Orchestra Tech: Introducing Technology into the Orchestra

Convincing Audiences and Administrators

RAY KURZWEIL: People who represent the market for symphony orchestras are sophisticated. They’re certainly familiar with popular music and synthesizers and they’d like to keep the tradition alive. I think you could hardly write really modern music without incorporating the more expressive technology that is now available.

GIL ROSE: I think you’re right. I think this is an interesting point, though, because I hear this point made often: that people attending orchestra concerts are ripe for the picking. They understand this, they come from a culture that understands this; they all fit a profile where that should make sense. So why doesn’t it happen? Where’s the missing link? One of the missing links, and I’m going to get a little negative here, is the leadership at some of the levels, in some of the more traditional, let’s say standard orchestras, where they feel they are unable to take certain risks because there’s a minority which would be unaccepting of this, but they’re a vocal minority. They’re the ones that slam the doors when they walk out of concerts, they’re the ones that call and threaten to pull their subscriptions and/or their contributions. They’re a very, very vocal minority but I think you’re absolutely right, the ground is well-laid. It applies to technology ’cause it’s the focus of our discussion, but it also applies to using the influences of indigenous music and from all sorts of musical melting pots that could enliven and grow the orchestra. But why doesn’t that happen? It’s a good question.

TOD MACHOVER: I think there are a lot of reasons, which are ones that are fun to talk about. Besides the question of rehearsal time, there are two things that come to mind… One I don’t have a good answer to but I’d love to know what you think, the second, I’ll suggest… One is the standardization of technology. One of the reasons an orchestra does so well is that the instruments have evolved, but they’ve evolved at a reasonable speed and once the brass instruments got to a certain point, they stayed that way for awhile. Technology, every stage of it, whether it’s the synths or the cables or the mixing desks… First of all, they become obsolete quickly and just literally, it changes. Gil and I did a concert last May of pieces of mine that were all less than ten years old and we could hardly get them to work anymore mostly because of the computer software, because the Macs didn’t exist. So that’s one question, standardization, what you do with that, because you’re the big master of showing how fast technology actually is changing. Question number two is that there isn’t the same level of professional infrastructure of people in the orchestra or in the orchestra world for that matter, whereas in the pop industry or the movie/entertainment industry, people who create and rehearse know how to make a compromise. UC San Diego is starting a new doctoral program, it’s a program in computer performance, and it’s basically to train people who are kind of the equivalent in skill of a conductor; people who have to know music and they might help a composer realize a piece so that it would sound good, people who would be an interface with an orchestra… They’re actually recommending that orchestras have someone like this on staff at some point. But what about standardization?

RAY KURZWEIL: That’s actually a very important issue, not just in music but in general: the whole issue of the perishability of digital information. We have this idea that once we have something in digital form it could potentially last forever and certainly software does outlive the hardware it lives on. If you replace your personal computer, you don’t trash all of your files, you copy them over, so your files have a longevity that goes beyond the hardware they live on and this is segued into the discussion that if we can actually capture the files in our own brains, our “mindfile” can live beyond the hardware that we’ve lived on, but that’s a different discussion, but it had brought up the issue that information doesn’t necessarily live forever, in fact it doesn’t last very long at all. And if you ever try to reconstruct some file from ten to fifteen years ago of Wordstar or some other word processing document, or a piece of music, sequence files or something, which would be even more obscure because you probably were using some low distribution piece of software and the company doesn’t even exist anymore and you’ve got many layers of software and hardware to get, you’re going to get this old computer and this old operating system and the application and the application files and get the media to work. And you can try reconstructing information on some old 8″ disc platters and that’s a really difficult problem. In my work now, we’re looking at some databases. We want to actually exist 20 years from now. We’re thinking, what the heck system can we possibly use that we can be sure will exist 20 years from now. The conclusion we came to is there isn’t one. The only way to have that information last is if in fact people care about it for the next 20 years and therefore, continue to maintain it, pour it into the next operating system, the next database version and so the basics or the moral of this is that if this information lasts, if someone cares about it, ’cause otherwise it will quickly grow obsolete. The point you made about music software, equipment, getting up old instruments which involve software, different layers, is one example of this fairly pervasive problem. The other issue is that you have this pretty well-established, very finely tuned tradition with the role of conductors and all the musicians know what they’re doing and there’s a whole body of music and there needs to be some musical bridge to incorporate these new forms but there isn’t. But I would hope it would come from the world of modern music, which has been experimental. We could say they do breakdown these traditions. Certainly, they have forms that are very different or we use different sets of instruments, so why not incorporate electronic instruments, not simply to create acoustic sounds which acoustic instruments can still do somewhat better, but to actually incorporate the very rich sounds that are impossible with acoustic instruments. You can create sounds that have the complexity and richness and enharmonicity of the piano, but it’s not a piano, it could only come from a synthesizer. Maybe it started with a piano, but it’s been modified in various ways so it maintains that complexity and richness and musical relevance and is now something new. And then the artist has to come in and make some artistic statement that is relevant, but it is a great expansion of the palette and possibilities.

TOD MACHOVER: Gil, I was going to ask you, relating to this question of a new kind of training. You’re a good example of someone who’s trained in traditional music and then traditional contemporary music, but has done more and more technology. I was just wondering, what about technology do you feel you’ve started to understand and what do you still need to understand?

GIL ROSE: Yeah, that’s a good question I think, because if there’s a barrier to realizing more the technological use in the orchestra world, it’s probably conductors who are the barrier and administrators who are at the decision-making level and function the same way as artistic administrators. If they don’t have experience and/or an interest, it can be a little bit frightening. I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of years, but I’m really basically still a novice in so many ways. But the one thing I learned early on in the process was, if you’re going to do that kind of stuff, to get people around you who know what they’re doing. This thing at UC San Diego is perfect. If there was the will, maybe it was a special series done by orchestras for futuristic music or whatever, and there was the will to do it, having that support mechanism, that support person, is critical. At the little concert we did in May, I learned a lot but still the people who are in the decision-making process with orchestras, at the decision-making pivot points with orchestras, they’re not too experienced in it and it’s a deceivingly complicated question but it’s also a little bit frightening and it looks like it’s going to be a really hard nut to crack for them. Not only handing them music, but all this extra stuff. You know, in May I did two pieces with click tracks and one with an electric thing up the back of my jacket, the back of my shirt, which I get to do again in two to three weeks, and you know, pieces with multiple pianos and computer programs. Again, I’m too stupid for my own good on that front, but I think that if there could be some kind of support mechanism or some technological advisors… In a sense, that’s the role we will play with the ACO in this thing and you’re coming to give a broad overview in your capacity as a composer with them. You know, it can shake the dust off things a little bit. It has to be ultimately brought not only to the decision makers, but also to the public. And somebody has to do missionary work. People have to get out there and say, “This is good, interesting, you know, the future and you have to be part of it.” We look for the future and the new thing in the dance world. We look for the future and the new thing in visual arts world. But our musical culture is working in retrograde.

RAY KURZWEIL: You’re addressing some valid political and organizational issues, and you alluded to the composers, but I would say the composer is really the front-line of this. Because the musical knowledge has to come and if you think about how synthesizers are used, they’re very often one-person shows. It’s typical to have people immersed in synthesizers in their bedrooms, which are personal music studios. They’re doing a lot of stuff in non-real-time and they’re creating a whole work and maybe if it’s a popular piece, they may have a guitar or a drum part and they’re arranging it on their home music work station, but the concept of an orchestra implies more than one person, in fact, more than two or three people, it implies a fairly large ensemble. Tod, you’ve done more pioneering in this area, but there needs to be a cadre of composers who can lead the way and provide the compositions for multiple musician ensembles that would deserve the name orchestra, that would make use out of this great power of possibilities.

GIL ROSE: If the composers are writing for the large symphony orchestra, it’s for a broad-based public, even if they’re a small percentage of the general music-listening public. The music has to be of the highest quality and also somehow reach the audience. I would be interested to hear what Mario Davidovsky has to say about this because the history of technology’s use in music was really sheltered in academia for a long time. I mean, it came out of Columbia-Princeton in a way…

TOD MACHOVER: It was a little different in Europe…

GIL ROSE: Yeah, it actually was, but still… Ticket sales were not a big issue for Otto Luening. It was not something that probably crossed his mind a lot. But it’s a big issue for the manager of the Cleveland Orchestra and reaching out to the public and integrating technology and musical language, which is one of the things that Tod does so well. He uses a technological argument and the music that supports it is both interesting to the most hard-crusted new music person as well as somebody who is walking into the hall and getting an auditory experience for the first time. So, those uses, you may not get a whole lot of, you may not get a lot of “at-bats” is what I’m saying, and we need to be careful… It has to be the highest quality.

TOD MACHOVER: I do want to say that this question of “at-bats” is actually what’s important because there are so many simple things that make it difficult, besides the actual music you’re writing, just to make this new blend really click. One thing that always bothers me, one of the reasons why I got into this work and what’s still elusive is that when you talk about an orchestra, it involves a lot of individuals shaping their own world and fitting it in with others. A synthesizer is really more like an organ, it’s out of size, it makes more sound and more texture than one person. When you’ve got acoustic sounds and then amplified sounds on stage, first of all they don’t mix very well, they just don’t sound that good together. If you’re used to putting on a rock concert, there’s a developed sense that the people on stage have monitors, they have a partial idea of what the whole sounds like and then you’ve got people mixing in the back of the room. You’ve got a symphony orchestra, with a highly trained person like Gil conducting people on stage who have spent their whole lives judging on stage what they are playing, how it relates, how it all sounds, how it projects out. And it’s the craziest thing, I can go into a context like that and put in two loudspeakers, nothing more than that, and all of a sudden, Gil has to rely on somebody else to shape part of the texture, the musicians feel like something’s been taken away from their autonomy, which in fact it has. The people on stage don’t hear exactly what the audience hears. That’s a dumb silly little thing, but we really haven’t solved it. We haven’t solved how we make amplified sounds that blend well and can be measured by the performers on stage so they can adjust to each other. Those are things that you just can’t do without having the “at-bats,” and I’m a smart guy, but you can’t imagine that without having some rehearsal time, without trying things out and making mistakes.

GIL ROSE: If Mario was here, he would’ve almost given that same answer about his Synchronisms No. 10 for Orchestra and Tape because he’s told me that. I tried to get him to let us do it in May and he said, he had pulled the piece because it didn’t work…

TOD MACHOVER: What about it didn’t work?

GIL ROSE: It was too hard for the orchestra to adjust and too hard for the orchestra to hear the tape and too hard to make an interaction. I don’t want to put words in his mouth.

TOD MACHOVER: That’s something that Ray can solve, it’s a tough one.

RAY KURZWEIL: Well, you can go all the way and have everybody creating electronic sounds including traditional musicians who understand, let’s say, flute technique and they use flute controllers…

GIL ROSE: Who gets to talk to the union president?