The first online collaborative orchestra, the World Online Orchestra (WOO), was launched in January 2014 by the Copenhagen Philharmonic together with Helios Design Labs and Makropol. Using Beethoven’s 7th Symphony mov II for the beta launch, WOO is an interactive symphony that allows the listener to direct what they are listening to.

Each of the 45 musicians have recorded their part separately. Not only can individual musicians be listened to, but WOO also allows you to create ensembles of up to five instruments in the orchestra, or ‘mini symphonies’ as WOO calls them, allowing visitors to step out of their role as an audience member and become an active online conductor. Never before had I heard the combination of the tuba, clarinet, timpani and viola parts of the movement so clearly.

Currently in beta, the next phase is being fundraised on kickstarter which will allow individuals to record themselves in a place that is meaningful to them and upload their own playing to be part of the orchestra – aka, the world online orchestra. Uffe Savery, CEO of the Copenhagen Philharmonic, said that after two highly successful flash mobs, ‘people wrote in to us saying I wish I could have been there, so we thought, why not make an orchestra where you actually can be there’.

When it came to musicians recording their individual parts, they used the orchestra’s recently recorded version of the symphony to play along to. Savery commented on how the players, who are used to playing at the highest standard, found it quite a ‘challenge to their mindset’ to have to play with earplugs, background noise, and alone – no longer part of an orchestra. Whilst this is a world orchestra, the personal narrative of each musician is an important aspect of WOO, and people are encouraged to record their part in a place meaningful to them.

Over time the symphony will be gradually moulded and influenced by the new participants who will be able either to record themselves performing Beethoven’s score, or instead their own improvisation. Savery emphasised how they also want to ‘invite those who play different instruments – if you are really good on spoons, then you’re very welcome to join!’. With the improvisations and new instrumental additions, Beethoven’s symphony might gradually become unrecognisable and an entirely new work in its own right might develop. WOO’s aim is then to have live performances of this new music, turning the digital once again into the physical. What happens from there will be dictated by what happens on WOO.

WOO says its aim is to ‘break down the barriers of orchestral music’. And yet it also manages to appeal to the ultimate music aficionado, artists, performers, composers…it is a truly universal, world online orchestra.


World Online Orchestra

The Technology of WOO

Mike Robbins, Creative Technologist at Helios Design Labs explains how the WOO platform works:

WOO code is divided into two basic functions, playback and recording. For the WOO playback, you can think of it like some great multi-track console that one might find in a recording studio. Each musician is represented by a track; each track consists of a group of sub-tracks. 

For the recording part, you can think of it as a recording studio in a web-browser. The only tools necessary for contributing to WOO are a laptop and internet connection. The programming for this part of WOO is based very much on research and experimentation; not a lot of what we want to do has been done before. In simple terms, we are using code from within a web browser to convert video and audio streams, stream these to a cloud server, and recombine them there for inclusion in the WOO. Sort of like the Star Trek transporter: in effect the musician is saying “Beam me up, WOO!”.

There is an audio component for each musician (of course!). We use something called the Web Audio API which allows us not only to playback multiple audio tracks simultaneously, but also sets stereo position and samples frequency amplitude so we can measure and display the intensity of each track. This we connect to the corresponding video track which gives that pulsation in time to the music. Each audio track can be solo-ed, or lifted in volume, or muted, much like a real multi-track console. 

Going forward, participants will be able to choose who from WOO they want to record with: the full orchestra, an ensemble of their own choosing, or an individual. Participants can play traditional parts as written in the score or improvise with non-traditional instruments. So a part of the recording process and coding is a way for all this input to be curated and moderated, so the music can change over time in a constructive way as people start to add more and more parts.