Orchestra Tech: Introducing Technology into the Orchestra

The Repertoire and The Venue

FRANK J. OTERI: In the very beginning of this history of the orchestra and technology, there were these almost novelty instruments like the theremin and the Ondes-Martinot that would be played with an orchestra for some weird effect. Later, there was a repertoire of orchestra and tape pieces where a lot of the time the two parts had nothing to do with each other. The orchestra would play for five minutes and then the tape would play for five minutes…

RAY KURZWEIL: Yeah, in the ’50s there was a lot of that…

FRANK J. OTERI: Then they started coming together and only with the third generation of people writing this stuff did people actually think of this idea of modifying the actual orchestral instruments and having more integrated interfaces…

TOD MACHOVER: That’s not very satisfactory either because until now and even now it’s very hard to modify acoustic instruments without knowing anything about their signal or about what’s being played. It’s like sending everything into a blender, and you have the blender set to some speed and everything gets processed the same way, unless you know what all the notes are, unless you have as much information as your ear does basically, and that’s just hard to do. So that’s not usually very satisfactory.

RAY KURZWEIL: Are there examples that you could point to in the traditional great symphony orchestras or maybe in some other type of orchestra that have done this well, that might be an example to follow?

GIL ROSE: I think that Turangalîla works pretty well actually. Having conducted it, it actually works pretty well. It acoustically balances in really well because the lone speaker usually goes behind the orchestra.

TOD MACHOVER: I think the examples that work are probably concerto type examples or where you have a solo instrument. One thing I was going to say when you talked about this model of maybe everybody playing a new kind of instrument… At some point that might be possible. Symphony orchestras, even though they might be dinosaurs, have got some good things going for them. One of the things is the sound blends; acoustic sounds fill a room in such a complex way. As I said before it’s not just one signal it is all these, although if you’re not a trained musician, you probably can’t pick out what some violinist in the middle of a section is doing, it makes a difference that there are that many people who are trying to play together and we’re also used to what they do on their instruments…

RAY KURZWEIL: There’s no reason why you can’t have lots of point sources of sound, each musician could have his own speaker.

TOD MACHOVER: That hasn’t worked so well yet… It’s another thing your company could do. There really haven’t been any fundamental, radical breakthroughs in speaker technology in a long time and most speakers, actually all speakers that I’ve ever heard, don’t have that complexity of sound emanation. Also, the fact that it’s coming from you and not somebody else. It all becomes a little gray even with very good speakers. So it hasn’t worked so well to have just a lot of them. That’s what we do in Resurrection, we have a lot of small speakers in the pit and it works better, but still…

RAY KURZWEIL: That’s a good step. People haven’t done it, I think, because it’s expensive and they haven’t bothered and they assume you only need two speakers.

TOD MACHOVER: Cables are always a weak link.

GIL ROSE: Even this kind of technological support is an obstacle. We did this concert in May at Symphony Hall and we found out that the beautiful speakers at Symphony Hall were mono; they had to rewire them. I mean, if Symphony Hall doesn’t have a good playback, how can you expect the Charleston Symphony or the Indiana this or the Kentucky that…

FRANK J. OTERI: Which begs the question, what is the ideal venue for this kind of interaction? More than likely, it’s not the 19th century conception for a concert hall.

TOD MACHOVER: It’s a good question. I would say that electronics tend to work best in modest size dry halls.

RAY KURZWEIL: Places that use electronic and acoustic instruments routinely together are the Broadway theatres and they do that all the time and it sounds good for what it is. Is there something we can learn from that? Are they providing some kind of example…

TOD MACHOVER: I haven’t been to a show in a while. Does it really sound good? I mean, I’m sure it sounds good, but…

RAY KURZWEIL: It’s sounds appropriate…

GIL ROSE: They have speakers to enhance the sound.

TOD MACHOVER: Broadway shows have smaller orchestras…

GIL ROSE: It’s a financial matter also. I mean, they use it as a supplement, they have 14 people there instead of 22.

TOD MACHOVER: I can’t think of a single example of a full orchestra which is amplified or integrated with electronics, probably in the Hollywood Bowl you could find something that, where you’ve got a large orchestra for a film score being played that has synths and electronics and…

RAY KURZWEIL: All concert halls are amplified; singers have microphones. There’s very little, if any, real projection in their voices, it’s all picked up by microphones and even acoustic instruments are miked. And what you hear in the audience is from a speaker system.

TOD MACHOVER: I can think of two pieces that worked really great, but neither is for full orchestra. One is Boulez‘s Répons, which is for chamber orchestra. It’s pretty cool actually. I saw it at Symphony Hall where they took out all the seats. The orchestra of about thirty players is in the middle, the audience sits around that and then six solo instruments with speakers all over are behind you. And that works well because it’s not meant to blend but the orchestra in the middle has enough presence, especially if you play in Symphony Hall, it resonates nicely. Then you have this other layer behind you; it’s terrific! And then I heard Golijov‘s St. Mark’s Passion. Again, not a large ensemble, maybe 20 players and singers, but all amplified at Symphony Hall and all amplified and it sounded great! Beautifully done amplification… But I can’t think of a single case where an orchestra is actually fully amplified, even delicately, with extra sounds added in a symphonic context. It’s just almost never done. Who’s got the microphones? Who’s got the technique to do that for an orchestra? And that’s what we want to do now, but it’s not that easy to do.