The woman known as Grace McDunnough in Second Life was born singing, but the strange thing is, she needed to become an avatar, to make that talent known.
"As a child I remember being told in school repeatedly to 'stop humming' although honestly I was unaware that I was, it was just there," she tells me. "I hear music in almost everything. Music is as much a part of my everyday as breathing, I cannot imagine a day without it... But to be labeled a performer - someone who stands as an individual on a stage facing others labeled the audience - this has not been a primary driver in my 'real' life."
Instead, in her real life, Grace McDunnough keeps her singing to herself. And though it's clear from the writing on her blog that she is a professional woman with deep knowledge of modern media and the Internet industry, her day-to-day career goes by without song.
"As fate would have it I have an acute case of stage fright," she explains to me, "and one that is wholly limited to performing as a musician. I can (and do) stand on a stage in front of hundreds of people and speak about any number of topics from the deeply technical to business and social issues, but when it comes to moving from the spoken word to music, I come undone. Often even the mere thought of performing is debilitating, and so this dilemma has defined and dictated my 'RL' background as a performer."
That is how one of Second Life's most famed and beloved live music performers came to be, and for the last two years, why she's taken on her particular form there. Most SL musicians, it's fair to say, use their in-world performances to promote their real life careers, and link their avatar name with their off-line stage name, and their SL profile with their website or MySpace page. Ms. McDunnough is the rare singer who is only famous as an avatar, renowned for her Southern honey voice, the evocative compositions of the alt folk songs she writes and performs, and, of course, "Musimmersion", the only-in-Second Life performance space she innovated, a stage with a dynamic, 3D background that changes from song-to-song, to fit the theme of each.
Thanks to machinimator Ms. Toxic Menges, here's a montage sampling of "Musimmersion" in its latest form, shot at a recent show:
So somewhere out there in the real world, there's a woman who keeps a very precious talent inside, and only shares it fully when she becomes an avatar. But who is she in the real world? She'll only offer hints of that, but then answers that question with a question. And because she's an excellent writer, from here on out I'll let her have the floor. After the break, Grace McDunnough explains how she discovered Second Life, invented Musimmersion, and more.
How she came to Second Life:
I discovered SL while researching new product ideas in 2005. I dipped into the world very briefly then to make a cursory assessment and was underwhelmed but I came back in 2006 to have another look. I was keenly interested in the philosophy toward user created content ownership and the attendant economy and decided to really become a resident versus a tourist or researcher. It was then that I discovered the complexity of the cultural and societal issues that were and still are more intriguing to me than the implications of evaluating Second Life merely as a technology platform.
So that's how I discovered Second Life, but I didn't realize it could be a creative outlet until I got to the point of "Okay, what's there to do in here other than accessorize your avatar and talk to people?".
The first thing I was drawn to was poetry readings and I landed in a community known as Mill Pond. Eventually I led weekly poetry readings and I even had a poetry gallery where people could come read my poetry and share their own. I discovered live music through Mill Pond owner Micala Lumiere who was performing as a live vocalist at the time. Micala encouraged me to try, helped me with the set up, tolerated my insecurities and endured my melt downs as I learned to overcome my stage fright and actually get on mic in late 2006. Initially I performed only at Mill Pond, but over time my confidence grew and I'm insatiably curious, so I started performing other places around the grid.
I mentioned Mill Pond because that was my first deep connection with a community of people - that's where and how I met some of my oldest and dearest friends in world. Friends, who after two years, still come to listen to me "Graceify" some random song and are infintely supportive when I introduce a new original. This is the true SL discovery, that of your self and of others.
My point is this, Second Life is not a platform for my music -- the people, the connections, the relationships, the places and experiences -- these are the elements that allow me to share what has grown to become my music.
How she came to create Musimmersion:
Often inspiration comes out of frustration and this was true with Musimmersion. I've lost track of how many gigs I've played in-world but over time between bookings and technical difficulties it can get frustrating, and after a while your heart starts to tell you that you have to do more, do something new, or just do something else. I've seen a lot of musicians come and go in the past two and a half years, I see a few just "phone it in" and I didn't want to fall into that pattern.
I wanted to change the way we looked at live music, I wanted it to feel like an adventure rather than a predictable one hour block of time. I wanted to give something back to the people who came to listen to me week after week, and I wanted to see if there was a way for me to share music not just melodically but through imagery and space. And, I really wanted to leverage what I consider the best parts of Second Life - people, place, and presence. So Musimmersion was born.
Musimmersion is simply a live music journey. It's founded on my belief that music is actually a transport vehicle and the places you go, the things that you see and feel, and the people you are with, all shape your connection with the music as much as the lyrics and melody. Music tells a story and the best stories are ones where you are really there. Do you know that feeling when you hear a song on the radio and you are “transported” back to a place, a time, an experience? That is what I try to evoke with Musimmersion; I get to take you to a place visually and shape your experience with my music in a new way.
As an artist, you can leverage experiential factors to highlight music in a way that you may otherwise not imagine. To that end, I limit the seating to 20 people to maintain intimacy. I try to keep the sets suggestive yet open to interpretation, and I physically move people through the experience so that it feels like a journey.
Who Grace McDunnough is, in the real world:
I took some time to seriously consider your questions that were targeted at my "RL" and I've decided not to answer them specifically but rather share with you my perspectives on the importance of understanding how and when we blur the lines between what we call "real life" and our "digital" or "virtual" life identities.
I will start with a simple question...
The question is this: Why must there be anything more to Grace, than Grace? I'm not asking in the context of being a digital entity, being an immersionist, being a "story box", or even being coy. I'm none of those things in the absolute.
I'm asking the question because I think it's important that we understand - as individuals - why we feel so compelled to know the details of what or who is behind the curtain.
I know some people choose to display their "real life" placard front and center as if to say: "Listen to me, like me, love me, trust me, be impressed by me because this is who I am where it matters - in the 'real' world."
But for me, those are elements of the past, those are things you did, those are labels you wear regarding somewhere else in some other time, and while they are interesting and intriguing, they are inconsequential to me. They are easy ways to avoid the hard part of listening, an all musicians put a high value on listening. They have their place, but to me they are not really important to who am I as an artist.
Should we choose to live fully in the present, our substance and identities would be born out by who and what we are right now and right here and not by "real life" labels, ribbons or placards. It's not ignoring the past, it's about being fully present in the here and now.
I realize this is unconventional thinking. I know these things shape our behaviors, mold our willingess to trust another person, and satisfy our penchant for labels and categorization. But to me they veil our eyes, they close our minds, and they keep us from developing meaningful relationships with people.
What are the most meaningful parts of a virtual world if they are not the chance to meet someone who you'd otherwise pass on the street without a second glance, to work side by side with someone you'd normally disregard, to think differently about a situation, to appreciate a new art form, to experience something you'd otherwise scorn, or to overcome what was otherwise a disability?
When I perform, that's what you get - you get all of me - you get all I have to give at that moment and in that place.
Ms. Grace McDunnough performs Musimmersion tonight, and many times after. Check her website for times and places.