The Online Orchestra (Phase 1) is a project that was funded by AHRC (fit to connected communities and design highlight notice), run by Falmouth University from Oct 2014 – Mar 2016, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Cornwall Music Education Hub. 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. Whilst 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 amongst 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 three new works together live online. A documentary on the performance can be seen at: www.onlineorchestra.com/outcomes.
The Online Orchestra (Phase 2) project will develop a web-based application for distributed network performance based on the findings of the first phase of the project. It will address key issues related to network performance including novel approaches to handling latency, network architecture, echo management, and network access.