Orchestra Tech: Introducing Technology into the Orchestra

What is an Orchestra?

RAY KURZWEIL: Well, you can approach that at different levels. At a simple level, it’s a collection of human musicians using music controllers to create music. The 19th-century technology hadn’t necessarily linked between the physics of creative sound and the method of controlling, so you had to play a flute to create flute sounds. With 20th-century technology we’ve begun to break that nexus between the controllers and the sounds, so you can use different types of controllers, you can use a flute-like controller to create voice sounds and you can certainly use a keyboard to create virtually any sound. And it also allows the creation of controllers that are optimized for the human factors of creating sound that are not necessarily linked to 19th-century acoustic instruments. There is, however, a lot of musical tradition and musical knowledge in both the music-appreciating audience and musicians who create music in the orchestra using 19th-century instruments. So a lot of our musical understanding comes from that tradition because that tradition has been evolving. That’s one aspect of western music and culture in general — that it’s constantly shifting, but has its roots in tradition. So certainly we can take small steps and add electronic instruments alongside the traditional acoustic instruments and many orchestras have done that, it’s just simple augmentation. If you go away from classical symphony orchestras to more practical orchestras, such as the small orchestras associated with Broadway plays and so on, they take advantage of the ability of electronic synthesizers at a minimum to emulate lots of instruments so that they can put out a rich sound with a relatively small number of musicians. But in keeping with the ever-shifting and evolving nature of music in our society, it’s keeping its roots in the past while it’s birthing new forms, and the technology is allowing us to create music with an ever-growing palette of sound, sound modification tools, different types of controllers, non-real time forms of creating music, so that you can use sequencers and play music in non-real time; you can go back to cell modification and really massage your work in non-real-time and then combine some non-real-time programming with real-time performance. So we have many new options today but the concept of an orchestra has never been fixed. Consider, the orchestra underwent evolution until it reached its modern form earlier this century.

GIL ROSE: Well, the question you’re asking is about the word “orchestra” and how it resonates with the public at large. And my feeling is that in the year 2001, the word orchestra means many more things than it did even 20 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 100 years ago. I mean, the history of our musical culture in the last 100 years as far as ensembles go is breaking down into smaller and smaller and smaller subsets. At the beginning of the century, there was your standard symphony orchestra, your opera company, and various accepted chamber music forms, string quartet, blah, blah, blah, and the trio, and this and that, but partially as different instruments were involved and partially as technology and electronics were involved we started to break into an even wider group of sets. And even in this day, in 2001, there are a lot of different kinds of orchestras out there and this, I think, will ultimately be an interesting point when you start relating it to the relationship of technology into the orchestra world. What is the orchestra world? Is the orchestra world the large, established, well-endowed symphony orchestras? Yes, to a majority of the public. Is there a subculture of orchestras out there that are regional or have a different budgetary level which makes their constraints and relationship to the public different? Or are there specific groups like ACO or my orchestra in Boston that are specifically trying to drive an agenda to create a different kind of orchestra but still have the large orchestral body, and there’s the chamber orchestra and the new music group and the this and the that and there’s so many different little groups that have come into having their own kind of definition, you know, this kind of thing or that kind of thing. They have their own little clique and their own little way of operating and they’re seen by the public in a certain way. Almost each of those different groups has become so well-defined that they have different potentials for integration of technology and some have greater restrictions. And sometimes the most financially sound ones are the ones that have the biggest barriers to taking risks and engulfing technology and new ways of thinking. And sometimes the ones that are on the lower end of the feeding chain economically can’t do it for other reasons, because technology and integrating it brings its own set of circumstances. So I think that there is no one orchestra. But in the general public’s mind, there still is one orchestra. There’s the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra and these major symphonic institutions. But there’s also a definite upsurge in the base of support and the audience for what we could call the alternative orchestra.

RAY KURZWEIL: It kind of sparked one thought. Just that the word “orchestra” does tend to imply a connotation of a more traditional kind of music because there’s a whole other world of commercial music, many different forms of popular music, which itself has been splintering into many different genres, which don’t have a lot of tradition behind them and have been very quick to experiment and become in fact very electronic. And a majority of commercial music is electronic and can experiment quite freely with different forms and different timbres. The concept of an “orchestra” does imply a tradition.

TOD MACHOVER: Clearly there are all kinds of ensembles called orchestras that are all sizes and forms and contexts… I think the thing that’s interesting and maybe what has interested me in this particular project is that what we think of as the traditional symphony orchestra is the largest number of people and is maybe the most fixed structure. For all kinds of reasons, that’s the organization and the culture that has found it hardest to integrate technology in any way. But in almost every other form of music, there are lots of reasons both musically and conceptually why if you have five players or ten players, there are obvious ways that you’d want to use technology to augment and fill and it’s just clear. Just as if you are an independent composer at home and you want to try your pieces out, it’s obvious that you need these resources. If you’re a symphony orchestra, you have almost every practical consideration going against you to try anything really different.

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