On Sunday 25th October 2009, CoMA Yorkshire entered its usual rehearsal hall at the University of York at the usual time. But today something was different – the room seemed to be awash with microphones and wiring, there was a laptop and mixer in the corner and a picture of a 3D stage on the projection screen.

This was no rehearsal though, this was a concert. The audience was not in the room with them but scattered all over the world, from the UK, Germany and Holland, to the US, Canada and Mexico and even Saudi Arabia. They were gathered in the online virtual world “Second Life” waiting for CoMA to do their stuff and play a collection of new pieces and their trademark free improvisations.

Seven avatars, representing the players in the rehearsal room, collected on the virtual stage, holding their instruments, and settled in their positions, waiting for the musical director to start. The audience heard Peter Moran introduce the ensemble, announce the first piece – an improvisation – and the concert began.

This project started three months earlier as CoMA member Chrissie Caulfield, already also a resident of Second Life, frequent attender and occasional giver of virtual concerts, had the idea of having CoMA appear there and show the world just what a collection of enthusiastic amateurs can do. The rest of the ensemble seemed slightly bemused but, being CoMA, were always ready to try something new and agreed.

The Real Life part of an SL concert

Karen looks bemused while Chrissie does the techie bits

Playing in Second Life is very different to a real world concert. The audience gets the audio streamed to them like an internet radio station, but the visuals are made using existing members of the virtual community – the audience doesn’t see the actual performers, just avatars that represent them. This poses particular challenges. The avatars need to be provided with instruments and suitable animations to make them look as they are playing the instruments and conducting. Luckily Chrissie is already an accomplished Second Life instrument maker and provided many of the instruments and animations that were used. Though some, like the pianos, were bought using the currency of Second Life, the Linden Dollar (L$).

The avatars were rehearsed a week before the concert. They were given their instruments, told the programme and instructed where to stand on the stage and where to move for the different pieces that were played. Fortunately most of the avatars recruited were musicians in their real lives and so had some understanding of what was happening, even if none of them were particularly familiar with contemporary music. Like CoMA, Second Life residents are fond of new experiences and the people recruited were very keen to be part of this experience. They really threw themselves into the project, in some cases even changing the shape and usual dress style of their avatars to look something like the real CoMA musicians. Not all were that accurate though, for some reason all but one of the avatars we manage to recruit were female, contrasting with the actual ensemble which is 4 female, 3 male! Chrissie had her own avatar, of course, and the author will leave it up to others to assess the match between her real and virtual appearances. The audience could assess the accuracy for themselves because there was a photo of the previous CoMA concert at the back of the virtual stage.

The Second Life Stage

The concert was really enjoyed by both sides of the digital divide. Second Life does do some contemporary concerts (Chrissie had done a solo recital a month before, but mostly the ‘classical’ music scene is as straight as it is in the real world, or contemporary is limited to largely tonal ‘ambient’ music), but nothing of this type. The real ensemble could see their typed appreciative comments appear scrolling up the screen projected in front of them, and there were plenty. Common questions asked after the concert were “when is your next concert here?” or “how can I find out more about CoMA?”. Those wanting to know about CoMA were pointed to the web site.

All in all there were up to 30 people in the audience, though some came and went during the performances, another advantage of a Second Life concert: you can arrive or leave when you like without disturbing the performers.

In the rehearsal hall, the actual players enjoyed themselves too. Far from being a disconnected experience like recording a CD, this was still interactive. The band also had the opportunity to communicate with each other during and between pieces (quietly obviously, or it would be picked up by the microphones), something which is normally frowned upon during a conventional concert!

The programme consisted of two pieces by Karen Kirkup: “Waxwing Day” & “Reaching Peak Twenty”, Christine Caulfield’s “Baarle-Hertog”, Jennifer Walshe’s “He was, She was”, Amy Preece’s “No Say No” and a free improvisation.
A great time was had by all. And I hope we also increased the visibility of CoMA around the world. We will be doing this again!

Chrissie Caulfield

Recordings from the concert

All: Improvisation

Karen Kirkup: Waxwing Day

Amy Preece: No Say No

Karen Kirkup: Reaching Peak Twenty

Christine Caulfield: Baarle-Hertog

The Jennifer Walshe piece is not available for copyright reasons.

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