Bringing the Orchestra into the 21st Century


Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

For years, I’ve entertained a fetish for being in spaces that took me away from the present day: walking through ancient ruins like Macchu Picchu in Peru or Volubilis in Morocco, sleeping in Colonial B&Bs in the Northeast or Antebellum homes in the Deep South, or even drinking in 19th-century Manhattan saloons where the encroachment of things like television sets and cell phones seem tantamount to desecration. Yet escapism into the past has never been what has drawn me to music and has never been my experience in the concert hall, even when hearing an orchestra.

It has so often been claimed by both the orchestra’s defenders as well as its detractors that the overriding purpose of an orchestra is to function as a repertory company, curating the “great works of the orchestral literature” to make them available to present and future generations. But knowing something about the history of the orchestra has always made such a viewpoint somewhat suspect to me.

For starters, the orchestra as we know it today is really not a very old institution. While large groups of musicians playing together on heterogenous groups of instruments have been a basic social enterprise in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years, what most people think of as an “orchestra” is much more specific and much more recent. The modern symphony orchestra evolved out of a central European tradition that only goes back to the 17th century, if that. The instruments most standard orchestras play, even when performing music of the 18th century, kept evolving through the orchestra’s short history and were not in fact standardized until late into the 19th century. And so did the repertoire.

But then, sometime in the 20th century, a fundamental shift occurred. New instruments stopped being added to the orchestra, instruments in the orchestra stopped evolving, and new repertoire created for orchestras, though more plentiful than that of any other century, was programmed less and less frequently. The orchestra was marketed as representative of the high culture toward which we should aspire. (Of course, the problem with the concept of aspiration is that it implies never actually achieving.)

This latter day interpretation of the role of the orchestra, however, not only contradicts what an orchestra was historically but does a disservice to the historical repertoire it attempts to serve. If the entire history of orchestral literature prior to the late 19th century is presented through the filter of what the late-19th-century orchestra was, how does that help us to better understand the music of the 18th century, or even the early 19th century. And if, in fact, the point is not to understand the music of those times on its own terms, but rather to make the music of the past meaningful for the present, then why present it with instruments of the past? Why not continue to evolve both the instruments and the repertoire to reflect the present?

Well, in fact, not only did the repertoire for the orchestra receive its greatest bounty in the past century, but instruments continued to evolve and these further evolved instruments play an important role in much of this repertoire. And, as a majority of the evolutions of the 20th century were in the realm of electronics, so too have they been in music.

This October, the American Composers Orchestra embarks on a bold endeavor, a decade-long Orchestra Tech initiative that will involve concerts, symposia, and long-range strategic planning. In collaboration with the ACO, we present a special issue of NewMusicBox devoted to the intersection of the orchestra and technology. We present a heated discussion between technology guru Ray Kurzweil, composer Tod Machover, and Gil Rose, Music Director of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Elliott Schwartz reveals the whole secret history of electronic incursions into the orchestra over the past 100 some odd years, and we’ve supplemented that with a lengthy list of repertoire to explore. We’ve asked composers Alvin Lucier and Laurie Spiegel as well as Sequenza21 contributing editor Joshua Cohen and L.A. Philharmonic Executive Director Deborah Borda to speak about the feasibility and desirability of the words of orchestra and electronics coming together, and we ask you to share your thoughts on the positive and negative impact of such a union.

In addition, this month’s NewMusicBox includes profiles of Golan Levin, composer of a recently premiered work for a huge ensemble of cell phones (hopefully never to be performed in a 19th-century Manhattan saloon!), and Mark Adamo, who has gone back to Ancient Greece to find the inspiration for his latest opera. Dean Suzuki ponders what composer training should be, and Greg Sandow examines the role that music can have in the wake of the horrible tragedies of September 11th. We also offer audio shapshots of 27 new recordings as well as information about even more concerts featuring American repertoire (both technology-infused and not) all over the map.

Of course, thanks to technology, this map gets smaller and smaller as we progress further into the 21st century, and hopefully continue to find the common ground between Macchu Picchu, Volubilis, Vermont, and Charleston in our ever-shifting musical landscape.