Virtual Music

Virtual Music

The Internet in a new era in music

Written By

William Duckworth

The oldest musical instrument in the world and the newest performed together at the recent Brisbane

ED NOTE: As a publication created for and disseminated through the Internet, NewMusicBox is, in a sense, part of the tradition of music on the Web even though most of the music we cover exists in concerts, on recordings, and all those other quaint, old-fashioned ways! After three and a half years, however, it seemed high time to devote an entire issue of NewMusicBox to a much more recent phenomenon: music actually created for and disseminated through the Internet. Our obvious choice for Guest Editor was composer and new music authority William Duckworth who, after helping define the musical movement now known as post-minimalism through musical compositions such as The Time Curve Preludes and Southern Harmony, has not only made a vital contribution to the field of music on the Web through his ongoing interactive composition Cathedral, but whose books about music (such as John Cage At Seventy-Five, Sound And Light: La Monte Young And Marian Zazeela, and his pioneering collection Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers) have greatly enhanced the understanding of the music of our time and what the future of music might be.


Musically, we are at an extremely exciting moment right now. It doesn’t get much better than this. Virtual Music is emerging before our very eyes. Not only are new styles and new means of distribution developing, but entirely new communities of musicians and artists are beginning to form. Where this is all happening, of course, is on the World Wide Web. The Web, which has long offered file-sharing access to almost anything we might want to hear, has also spawned new music composed and performed on-line, new virtual instruments (for creating, as well as mixing and producing), and now a new form of music, as well.

This new music—virtual music, for want of a better term—is music made on the Web, in community, over great distances, and often over large spans of time. And although there are many styles of music on the Web, and certainly more to come, this new music is distinguished by its sense of community and the level of interactivity it not only allows but also encourages.

As Virtual Music develops, of course, we will all have a chance to participate in its growth and to help define it. In fact, it already has a history, as DJ Spooky and Ken Jordan show us in their HyperHistory of Music on the Web.

And I thought I would begin by asking Eve Beglarian, Jovino Santos Neto, Nicolas Collins, Pauline Oliveros and DJ Tamara what role the Web currently plays in their musical lives. Is it important, is it used creatively, is it a means of distribution?

While from the Forum we’d like to know how you think you might be using the Web for music three to five years in the future.

Where music on the Web may eventually lead is anyone’s guess, of course, but if anyone has a good guess it’s Jaron Lanier. Both a musician and a scientist, he is probably best known for his work in virtual reality. Currently, Jaron is the lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, a consortium of universities studying the implications and applications of next-generation Internet technologies. On the other hand, as a musician, Jaron has over 1,000 musical instruments in his loft, all of which he can play, and he performs regularly with the likes of Sean Lennon, Ornette Coleman, and Philip Glass. As a teenager, he even hitchhiked to Mexico City to visit Conlon Nancarrow, interested, as he was, in both his music and his politics. So trying to categorize Jaron Lanier is a difficult prospect at best. But when the idea of a Virtual Music issue of NewMusicBox came up, and Frank Oteri and I first discussed who to interview, Jaron’s name was at the top of the list.

We met in Jaron’s loft one morning in early June. I had been there before; he only had about 700 instruments then. Our conversation touched on everything from computer interfaces to what it means to be musical. But what I wanted to find out was how it all began, and where he thinks it’s going, and how music and science came together so seamlessly in him. Because Jaron is the closest thing to a 21st-century Renaissance person that I know with whom I can speculate about the future of music on the Web.