Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Little (More) Virtual Music

Way back when I said I hoped to post occasional little items on some of Second Life's music performers—this is another installment in what I hope will become a series. (OK, I guess with this post it is a series. I hope to make it bigger. Later. Well, it's getting bigger now. Gah! You know what I mean!)

My intention remains the same as with my first outing: I'm just highlighting some performers in SL that I happen to enjoy, and there's precious little method to how I choose them or the order in which they appear. These posts will never be a comprehensive guide to Second Life's music scene, nor am I attempting to review performers or hold forth that one act is better than another because of some post-structuralist aesthetic theory and a shared virtual cigarette behinds some barely-rendered pixellated dive in a laggy sim in the middle of the night. I'm just writing up people I like, based largely on the availability of halfway decent screenshots. Folks looking for a musical conspiracy should Google "Paul is Dead" and leave this little blog alone.

Frets Nirvana
I have a soft spot in my heart for reckless guitar players, and Frets Nirvana fits the bill: I knew when I rezzed into an odd little elfin-themed bar in some random sim and heard him launch into an all-acoustic Andress-funky version of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" I was in for a treat. Hailing from Tennessee, Frets plays steel-string fingerstyle in a way that owes a lot to to the likes of Tommy Emmanuel and "Certified Guitar Players" Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, but also to Phil Keaggy, jazz guitar great Django Reinhardt, and bluesman Mike Dowling…plus a whole lot of rock and rollers. Frets does a few stunt pieces kinda just to establish his credentials, but also takes on some classic traditional tunes, forges some odd medlies, and rolls out an original or two. I don't know much about Frets' setup, but it's pretty obvious he's playing real guitars into real mics in a real room, and he just sounds fabulous: he'll switch back and forth between a kinda snappy more-or-less traditional acoustic and a resonator or two (I think two: they're tuned different), occasionally drops in a looper or some percussion, and generally just seems to take a flying leap into tunes. Add solid stage banter to the mix, and you have a winning combination. I gather Frets is kinda new to the SL music scene, but he's sure hitting it aggressively: he plays a ton of shows (here's his calendar) and seems to be on about every virtual world music sharing and networking site (I guess MySpace is his "home") and has an album for sale.

Noma Falta
Noma Falta often billed as the "Queen of the Blues" in Second Life, but that's not particularly fair: although she's perfectly capable of dominating the blues, her repertoire encompasses a broad range of pop, classic rock, R&B, and a few off-the-beaten path rootsy gems that make me grin. Noma is a powerful singer with a terrific smokey tone, superb control, and a delivery that only comes from years at the microphone; however, in a slightly unusual vein, Noma is also a bassist and plays a bunch of live bass during her shows. Like a lot of solo performers in SL, Noma Falta sings and plays on top of backing tracks; however, unlike a lot of solo performers in SL, a lot of Noma's backing tracks seem home-grown, unique recordings offering original takes on well-known material. Regardless of their origin, a lot of those tracks feature some kick-ass guitar work, and are arranged to showcase Noma's range while giving her the opportunity to talk to the crowd and keep things moving along. Noma's performances are both very polished and very informal at the same time: she moves between songs with a careful, relaxed style that puts people at ease, and isn't afraid to take on very well-known rock, pop, and R&B standards and put her stamp on them. However, some of my favorite moments at Noma Falta shows aren't the crowd-pleasing tunes long-time fans seem to call for: it's quieter moments when she sometimes does a tune (or part of a tune) with just her voice and the bass.

Noma Falta is one of SL's top-drawing live music acts, and you can expect a world of lag almost anywhere she plays. (It took me weeks to attend a gig where she rezzed well enough to take a screenshot!) But her shows are worth the effort…plus they make for some great half-rezzed people-watching.

Moshang Zhao


Moshang Zhao characterizes himself as a "sound jeweler," and while I'm not sure exactly what that means, it appears to translate as a purveyor of live chill-out danceable-if-you-want electronica. Mochang Zhao comes to Second Life by way of Taiwan where he apparently teaches and works as both a musician and producer, although I gather he originally started out in South Africa. A typical Moshang set is about an hour of continuous, shifting music that relaxes and sets a mood, but almost always rewards close listening. I gather Moshang gets some material, libraries, and loops loaded up into software applications like Abelton Live and/or Reason—giving him a very large number of simultaneous instruments, tracks, and effects to play with—then just kind of sees what develops as he plays. Some of the bits are pre-composed while others seem to happen on the fly, and rather than noodle over them on a synthesizer or keyboard controller, Moshang uses an electronic wind controller, essentially a saxophone- or clarinet-like device that has keys and valves and responds to a player's breath, but generates MIDI data so it can be used to control a software instrument—that means he might sound like a flute on second, a sarod the next, and a visiting UFO after that. A lot of Moshang's material is deliberately harmonically sparse, relying on tone of (to an extent) effects to set a stage and still leave room for improvisation. But sometimes a few corners of the pieces will surprise you, and Moshang weaves disparate genre and world elements into his music with a subtle ease that sometimes you don't realize quite what he did until long after he did it—and by then it's utterly woven into whatever fabric he's spinning. Moshang posts a lot (all?) his performances as podcasts that are downloadable; he also has albums and individual downloads available.

Eponymous Drake


One of of the things that's bugged me about the Second Life music scene is that there really isn't much jazz. (OK, that's something that bugs me about the real life music scene too.) Most performers who claim to be doing jazz are singers of varying calibers essentially performing karaoke standards to pre-recorded backing tracks of varying quality. Don't get me wrong: some of those singers are quite good and unquestionably entertain a lot of folks, but many are at best earnest wanna-be Sintras or Dinah Shores with a USB headset and Winamp. Sometimes I want, um, the real deal. So I was pleased to run into pianist (and sometime horn/harmonica/guitar) player Eponymous Drake on some mountaintop venue almost (gah!) a year ago now. Eponymous delves deep into jazz's golden age and does solid service to material from the likes of Billy Strayhorn, Berlin, Gershwin, and rolls up through folks like Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, and Herbie Hancock. But it's not so much the material Eponymous picks as as it is his willingness to wander off into the wilderness with it: Eponymous stretches tunes' harmonic context, sometimes into some unexpected "outside" areas, and lets melody go where it wants. Lately Eponymous has been playing more tunes with a bit of pre-recorded rhythm section accompaniment, and also introducing original compositions into his shows. Of the performers I've highlighted here so far, Eponymous is the least self-promoting: he doesn't play incredibly regular gigs, he isn't pimping an album or downloads or a Web site, and doesn't have a whoogirl manager out in the audience telling everyone how lovely she thinks the last tune was and shilling for tips. He turns ups, plays some jazz, makes it count, and says thanks. And when it works, it's like nothing else I've heard so far in SL…and wow do I wish that wasn't true.

That Tipping Thing

I'm not going to beat a dead horse, but if you check out Second Life's music scene, please bear in mind that while folks are putting up venues, renting streams, and performing out of a sheer love for music, there are real costs involved. Speaking as a real-life musician, when I perform a tune it might produce three or four minutes of music, but (depending on the tune) folks are hearing twenty to a hundred times (or more) that amount of time into learning, arranging, and getting that tune together—you know, on top of all the endless hours of practicing, learning the craft, blah blah blah. It's the same with Second Life performers, and the have the added overhead of all the technical gobbledegook of capturing a good sound, converting it to a stream, and pushing it out to the Internet for everyone—plus managing the notoriously flaky Second Life client software at the same time. No one is going to be offended if you don't tip, but when you do, be as generous as you can—audience support really does keep live music and other worthwhile performers able to keep doing what they do in Second Life.

So…that's it for now. Until next time!