Out of my Living Room and into the Multiverse: An evening with the Sonic Arts Ensemble 

Mackenzie Deighen, Ohio State fourth-year, Microbiology, minor in Medical Humanities

Dec 07, 2020

A violinist and cellist in Sonic Arts Ensemble play on a stage bathed in red light

In the world of social distancing and reality going virtual, performance has morphed to fit the times. Geographical separation no longer dictates who can perform together, and audiences have expanded to anyone with internet access. While the intimacy of live performance venues and the buzz of crowds is surely missed, there is something incredible about the limitless potential of online art. For me, this new experience peaked as I was transported out of my living room and Into the Multiverse by the Sonic Arts Ensemble.

The Sonic Arts Ensemble combines traditional instruments with electronic music and mechanics in real time to produce a unique hybrid experience. Prior to this performance, I had the pleasure of being across computer screens with Marc Ainger, the director of the Sonic Arts Ensemble and associate professor at Ohio State’s School of Music. During this time, Marc and I dove into his own formative years in which, he told me, music and programming were competing interests. Ultimately, these interests converged in electronic music. 

When asked to describe the Sonic Arts Ensemble, Marc highlighted the exploratory nature of this group, which unlike other laptop ensembles, focuses on the relationship between traditional instrumentals and electronic music. “Sometimes we are not even sure who is making what sound, and that makes it interesting,” he said. Additionally, the ensemble is a multidisciplinary team with members who are more skilled in traditional instruments learning the electronic components and vice versa.

"Sometimes we are not even sure who is making what sound, and that makes it interesting."
Marc Ainger, Sonic Arts Ensemble

In March 2020, the coronavirus forced the Sonic Arts Ensemble to adapt to remote performance. While initially following the leads of other musical groups with each artist recording individually and the music being combined later, the ensemble missed the camaraderie of playing together live. As such, the challenge became, how can a large group play remotely in real time without the stability of an institution’s resources? Specifically, these challenges centered on issues of access. Do individual musicians have the ability to make sound at home? Do people have quality internet? How do you react in a concert if half the ensemble loses connection? All of these pandemic-specific situations had to be addressed.

Despite these obstacles, Marc highlighted that going remote served to expand the possibilities for distanced musicians to collaborate. “We can now perform with anyone in the world; not only faculty and students, but also alum who were interested in performing and some other people we met along the way who became interested in working with us.” One such artist, Elizabeth A. Baker joined the Sonic Arts Ensemble for Into the Multiverse. To highlight the incredible feat of performers coming together live from around the world, the ensemble created the piece “5,000 miles,” which represents the physical distance between the performers.

Before Marc and I concluded our interview, I asked him if he had any expectations or hopes for what the audience would experience during Into the Multiverse. First, Marc highlighted his desire to break up the traditional grid format that is typical of online communication. Additionally, he noted the incorporation of overlay and underlays to provide an intense visual experience. Marc stated, “I hope they appreciate us as a unique experience... different from a regular concert, but we want you to have the same kind of depth and richness.”

I have to admit that despite our conversation, my expectations were modest for the live concert. While I have loved the remote performances I have viewed, all have struggled with technical issues ranging from the minor to the extreme. However, on the evening of November 10th, I was surely discounting the preparation of the Sonic Arts Ensemble. With the countdown of “3..2..1…," I was taken into a flawlessly delivered, otherworldly experience. Strange images, vibrant colors, eerie instrumentals and voices combined in real time left me feeling both haunted and in disbelief that it could all be happening live. In particular, the final piece with Elizabeth left me so wonderfully uncomfortable that the images of the hand accompanied with the sound of the supernatural human voice speaking words such as “pale,” “under,” and “algorithm” are now burned into my mind. The quality of the production exceeded even prerecorded performances, and surely did not leave me missing the concert hall venue. From Into the Multiverse, I am eagerly anticipating where the Sonic Arts Ensemble will take the audience next. 



This selection is part of Writing about the Performing Arts at Ohio State, an interdisciplinary student-led seminar during the 2020-21 academic year. With guidance from Department of Dance Professor Karen Eliot and the Wexner Center’s Alana Ryder (Manager, Public and University Programs) and Lane Czaplinski (Director of Performing Arts), students with backgrounds in dance, economics, math, microbiology, political science, psychology, statistics, and beyond will serve as ambassadors and advocates for the arts. As a cohort, they will approach broad theoretical and philosophical issues behind contemporary performance as well as questions about the roles of arts critics and of arts criticism, especially in the era of COVID-19 and racial equity and social justice movements.

For more information, please email Additional interviews and student writing will be presented here later in the academic year. 


Sonic Arts Ensemble image courtesy of the artists

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