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Musicians aim to create virtual choir

  • Story Highlights
  • Collaboration across continents is redefining how music is made
  • Musicians attempting to create Europe's first virtual choir via the Internet
  • Concert to be held between Manchester, England and Ljubljana, Slovenia
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By Matthew Knight for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Pop music icon Elton John complained to a British newspaper this week that the Internet was destroying music.

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Since Suzanne Vega's virtual concert a year ago, Second Life has hosted further concerts including Live Earth.

The self-confessed technophobe told The Sun that: "The Internet has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff... Hopefully the next movement in music will tear down the Internet."

But John is part of a shrinking number of people who steadfastly refuse to accept the changing nature of not only how music is consumed in the 21st century, but also how collaboration across continents is redefining how music is made and performed, linking musicians and audiences in extraordinary ways.

The appetite for digital music is growing exponentially.

This week Apple announced the three billionth download from iTunes -- astonishingly the last billion were racked up in the past six months alone.

MySpace -- despite growing competition from rival networking sites -- remains the quickest and easiest route to sampling a vast array of musical tastes, accommodating the aspirations of a legion of wannabe rock stars as well as promoting the sonic wares of established rock and pop acts.

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Virtual online worlds are also proving to be popular locations for new types of musical projects. Last August saw Suzanne Vega become the first major recording artist to perform a live gig in Second Life.

Vega's performance was followed by the British group Duran Duran who, keen to experiment with the latest technology, created their own virtual island within the world to perform concerts.

And earlier this year the Live Earth concerts were streamed live to the inhabitants of Second Life, garnering a sizable virtual audience.

This weekend sees another first as Second Life hosts its first online musical.

Scored by Graham Brown and Geoff Meads and written by playwright Francis Ann Bartram, "Joined at the Heart" will be performed by a cast of 30 at the Junction Theatre in Cambridge, England.

Based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the musical will be streamed live on Saturday August 4 at 1930 GMT.

"You can log in, see the play and see people's reaction to it," said Mark Duffy, 3D manager of Fusion Unity, the company that has masterminded the virtual link up.

"You'll get that interaction the same way you would with an audience."

One of most interesting and truly collaborative projects currently being researched is the attempt to create Europe's first virtual choir via the Internet.

Barry Cheetham, senior lecturer in The School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester, is combining his academic expertise in communications, networks and digital signal processing with his love of choral singing.

Cheetham, who sings bass with a choir in Holmfirth in West Yorkshire, told CNN that he first had the idea several years ago, while working on a contract investigating speech over wireless Local Area Networks (LAN).

He found out that he and a colleague, Marjan Spegel, from the Jozef Stefan Institute in Slovenia, shared an interest in choral singing.

"In our original thought we imagined there would be two choirs, one in Manchester and one in Slovenia, linked together by technology," Cheetham said.

But Cheetham said the idea was not possible because current Internet connections are not yet up to the job of allowing the two choirs to sing in synchronization.

"Standard broadband links may be very high speed, delivering a high number of bits per second, but produce long time delays."

Voices traveling down the wires need to be processed quickly to achieve the desired effect.

Cheetham has been in contact with a group of professional musicians in Germany who are working on a similar project.

They have managed to get the delay down to 32 milliseconds, but he thinks a 50 millisecond delay would probably be sufficient for his project.

There are other challenges to overcome, including how the conductor will control a choir made up of people in different locations and acousticians will have to work out how the speakers will be arranged in each of the concert halls.

The project has sparked interest from a barber shop quartet in the U.S., whose members want to attempt a performance where each singer is in a different geographical location.

Linking up singers across the Atlantic, however, is impossible, due to the speed of electromagnetic radiation.

Cheetham estimates that it would take at least 20 milliseconds to reach the east coast of U.S. and 20 milliseconds back which is too long a delay for remote collaborative singing ventures.

Trials over shorter distances have begun and more are planned in the near future.

"The dream is to have a concert between Manchester University and the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia,and to contribute to the integration of people living in the European community."

A keen amateur singer, one of Cheetham's favorite pieces of music is Belshazzer's Feast by 20th century British composer William Walton.

His local choir particularly enjoy singing pieces composed by Johann Sebastian Bach.

"This project has the potential to bring people together. Doing this electronically is exciting and worthwhile. We also hope it allows older and disabled people to participate." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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