AVATAR AUDIO PERFORMANCE IN SECOND LIFE Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts, Calgary, Canada

Photo: Ellen Pearlman
Photo: Ellen Pearlman

Jeremy Owen Turner has over nine years’ experience producing content in virtual worlds, which makes him a bona-fide doyen and agent provocateur in the field of emerging technologies. At the recent Soundasaurus Festival held at Calgary’s Epcor Centre (part of the larger High Performance Rodeo performance-arts festival), he presented the audio performance z’zzzy’zz’zy’z’yz’zzy’yy’y in Linden Labs’ 3-D avatar environment, Second Life (SL). I was pumped to see and hear what was touted as “customized instruments and an automated performing ensemble...a musical opus exclusively designed with an ‘alien’ audience in mind.”

Second Life is a virtual world that started in 2003 and is accessed via the internet. It allows individuals and groups to interact with one another through fantastic-looking avatars (personas) that can fly to virtual locations and manifest special powers. The avatars communicate through local chat or instant messaging (IM). Using a special programming language, individuals can create their own add-ons to their avatars in the form of clothes, animations, sound, and other visuals. Some refer to SL as a community, while others see it as a souped-up game. Turner, along with composer Pauline Oliveros, has been one of the proponents investigating its use as a tool for music composition. Turner wrote ten-second sound samples and uploaded them into a user interface that can be used as an instrument but doesn’t have to be. Events or actions of the avatar can trigger sounds. According to Turner, “There are other ways to compose longer forms that more closely resemble a ‘musical experience’ in SL. One method employs ‘hyperinstruments,’ virtual instruments that simulate classical ones. One can play a cello or a flute in real time. Another way is to use the voice-chat channel for any real-world [performance].” By 2006 the category “Live Music” was added to Second Life to accommodate the increasing number of musicians and DJs who use it as a platform.

What gives Second Life its clout is the fact that you can be who you wanna be, do what you wanna do, and indulge your most deep-seated whims. A lot of the technology resembles that of the gaming world, so players tend to over-represent their best parts, hoard their virtual resources, fly through the air with surprising ease, and battle each other with magical swords. The story lines are usually secondary, the dialogue is typed in, and the sound is not yet robust. Turner’s live performance had technical drawbacks, as each action by his avatars could only trigger a ten-second-long sound file. These sounds were either programmed ahead of time or randomly generated by the actions of the avatars during the performance, which made me feel like I was watching John Cage meeting Pokémon. Was this a musical composition, or the sound
effects of a video game?

The piece z’zzzy’zz’zy’z’yz’zzy’yy’ showed two male characters flying though day and night scenarios. Occasionally one character would freak out and perform what I have haphazardly and probably incorrectly call “brain farts”—surrounding himself in a big goo of color accompanied by lots of chords, bleeps, scratches, and plinks. It was a tease, a titillation, but it also raised the question of exactly what it was that we were watching.

I asked Turner about this, and he said, “Second Life as a medium is not really the determining factor [in] the degree to which compositions produced within it are perceived as ‘music’ or as a ‘sound effect.’” As with 20th-century music, there has been a desire to elevate music beyond being subordinated to that of a film soundtrack, and composers use different media and techniques (and aesthetic considerations) for dealing with this issue, blurring the boundary between “music” and “sound.” Turner named the ten-second samples that he composed for his avatar’s “continuos.” A continuo is a drone or a repeated musical phrase used to provide musical continuity when sound events are changing rapidly. Turner says he was “subverting the musical idea of the ‘continuo’ by allowing my bot to play these short samples (continuos are usually long) whenever it felt like.” Therefore, the “musical” sense of the piece could either be reinforced or abandoned in favor of a “gaming” experience.

Conceptually, this is very exciting work. However, the lack of focus, story line, and overall meaning made it an operetta without thrust, a popcorn-crunching twirl through new technologies. I suspect the project was so programming-intensive that it became something of an end in itself, and thus oblivious to the needs of the uninitiated listener. It needed more drama and a little less circuitry. But Turner sees way beyond his one-night experimental stand in Calgary. He says, “I see virtual worlds becoming part of everyday life—probably through augmented reality applications, and then through nanotechnological advances.” Take that, James Cameron


Ellen Pearlman


MAR 2010

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