February 28, 2009
More than 105,000 visitors have popped in to hear all or part of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra's Second Life program.
You can hear the breeze caressing the West Coast pines and the gently rolling sea. High clouds float overhead as people gather in the amphitheatre on Music Island. It is as pretty a spot as one could ever imagine for a concert.
Three early-music specialists from Switzerland perform for an hour on recorders and flutes to an audience of listeners from Philadelphia, North Dakota, Norway, Finland, Holland, Italy, France, China, Korea – and Toronto.
Gone is the starchy, silence-is-golden ethos of classical concerts, with audience members exchanging comments and coming and going as they please. The live performance is so multicultural, so affable, because it is taking place in the virtual world known as Second Life.
Unfolding on the computer monitor and desktop speakers in Linda Rogers' downtown Toronto living room is one of many new ways in which we can experience music these days. This one, the virtual, online world, is still evolving within the limits of current technology. The network of computer servers set up by Second Life creators Linden Labs in California is overburdened, limiting the number of people who can participate. Then there are the challenges faced by musicians in translating a studio performance into a virtual public event.
Still, many people feel right at home in this new world. The more than 15 million residents of Second Life (about 70,000 are logged in on an average day, according to Linden Labs) make up a community much like the bricks-and-mortar world. There are seas and continents, settled areas and wilderness, camaraderie and consumerism. People go to escape reality, to make money and to make out (you have to be 18 or older to sign up). There are other virtual spaces on the Net, with names like Entropia Universe and Kaneva. There are worlds for gamers. Randy sorts gravitate to joints like the Red Light Center.
The virtual person, or avatar, you become when you cross the electronic threshold can be your electronic mirror image. Or it can be someone different – thinner, younger, or of the opposite sex. You can even become an animal, with diehard gamers running around as elves, gnomes and dragons.
Second Life had a moment of notoriety last November when real-life Briton Amy Taylor decided to divorce her husband David Pollard after she caught his avatar cheating with another.
Human peccadilloes date to the beginning of time, as does music. So it's no surprise that virtual worlds host multi-performer pop and rock music festivals, dance clubs, hip hop, jazz jams, country jamborees and classical concerts. Each venue in Second Life has its own name, bookings, marketing and publicity.
Likely the biggest classical organization to have a presence is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which built an electronic replica of the city's Art Deco music palace in Second Life and hosted its first concert there in September 2007. Spokesperson Millicent Jones reports that more than 105,000 visitors have popped in to hear all or part of the program, presented in recorded video, rather than with orchestra avatars.
At the modest Music Island, Linda Rogers co-ordinates a live concert most Saturdays at 3 p.m. There is new music, piano recitals, an orchestra and experiments in the simultaneous creation of music and visual art. This afternoon's bill features "Professor Blackmountain," a synthesizer artist "who weaves a meditative spell of ambient music that will take you on an inner journey of exploration."
Rogers says she welcomes about 2,000 visitors every month to Music Island – in line with a real-world venue like the Jane Mallett Theatre. Except that you can't teleport yourself from China into the St. Lawrence Centre.
One of Music Island's regular performers is early-music specialist Thomas Coard (Thom Dowd in Second Life). He greets avatars from the stage and chats amiably between pieces.
Coard, who performed 26 virtual concerts last year, has learned to work around the medium's extra demands. They're not as simple as walking up to a microphone.
As Coard and two students played in a room in the Fribourg Conservatory earlier this month, Coard's wife and two assistants worked three computers to co-ordinate the audio, the avatars' movements, and the audience's instant messages.
The sound quality was excellent, but the herky-jerky avatars were anything but realistic. The scenery is decidedly two-dimensional – to save on computer processing loads, says Rogers.
That doesn't affect Second Life denizen Perplexity Peccable's enthusiasm. "As a single parent with a special-needs child with no car, this is the only way I can attend concerts anymore," she messaged.
"You have no idea what driving into (Philadelphia) to hear a concert is like," wrote audience member Hojo Warf from his armchair.
But people aren't just here out of convenience or economic necessity. They're seeking community. Referring to the hub of public life in ancient Athens, Italian pianist Alessandro Marangoni (Benito Flores in Second Life) suggests that "Music Island is like a modern agora."
Rogers, a skeptic initially, was eventually won over. "I got into Second Life to prove I hated it," she says of the day she first signed on in 2005. "To be honest, I didn't take to it right away."
Rogers is an arts administrator (currently manager of the Toronto Philharmonia) and music fan. She is also a Quaker who enjoys helping and teaching others.
Adjacent to Music Island is a virtual Quaker meeting house that serves as a hub of creative interaction between musicians, artists, writers and their friends. Inspired, Rogers (Kate Miranda in Second Life) learned how to stream music and soon was teaching it to others. Now she spreads the musical gospel, energized by every convert.
Coard says this community is free from the cost and logistics of travel. "My goal with (Second Life) has been to create my dream musical projects and unite a few people in the world to display these projects," he writes in an email.
As in the real world, commercialism has seeped into every crevice of Second Life. You have to earn virtual money (Linden dollars) to put a virtual roof over your head. There is a donation basket on Music Island, and several avatars kindly leave some Linden dollars (the totals are posted for all to see).
"Most musicians rarely earn more than $20" in real money, says Rogers. So it's not as if anyone's getting rich doing this.
Marangoni says it's not money, but new friends that attract him to the Music Island stage. "There's a sense of intimacy with the Web. The computer world helps break the barrier to classical music," he says over the phone from his home near Milan.
Marangoni describes this medium an "interesting mode to achieve a rapprochement" between performers and audiences.
All the better if it can take place near a sun-dappled seaside.
For more information: cedar-island.org/people/music-island-concerts
What are your views on virtual concerts? Have you ever seen/heard one?
What are their positive and the negative aspects?
How do you think artists feel about them?
Do you think virtual concerts may one day replace real ones?