Playing with Oneself

By Vincent Meelberg

Even though, for large parts of the world, the Covid–19 pandemic seems to be a thing of the past, its consequences can still strongly be felt. Culture, in particular, seems to have been negatively affected by the pandemic and its aftermath. People seem to remain reluctant to attend live performances, as the sale of tickets still is much lower than before the pandemic, and the number of visitors of museums is also much less than pre-Covid.

Another effect of the pandemic is that many musical ensembles and bands have disbanded, and interestingly it seems that this happened to many K-pop bands in particular. It, however, also happened to the bands and ensembles I played in. Because there were no opportunities to perform or even rehearse during Covid, band members either lost interest or were forced to do other things in order to make a living. As a result, I found myself alone with very little opportunity to play with other people.

Of course, playing alone was an alternative, and while this may be satisfying as well, it does not offer the same gratification as playing with others. What is missing in playing alone is the interaction that happens when playing with others, and the unexpected musical events that may be the result of this interaction. Also, this aspect of unexpectness involves a certain risk. When playing alone it does not matter what you play, since no one else is affected by your musical actions. As soon as you play with others, however, it does matter what you do musically. Your actions may, and most probably will, affect the other performers. That is why performing with others is always risky. And risky performances are not easy, precisely because they may fail. Nevertheless, it is precisely these risks that are responsible for the experience of performing with others as fun. Fun, Ian Bogost (2016) asserts, is not only enjoying when something is successful, but also the sensation of uncertainty and the awareness that failure may happen. As soon as the familiar turns strange and we are faced with something unexpected, the possibility of fun may arise. Fun, Bogost maintains, is the feeling of finding something new in a situation that seemed familiar, the result of interacting with something in a surprising way. In short: fun resides in the process of discovery.

The challenge thus is to introduce fun in playing on your own. This means that playing alone needs to become a process of discovery as well, one that involves risk-taking and allows the possibility to find something new. According to Miguel Sicart (2014), play is a means by which we create worlds as well as destroy them. It is a manner of exploring possibilities. Therefore, play should always be a dangerous activity, Sicart stresses, one that is in tension between creation and destruction, and always involves taking risks.

Consequently, play and fun are intrinsically related. It is through play that something can be fun, as it is in the process of discovery and risk-taking that fun can be found. Playing is fun because we do not know exactly what will happen when we play. And while it is not impossible to play in this sense by yourself, it is through playing music with others, in particular, that enables the possibility for play and fun in the Bogostian sense of the word.

So, how to introduce risk-taking and the possibility to find something new when playing alone? In my case, technology provided an answer. I recently purchased a Soma Cosmos Drifting Memory Station. The Soma Cosmos is a so-called asymmetrical looper consisting of a series of delay lines of different lengths that are based on prime numbers. As a result, the loops recorded by the Soma Cosmos fall in and out of sync in an unpredictable way, an unpredictability that contributes to the playful nature of interacting with the device.

Interacting with the Soma Cosmos is not identical to playing with other musicians, but it does introduce a new level of unpredictability in performance, one that opens up the possibilities for fun and play. When playing with the Soma Cosmos you are literally playing with yourself, as phrases that you play are recorded and played back in different manners by the Soma Cosmos. As a result, the unpredictability is created by transforming musical phrases that you play yourself.

Below is a recording of a performance of me playing double bass and using the Soma Cosmos:

While the experience of playing with the Soma Cosmos still is different from playing with other, live players, it does add a new creative dimension to my performance. So, technology still cannot replace human creativity, it does present new possibilities to be creative by yourself.


Bogost, Ian (2016). Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, & the Secret of Games. New York: Basic Books.

Sicart, Miguel (2014). Play Matters. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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