Taking Music Virtually Everywhere



Picture it. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is about to start a rehearsal of your piece but you’re snowed in at JFK. No problem. You head back to city and they call in their tech team to set up their Internet2 equipment. You drop in to a university computer lab at, say, Columbia, just before the downbeat and it’s almost like you’re right on stage in L.A. True, for the moment and for most orchestras, this scenario is something of a fantasy, but the ground-breaking New World Symphony has already ventured successfully into this realm, inviting composers “virtually” onto their concert stage for rehearsals and performance talks.

New World’s involvement in this technology grew out of a request from Michael Tilson Thomas to be able to connect the members of this pre-professional orchestra remotely to various artists, composers, and teachers. Exorbitant costs prohibited traditional teleconferencing options, but then the New World team came in contact with Internet2 technology. At present, Internet2 is a high-speed network connecting major universities, under development as an alternative to the increasingly clogged public Internet the rest of us use. Though it was originally utilized for high volume data jobs (such as those found in engineering departments), New World’s collaboration with the project began to demonstrate how the technology could be applied in new ways.

Tom Snook, New World’s technology and information systems director, explains that Internet2 actually invited them to become members because of their educational mission and potential to show how a new type of content could be used with this technology, something not previously demonstrated in a real-world application. “A lot of what we’re doing is experimenting with it. What we found out is that the bandwidth is so tremendous and that the latency is so small that actually you could interact musically over great distances with out any appreciable notice of anything happening.”


Roberto Sierra meets Internet2


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Sierra

“The future has arrived and the New World Symphony has embraced it. It was an amazing experience to witness how students and faculty at Peabody and Eastman could be virtually present at my rehearsal. The sound and the image quality was certainly impeccable. One interesting aspect was that during the exchange between us in Florida and the two other places, people became shy. I think that in their minds they do not realize that this is just like a phone call. Instead they think: “Oh, I am on TV.” The ramifications and possible uses of this technology are incredible. Imagine a time when a string quartet would rehearse from four different locations in four different countries, or when composers supervise rehearsals of their works from their homes. This might be a few years ahead, but I am certain that it will happen.”

This has allowed the orchestra to set up some high-profile collaborations. A few weeks ago, John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis connected (without any glitches) live from New York’s Columbia University and the University of Minnesota, respectively, and spoke with the orchestra and their gathered audience during a concert in Miami. Their larger than life CNN-like image was projected above the stage, commanding the audience’s rapt attention. Guest Conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor spoke with each composer briefly about their music before it was played by the orchestra.

Surprisingly, Ben-Dor found that “the audience felt connected and identified more with what was being said than if the composer had been there in person. I guess the habit of watching TV has made people receptive to that.” She believes the Internet2 presence of the composers added a lot to the listening experience. Though its dramatic effect may diminish with familiarity, “a good thing is a good thing,” she admits, and this is indeed a great way to make a connection to composers who cannot be physically present.

Maria Watson, vice president of communications and marketing for the NWS, felt that the composers were really able to make a deep connection with the audience despite the distance through the new technology. “This may seem like a small thing,” she says, “but after John spoke and we performed his piece we went to intermission. I overheard a woman say that she really enjoyed ‘That man’s music,’ which sounds like a really simple statement, but she had made a connection to him as a living, breathing, creative person which to me was really astounding.”

That Sunday when a lengthy arts and leisure article ran in the local paper about Adams’ New York Philharmonic commission, that relationship deepened, Watson says. “I had so many people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, he was just talking about that on Saturday night and I saw it in the paper.’ There was this immediacy, this excitement at being in the loop.”

Virtually a Concert

The New World Symphony has also taped a performance of Copland’s Third Symphony for a demonstration of high-definition digital television at the National Internet2 conference in October. The video and audio will be transmitted via Internet2 from D.C. to the University of Southern California’s Media Lab in L.A. The “immersive” sound (10.2 digital audio surround sound, 2.5 times higher quality than a commercial movie theater) and video technology will create the impression that the orchestra is actually right there in the lab.

And the NWS is just getting their Internet2 equipment warmed up. Just last Saturday, the New World Symphony gave the world premiere of Roberto Sierra‘s latest work for guitar and orchestra, Folias, with Manuel Barrueco as soloist. During the dress rehearsal, Sierra, Barrueco, and Conductor Alasdair Neale led a discussion and rehearsal of the piece with guitar and composition students from Peabody and Eastman connected via Internet2. (See sidebar with Sierra’s narrative of the weekend.) This process will be repeated next week during a rehearsal of Dan Welcher‘s Chameleon Music shared with composition and percussion students from Eastman and University of Texas. New World is currently in discussion with a number of other composers willing to participate in this type of activity with the orchestra this season.

Snook sees these activities as a real jumping off point. A recent influx of email from other universities and orchestra also indicates to him that “all of a sudden a light bulb is starting to go on” across the country. “I see major orchestras at some point starting to use this technology because it takes the concert experience and it takes the educational aspects of concert going to a whole new level. It will enable people to enjoy a different level of music and musical experience both inside and outside the concert hall. It will allow artists and composers to be able to collaborate on projects from literally around the world.”

Internet2 is currently restricted to university use (New World was given the go ahead as an educational institution) though the initial start up costs would also likely be prohibitive for other orchestras who would like to try it out (New World’s initial investment was underwritten by a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. NWS now helps other artists and organizations with whom they want to partner develop relationships with connected universities). Once the technology is in place, however, the process is rather simple. Equipment wise, the set up requires an MPEG2 Codec (a device that compresses and decompresses the audio video signal instantaneously with much higher sound quality than more traditional video conferencing), a dedicated connection to Internet2 (through a gateway known as a gigapop), a camera, speakers, mic, and monitor to see what’s happening on the other end. “It’s very simple to set up and use, actually, which makes it so great,” says Snook, obviously excited about the potential of the technology New World is starting to realize. “If we’re using John Adams as a reference, we had one person with Adams in New York who was running the whole thing and then we had two people here because we were running some extra cameras and things like that. In considering what we did, if you put it terms of what it would take to do that as a studio broadcast, it would be several millions of dollars.”

Watson underlines how all this fits in with the orchestra’s core mission. “At the New World Symphony, we see ourselves as musical crossroads. We’re an orchestral academy and Internet2 is enabling us to expand our education and make connections between our fellows and world-class artists and composers that might not otherwise be possible.”