble. Participants were asked to send in up to three pieces of audio of up to ten minutes each, which could be anything from live instrumentation to field recordings to spoken word.

Jim Tetlow, who had been in charge of recording and documenting Quadelectronic events, was tasked with curating and mixing the raw material into new pieces. Tetlow considers this task a fun challenge; he uses various tools like slowing things down and reverb to create music out of anything. According to contributor Alan Freeman, the nucleus of the project was initially all Quadelectronic performers, but since then its contributors have been increasingly diverse and international, spanning from the USA to Japan.

The music of the prolific ensemble is highly esoteric and experimental. It leans into noise, ambient, and avant-garde equally, but the group’s 37 compilations are a grab bag full of spoken word, didgeridoo and you name-it. Despite being wildly freeform, the ensemble is quite conservative when it comes to pop exclusionism. According to Tetlow, "Any attempt to bring a pop element into UIE just wouldn't work, for a number of reasons." This ideology seems to be a proclamation of ethos - anti-mainstream by force. But one contributor, Dave Everitt, thinks differently, stating, "For me, the ethos is the freedom of recording things I might not expand on alone, then sending off on a journey, never knowing who they'll meet." Yet the online collaboration process is not without its roadblocks, with Michael Rosse stating, "I still see a void for an online space where musicians can collaborate in real-time with zero latency."

The group has embraced new technology and even incorporates AI into their artwork, with Tetlow mentioning the use of MidJourney to help with making the cover art. The cover images are seeped in uncanny-valley beauty and intrigue. 

Tetlow is not a dictator but a conductor, manipulating the chaos of sound and human emotions into order. He is more humble about his position; "I just stack a couple of stems on top of one another, adjust the relative levels, top and tail them and find it works perfectly well as it is." He uses Reaper as his DAW of choice and a formidable array of plugins to shape the music. The ensemble is not afraid of unpredictability. As contributor Adam Naworal sums up, "There is an undeniable element of chance to UIE!"