Distributed Performance Strategies for the Online Orchestra
Online distributed performance poses complex technical and musical challenges including issues associated with network speed and quality, latency between distributed nodes, audio feedback and echo, audio-visual quality and synchronisation. A major contribution of this project was the development of technological and musical strategies to overcome these challenges to make online performance a meaningful experience for young and amateur musicians with traditional musical training. The outputs of this project comprised 1) a large-scale composition by Federico Reuben, Spiritus Telecommunitas, which implements musical solutions to the challenges of music making in latency-rich environments (these solutions are discussed in Rofe and Geelhoed 2017); 2) the development of a software system to stabilise and control latency across a network, locking it to musical tempo, and allowing performances of fully notated-metric music to be simultaneously performed across locations; and 3) journal articles describing a) the complexities of network latency and the principles of the software and b) the systems design and cost-effective technological solutions utilised in the project. Spiritus Telecommunitas was premiered for an audience of approximately 400 people across four locations: Five Islands' School in the Isles of Scilly (flutes), Mullion School (brass), Truro Cathedral (strings, female choir and soloist) and Falmouth University (conductor) and involved a mix of more than fifty young, amateur and professional musicians. The composition utilises sound and telecommunication devices and materials based on historical research (collaboration with Aleks Kolkowski) about the relationship between telecommunications and music. This work was undertaken as part of The Online Orchestra: Connecting Remote Communities through Music project.
The Online Orchestra was a project that was funded by AHRC (fit to connected communities and design highlight notice), that ran from October 2014 – March 2016. Wide ranging research suggests that participation in ensemble music making has benefits in the areas of musical skills, social skills, social capital, community, personal skills, and health (see, for example, Blandford and Duarte, 2004; Jones., 2010; Wilson et al., 2010; Kokotsaki & Hallam, 2011).
The UK Government’s National Music Plan recognizes these benefits, recommending that ‘Children from all backgrounds and every part of England should have the opportunity…to make music with others’. Yet in parts of the country such as Cornwall, where many people live in geographically remote communities, accessing group music making opportunities is often practically difficult: either there are not enough musicians living in one place, or the time and expense of travel prevents regular participation. The Online Orchestra asks how we can use burgeoning network technologies and creative approaches to composition to give people in remote communities access to the recognized benefits of ensemble music making. While the history of network performance is long and varied (see, for example, Follmer, 2005; or Traub 2005), recent developments in computing and network technology, such as the rolling out of BT Superfast Broadband to remote locations around the UK, mean significant new possibilities for online performance. Foremost among these is the capacity for community music making online, where amateur and young musicians can gain access to real-time online performance opportunities, where once these were confined to specialist institutions. Members of the Online Orchestra team – which includes technologists, composers, performers and social scientists – have been working since October 2014 to develop the necessary software platform, musical materials and user-experience design to enable musicians to perform together online in a way that is: (1) sufficiently intuitive that amateur musicians and children with traditional musical training can adapt quickly to working online; (2) sufficiently high quality that meaningful and enjoyable musical performance can take place; and (3) sufficiently cost-effective to the user in terms of equipment requirements. The Online Orchestra project culminated in July 2015 in a performance involving musicians around Cornwall – in Truro Cathedral, on the Isles of Scilly, at Falmouth University, and on the Lizard Peninsula – performing new works together live online. A documentary on the performance can be seen here.