visions of sound: Avatar Orchestra Metaverse

(Originally published in Musicworks magazine, March 2010.)

Avatar Orchestra circa 2009. Left to Right: Flivelwitz Alsop, aka Tim Risher; Carolhyn Wijaya, aka Carolyn Oakley; Bingo Onomatopoeia, aka Andreas Müller; Humming Pera, aka Tina M. Pearson; Maxxo Klaar, aka Max D. Well; Zonzo Spyker, aka Viv Corringham; North Zipper, aka Norman Lowrey; Gumnosophistai Nurmi, aka Leif Inge; BlaiseDeLaFrance Voom, aka Biagio Francia; Paco Mariani, aka Chris Wittkowsky. Missing from photo: Free Noyes, aka Pauline Oliveros; Goodwind Seiling, aka Sachiko Hayashi; Lizsolo Mathilde, aka Liz Solo.  Photo by Max D. Well

by Tina M Pearson

Avatar Orchestra Metaverse is a global collective making new music within the virtual reality platform Second Life, an online three-dimensional program that allows users to interact through inworld avatars (users’ digital representations within a given online environment).

The Orchestra had its beginnings in early 2007 with the coalescence in Second Life of a group of European musicians, artists, and engineers who were trailblazing practices of networked performance made possible with rapid advances in Internet technologies and software, and with easier access to portable computers and audio gear. The group quickly attracted collaborators from Asia and North America. The Orchestra is now a group of twelve core members scattered geographically through seven countries, using Second Life as a networked meeting ground, a performance venue, and an environment for the creation of previously unimagined instruments and interactive audiovisual presentations.

Skin has become inadequate
in interfacing with reality.
Technology has become the
body’s new membrane
of existence.
— nam june paik

The Orchestra embraces an open-to-all playing field, with musicians and composers being joined by intense listeners from other disciplines (new media, visual arts, architecture, poetry, sculpture, dance), who bring new perspectives on working with sound, plus an informed approach to the visual manifestations of idea, concept, and sound.

The Orchestra’s virtual instruments are created within Second Life and have both audio and visual components that use uploaded sound samples and image files scripted and organized into Heads Up Display (HUD ) controls that appear on each performer’s computer screen. Most of the instruments, which are designed by Orchestra composers and instrument builders, incorporate animation and visuals with sound, and enable performers to trigger events within Second Life independently from one another in real time. The accumulated effect is a shifting blend of many avatars transmitting sounds and emitting images, particles, and/or symbols, while simultaneously walking, jumping, flying, hovering, or floating through virtual space.

In addition to its integrated HUD instruments, the Orchestra performs on occasion with instruments designed by other builders. Notable among these instruments are the Pataphone, designed and built by the late Michel Waiswisz of STEI M; a virtual cello and flute built by Robbie Dingo; and giant pianos built by a Second Life art collective.

Between 2007 and 2009 the Orchestra created over twenty distinct audio-visual pieces performed live for audiences within Second Life and in most cases simultaneously projected and broadcast at music, sound-art, and media events throughout Europe and North America. The pieces are variously whimsical, challenging, funny, raucous, poignant, spectacular, and sonically powerful. Similar to non-virtual music, the artistic impact of the compositions depends largely on the quality of performance practice, which, in the Orchestra’s case, is based on acute listening within a framework of conducted audiovisual
improvisation. The overall impact, however, changes with the access point of audience members: whether they are avatars in Second Life with control over their own viewing and listening perspective, are in a real-life performance venue viewing the Orchestra from projection screens and listening through loudspeakers, or are viewing an Internet stream. In each case, the experience can be markedly different.

It’s pretty crazy to meet like this and play music.
— leif inge

Compositionally, the Orchestra’s pieces to date reveal the range of interests within the collective’s members, including explorations of sonic phenomena and the harmonic series; spectacular narrative representations of musical icons; incorporation of field recordings and processed instrumental sounds into new concepts for virtual instruments; sonic investigations of three-dimensional virtual space; juxtaposition of traditional instruments with newly conceived virtual instruments; juxtaposition of just intonation and equal temperament; ritual and sonic meditation; sound and text poetry; mixed reality collaborations (combining virtual and real-life performers and instruments); and sonic interventions in virtual public spaces.

Pauline Oliveros (aka Free Noyes) conducting the AVatar Orchestra during her composition Heart of Tones (virtual reality version), 2008. Photo by Frieda Korda

With a focus on sound, Avatar Orchestra Metaverse explores nuances of identity, culture, and communication, uncovered through telematic connection within a virtual environment. This tenuous wired venture exposes a new kind of listening; inviting subtle yet powerful mind connections made audible as the group evolves within this very new medium.

avatar orchestra metaverse composers, 2007–2009

Harold Schellinx (France)

Bjorn Eriksson (Sweden)

Andreas Mueller, Shintaro Miyazaki (Germany)

Leif Inge (Norway)

Michel Waiswisz (Netherlands)

Biagio Franca (Italy)

Norman Lowrey, Pauline Oliveros, Tim Risher, Viv Corringham (U.S.A.)

Tina M.  Pearson, Erik Rzepka, Liz Solo, Jeremy Owen Turner (Canada)

AOM rehearsing PwRHm by Tina Pearson, particles by Sachiko Hayashi, Instrument Design by Andreas Mueller. Photo by Max D. Well