The Compositional Collective: Crowdsourcing and Collaboration in the Digital Age

The Compositional Collective: Crowdsourcing and Collaboration in the Digital Age

Today, advances in internet development, robotics, virtual reality, and social networking usher in with them the next generation of compositional methods. Most of these tools require nothing more than a high-speed connection and a little bit of time to learn and use. The possibilities feel limitless.

Written By

Sabrina Pena Young


Image from Bigstock

From the “Festival in Two Worlds” hosted in the virtual environment Second Life to Eric Whitacre’s captivating crowdsourcing project Lux Aurumque and “telepresent” concerts hosted by Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Institute, new music enthusiasts and composers alike can explore the outer limits of collaboration in the digital age. Music technology explodes exponentially in the third millennium.

Composers have historically explored and exploited the latest tools to meet their own ends, quickly incorporating the printing press, the phonograph, and circuitry in their own musical creations.  Today, advances in internet development, robotics, virtual reality, and social networking usher in with them the next generation of compositional methods. Most of these tools require nothing more than a high-speed connection and a little bit of time to learn and use. The possibilities feel limitless.

Technology in contemporary music, however, also poses unique challenges—logistically, technically, and aesthetically.  Directly speaking to the challenges of crowdsourcing and technology in collaborative projects, co-founder of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra and founder of the Princeton Soundlab Perry R. Cook points out:

As with much technology-based music and art, the demand that each new piece be absolutely novel, or nearly unique, is higher than with acoustic/traditional art. Nobody would demand that a new string quartet use new technology and sound completely different from all other past string quartets, but an art piece that uses new technology seems to carry an extra burden that it use really NEW technology.

In the mad dash to explore new technical heights and dimensions, complaints about the musical value or even sheer purpose of works created solely to exploit technology come to light. The challenge for composers lies in creating lasting works that move past sheer novelty, although there is value in experimentation for experimentation’s sake.

What follows is a brief exploration of several collaborative projects which challenge conventional definitions of composition, and some of which would be impossible using only traditional means.

Crowdsourcing and Opera by You

For those unfamiliar with the concept of crowdsourcing, imagine the inner workings of a high-functioning beehive. Each member works on a specific task towards a collective goal. In the same way, artistic efforts involving crowd-sourced talent assign each member a specific creative task that benefits the collective efforts of the whole. Each musician works towards the final project.

Although primarily designed for independent film projects, Wreckamovie has sections designated for operas and music videos. A project leader sets up a free online account and posts images, video, and a blog about the opera. Then he or she designates individual tasks for writers, artists, musicians, and other key roles. Participating members join the production and upload materials for each task. While some productions require members to sign a talent release form, the Wreckamovie website includes legal text that specifies the voluntary nature of collaboration on the site. The majority of productions are based in Finland, but international productions like music videos and indie slasher films also use the service.

While collaboration at a certain level is integral to large-scale productions like opera and film, the creators of Opera by You produced an opera entirely created through crowdsourcing. The project was the brainchild of a group of Finnish artists including Markus Simon Fagerudd, Samuli Lane, Iida Hämeen-Anttila, Jere Erkkilä, and Päivi Salmi, and they used the website to create an opera from scratch exclusively using crowdsourcing with the support of the Savonlinna Opera Festival. From concept to score to costume design, each element was tasked out to the Wreckamovie community and then completed by volunteer composers, artists, writers, and actors. Participants in the 400-member online crew each receive credit for their contributions.

Opera by You challenges ideas surrounding intellectual property and musical ownership. Several composers worked with Markus Simon Fagerudd on developing themes, orchestrating music, and editing scores.  The libretto is an eclectic mix of Dante’s Divine Comedy, political commentary, and cameos by famous historical figures like Mozart and Oscar Wilde. While Hämeen-Anttila finalized the libretto, the community developed plot ideas and twists, and literally put words in each character’s mouth. All community members signed a formal license agreement giving the Savonlinna Opera Festival property rights to Opera by You.

Free Will by Opera by You – record



Opera by You premiered July 21, 2012, at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Helsinki, Finland. The festival has also embarked on a new children’s opera called The Seal Opera, which has a libretto selected by the public using an online voting system. According to a 2011 press release, the winning libretto was created by elementary school children at the Helsinki European School. Over 6,000 participants voted for it online.

YouTube Collaborations

In 2008, YouTube, the London Symphony Orchestra, composer Tan Dun, and even the Hyundai Motor Company played key roles in a virtual experiment. Using as an online auditioning platform, aspiring amateur musicians competed online with professional musicians for a spot in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. In the end, thousands of musicians auditioned, and 101 instrumentalists made their way to the Sydney Opera House for a live performance.

The end result of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra seemed to be a mixed bag, with reviewers balking at the choice of program and lack of nuance in the performance.  In a March 21, 2011, review in the Los Angeles Times, Marcia Adair compared the final YouTube Symphony Concert to band camp concerts where the emphasis is on the experience and not the music. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra suffered from a lack of cohesiveness of sound that a few hasty days of rehearsal could not resolve.

Not all collaborative efforts using YouTube have involved willing participants. In 2009 Israeli composer and activist Ophir Kutiman developed the innovative ThruYOU online video series. Kutiman created video mashes using clips of musicians and vloggers on YouTube. Videos such as My Favorite Color and Mother of All Funk Chords involved dozens of short video clips tightly edited by Kutiman. The composer created complex musical compositions with each clip, using slick editing techniques and jazz arranging skills. Kutiman scavenged YouTube for each original clip, including everyone from bashful moms playing the organ to seasoned pros showing off their drum chops. Old rules regarding copyright were blatantly ignored, making the experiment controversial in some circles. The end result is raw, refreshing, and unique.

Ophir Kutiman continues to use technology as a means of expression and activism. His more recent 2011 video work, This is Real Democracy, demonstrates his trend towards political activism and shift away from purely musical pursuits.

Perhaps one of the most popular contemporary works using crowdsourcing and technology to date involves choral composer Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir and the viral rendition of his Lux Aurumque. Since his first successful YouTube video hit the internet, Whitacre has followed up with other Virtual Choir projects. The sleekness of production, the lush musical beauty of the works, and the gargantuan scope of a collaboration involving over 185 voices from a dozen countries have all helped launch Whitacre into a world of online stardom.

In a 2011 TED Talk, Eric Whitacre explained the simple beginnings for Virtual Choir. A choral student named Britlin Lucy uploaded a fan video for his work Sleep to YouTube. Inspired by the intimate sound and setting of the video, Whitacre uploaded a recording, sheet music, a piano track, and conducting video for Lux Aurumque to his blog and YouTube with a call for fifty singers to participate in a virtual ensemble video. The online auditions involved singers from all over the world.

Producer Scott Haines volunteered to cut the video and clean the audio, inserting clips of Eric Whitacre conducting the virtual ensemble, which is somewhat reminiscent of a scene from Superman 2. The high production quality of the first Virtual Choir project, in HD no less, does not compare to the second version, Virtual Choir 2.0 which involved over two thousands singers performing Whitacre’s Sleep in a virtual computer generated universe of interconnected spheres with a lone Whitacre at the epicenter.

More than a musical experiment, Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs explore and redefine community from a 21st-century perspective. Members experience a connectedness with strangers through this project. They reveal the possibilities of a more integral communication phenomena through social networking and technology that has only been imagined in the past. The musicians connected through space and time, if not through touch. During his Ted Talk, Whitacre described his virtual singers as “souls all on their own desert islands…sending electronic messages in bottles to each other.”

Telepresent Performance and The Telematic Circle

The concept of international “telepresent performances,” or collaborative performance occurring in tandem from different locations, has its beginnings in the late 20th century when the internet first reared its digital head. A paper by Ajay Kapur, Ge Wang, Philip Davidson, and Perry R. Cook called “Interactive Network Performance: a dream worth dreaming?” discusses the beginnings and practice of complex networked performances, including the projects like the GIGAPOPR, remote Internet 2 media events at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and experiments at the Electrotechnical Laboratory in Japan. The article describes in detail earlier efforts to create global telepresent concerts such as work in the 1990s at Chukyo University of Toyota in Japan and at the USA/Japan Inter-College Computer Music Festival in Tokyo. Both of these efforts seem primitive compared to today’s sleek smartphone, virtual world, and multimedia video collaborations. For a technically detailed description of a few key collaborative projects like VELDT (Networked Visual Feedback Software) and The Gigapop Ritual, “Interactive Network Performance: a dream worth dreaming?” is a read well worth the head-scratching and technical wonder.

A quick look online will reveal that the concept of telepresent performances in real time has captivated the hearts, minds, and efforts of a number of composers and artists. The Internet2 community, a consortium of academic communities and researchers, has used technology for artistic pursuits like Trespassing Boundaries between Tel Aviv and New York University and the cross-continental simultaneous live performances of InterPlay: Hallucinations. Multicasting or webcasting has become popular not only in the Internet2 community but with independent musicians through publicly accessible live streaming sites like

Composer Pauline Oliveros first experimented with telepresent performances using an Internet2 connection. A performance in 2005 involved dancers in California and France interacting with Pauline’s improvisations at RPI. As Pauline improvised, video was simulcast to France and California. Dancers improvised with Pauline’s musical gestures and with each other. Several challenges—including latency and issues with a firewall in France—threatened the performance until the day of the concert. At the premiere, Pauline serenely began her dream-like improvisation, natural percussive instruments in hand, as dancers flung far across the globe interpreted her musical gestures with their bodies.

Today Oliveros’s Telematic Circle involves universities, musicians, and composers throughout the world and facilitates telepresent concerts with minimal latency using both the latest technology and what Oliveros describes as “low tech audio.” The group utilizes a combination of tools including Internet2, Apple’s iCHATav, Skype, and other audiovisual means of communication. By working together, the various institutions hope to learn how best to overcome technical issues regarding latency, logistics, and teleconferencing limitations that limit real time musical performance.

Vox Novus 60×60 and Macrocomposition

Inspired by musical efforts like The Frog Peak Collaborations Project and Guy Livingston’s Don’t Panic, composer and director of Vox Novus Robert Voisey developed the 60×60 project as a means to expose audiences to new music. The project utilizes technology and digital collaboration to create a unique concert experience that has had hundreds of performances globally, and, on its tenth anniversary, has presented music by more than 2,000 composers.

The concept for the 60×60 project is simple: Combine sixty one-minute electronic compositions into an hour-long new music concert experience.  With minimal funding, 60×60 survives directly as a result of pooled talent from composers from all walks of life. More than a random mix of works, 60×60 involves macro-composition, which Voisey describes as, “the act of creating a musical work incorporating several fully formed ideas or complete works.” And just as “ballet, operas, and movies are all perfect examples of many artists contributing to a greater artistic whole orchestrated by the ‘macro-artist’,” says Voisey, the Vox Novus 60×60 project involves this multi-layered method of composition in the same way with sixty smaller sections sifted and sorted musically by a macro-composer.

Technology plays a key role in contacting and recruiting musicians for 60×60. Vox Novus members send out numerous calls both on the 60×60 website and through active music groups like the International Alliance of Women in Music (IAWM) listserv and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Participating composers submit their one-minute works using an online submission engine. The 60×60 project has a number of mixes each year, and each mix typically generates hundreds of submissions. This type of large-scale collaborative project involving thousands of composers from every corner of the globe is only possible through contemporary methods of Internet communication.

Other Collaborative Projects

Random Acts of Culture

Supported by the Knight Arts Foundation, Random Acts of Culture combines flashmobs and social networking with classical music. While not a means to create new forms of music, Random Acts of Culture has used social networking to expose unsuspecting mall-goers to spontaneous performances of “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, works by Verdi, and Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. The performances are meant to create a sense of community as unsuspecting participants join in the performance, tweet live about the experience, or simply grab a few snapshots with their phones.

Bicycle Built for 2000

Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an Amazon site that essentially serves as an online marketplace for microtasking, project designers Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey commissioned over two thousand people from over seventy countries to make vocal recordings of a brief excerpt of the song Daisy Bell for the price of six cents a recording. The participants did not have prior knowledge of the grand end-scheme. The final result of Bicycle Built for 2000 may seem a somewhat nightmarish version of the original tune, but still stands as an interesting experiment of grand scale crowdsourcing.

And even more…

Crowdsourcing musical talent reaches outside the realm of experimental electroacoustic wizardry, with popular examples like Smule’s Glee,,, and collaborative projects in the virtual world of Second Life by composer Alex Shapiro. For those that have a love for Karaoke, I warn you that Smule’s Glee can get quite addicting.

Practical Applications

More than just a digital playground for the curious, the internet provides an exciting engine for creativity and change.

As a composer of limited resources, producing a full-scale opera seemed impossible to me, but the Internet provided the talent and resources needed for my current virtual opera project. Websites like Music Xray, Blogger, Twitter, and OurStage were ideal for setting up online auditions. Sites like Wreckamovie, LinkedIn, and Moviestorm added talented artists, graphic designers, and animators to the film crew. Unlike a traditional live performance, Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is animated with Machinima, an animation style using virtual actors in a computer graphics environment first popularized by the video game Quake. Minor animation tasks are set up for crowdsourcing through Wreckamovie, while a core group of “Machinimators” will work together on major scenes. The cast rehearses using Opera Rehearsal Album downloads at Bandcamp. Each Opera Rehearsal Album comes complete with scores, an updated libretto, and click tracks. The film crew has never met. Typically this type of production would be prohibitive for a single composer to write, compose, and produce. By tapping into the vast resources available online, previously impossible things are achieved.

The key to many crowdsourced collaborative efforts lies in making a cohesive and understandable musical experience out of the amassed materials. Like the macro-composer in the Vox Novus 60×60 Project or the designers for Bicycle Built for 2000 and Virtual Choirs 2.0, a master artist assimilates each individual entity into the final whole. In this way, even a project involving thousands can have a single purpose, a single concept.

The technology described here is already moving towards the realm of digital antiquity. The point is to create incredible music with the resources at hand, not to exploit the latest digital gadgetry for the sake of shock and awe. Technology invaded music centuries ago.

What are some practical ways you can use today’s technology in your next musical project? You can crowdsource your next opera, flashmob the local grocery store with a new oratorio, conduct international auditions through YouTube, or premier a string quartet virtually in Second Life. Use, Google+, or Twitter to bounce your musical ideas off of other musicians, or improvise a telepresent jazz concert in real time using Skype or your iPhone. Connect to musicians a hemisphere away and find the talent you are looking for. Contemporary technology opens new doors to musical creativity.


A special thanks to Pauline Oliveros, Robert Voisey, Päivi Salmi, and Perry R. Cook for providing additional insight into this topic.

Additional Resources:
Adair, Marcia. “Music review: YouTube Symphony Orchestra’s final concert.” Los Angeles Times. March 21, 2011.

Ajay Kapur, Ge Wang, Philip Davidson, and Perry R. Cook, “Interactive Network Performance: a dream worth dreaming?” Department of Computer Science (also Music), Princeton University, Music Intelligence and Sound Technology Interdisciplinary Center (MISTIC), and the University of Victoria (2005).

Pauline Oliveros. “Reverberations: Eight Decades.” 2012. Abridged version in upcoming Journal of Science and Culture (2012).


Sabrina Peña Young

Award-winning composer, author, and obsessive sci-fi buff Sabrina Peña Young composes multimedia works that have been presented throughout Asia, the Americas, Australia, and Europe. Her music has been heard in international film festivals, radio, electronic dance clubs, random boom boxes in France, and as not-so-pleasant-background music. Young’s recent projects include the post-apocalyptic Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, the Afro-Cuban multimedia oratorio Creation, and film scores including Rob Cabrera’s animated short Monica and Sean Fleck’s time-lapse film Americana. Young’s works have been heard at the Beijing Conservatory, ICMC, SEAMUS, Miramax’s Project Greenlight, Art Basil Miami, the New York International Independent Film Festival, Turkey’s Cinema for Peace, the Pulsefield Exhibition of Sound Art, London’s Angel Moving Image Festival, and other international arts venues.