Orchestra Tech: Introducing Technology into the Orchestra

Why Introduce Technology into the Orchestra?

TOD MACHOVER: It’s interesting to ask what technology could bring to a symphony orchestra.

GIL ROSE: It’s also interesting to ask what people who go to a symphony orchestra are looking for. Because sometimes you’re talking completely from an acoustical sense… The pressure that comes to bear on an orchestra, on the institution of the orchestra, comes from a constituency of both audience members and supporters. What is their relationship with technology? If they could be somehow more related to technology, then the whole process might happen a lot faster. We have to accept this, ’cause that’s where the bottom line decision is.

RAY KURZWEIL: That’s true. There are two reasons why you might want to use synthesizers. One is cost savings. One synthesizer can create a whole string section or a horn section and can replace multiple instruments and musicians. That application is used commonly by small orchestras, especially in Broadway shows where you have four or five musicians who need to sound like the whole orchestra. At a traditional classical orchestra like the Boston Symphony, they don’t have that pressure. The other purpose of the synthesizer, and electronic music in general, is to create new types of sounds that you can’t make with violins and guitars and pianos. And to take advantage of the great palette of sounds on applications, sequencing techniques, and so forth. And for that you need a body of music and musical tradition. The symphony-going public wants a certain repertoire, most of which is classical and doesn’t call for these new sounds. There’s a tradition of modern music that can make use of it, but the repertoire of classical music incorporating new forms and new sounds that would require electronic music is limited although growing. Even more limited is the public appreciation of the symphony orchestra.

TOD MACHOVER: I think we’re at a crossroads where technology brings into focus this question of whether traditional orchestras are going to be vibrant living organizations of the 21st century that continue building the repertoire, or are they going to rest on past repertoire. Boulez has talked for years about orchestras little by little having various sub-ensembles: you’d have a full symphony concert, but you might have a chamber orchestra concert or mixed pieces on one concert. And I think not integrating technology in some ways, not providing the right forum for composers to be invited to create work… Right now there isn’t that much repertoire for full orchestra and technology because composers aren’t stupid. It’s hard enough to go out and get work done. I’m one of the dumber ones who keeps trying to do these things. But it’s hard. People don’t have rehearsal time. The conditions aren’t really right, so we have to change that.

RAY KURZWEIL: I would hope that that would happen because otherwise the traditional symphony orchestra is just going to become sort of a relic for preserving this old tradition and it’s not going to remain a vibrant new art form. It certainly made its way back in the Beatles‘ days into popular music that used traditional rock instruments. There were many pioneers, but the Beatles played a role in introducing to the public the idea of a wider palette of sounds that invariably get explored today. But classical music really needs to move in this direction as well and use all of the sound notation tools.

TOD MACHOVER: Just last night I was thinking about the Beatles. This week, I happened to be teaching the great period of Stockhausen and Boulez and Xenakis, the guys in the ’50s and ’60s who brought electronic music to the public. The Beatles are an interesting case because in those days, it’s all documented, Paul McCartney used to go all the time to see Stockhausen concerts and Berio concerts. And he knew that music, he and John Lennon knew that music pretty well. They were up on the latest electronic thing, so when they did Sgt. Pepper’s and moved away from live performance into studio things, they weren’t ripping off Stockhausen and Berio, but they got a lot of inspiration from them and really admired them. These days, it almost also happens the opposite way around. You’re absolutely right, in general, the people who’ve understood and capitalized on technology faster have been in the entertainment and pop industry and especially orchestras, of all institutions, are lagging way behind. Except for Gil’s, most of them!

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