Orchestra Tech: Introducing Technology into the Orchestra

Standardization and Performance Practice

GIL ROSE: I think the standardization issue is an expensive proposition for a hall or an institution like an orchestra to equip for this and then it’s really disappointing to equip one way and find out composer X from down the street did it, you know, it was VHS versus Beta, and you know, you don’t want to get involved in that and I think that that has caused a certain amount of reticence. But, you know, as these technologies have developed, and people like yourself who are working here, who are working in Paris, and people who are working in San Diego, is there enough integration at that level to unify? Probably not and even if you did, the nature of what you do kind of drives you to do things different and to explore technologies in a different way, so standardization is almost not part of the process and that’s a big obstacle to getting the orchestra world involved because you’re right about what you said: The orchestra is standardized. The basses play, they all have the same number of strings, they sound this way and…

TOD MACHOVER: And we can build on that.

FRANK J. OTERI: And of course, you equip yourself for this new piece of music that Tod or Mario or someone else writes and then you don’t use that technology for the Brahms‘ symphony that’s on the second half of the program. Tod made a comment earlier on about brass instruments and how they evolved during the 19th century. To the nay-sayers who say that the meat and potatoes of the symphony orchestra concert are the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, the standard 19th-century central European repertoire, you can say, ok, wait a minute…you play Mozart with this orchestra, and a lot of orchestras still will play Bach on an orchestra that is in fact a late-19th-century ensemble using 19th-century technologies such as valved brass instruments, Boehm-keyed woodwind instruments, etc. What else could technology for the orchestra go? If we have contact microphones on every instrument in the orchestra of the mid-21st century, why not also enhance, maybe enhance isn’t the right word, “contemporarify” the so-called standard repertoire of the past?

RAY KURZWEIL: Well, my father used to play the Brandenburg concertos on piano rather than harpsichord and he got a lot of flack for that but felt that it really was much more expressive and that Bach would’ve used the piano had he had the opportunity.

TOD MACHOVER: He would have really gotten flack now because it’s gone so far in the other direction, but I understand.

RAY KURZWEIL: And at least to my ear, I might be biased, I can really hear Bach’s vision much more readily with the piano than harpsichord, which seems to blend all the sounds together. But I would think that the greatest potential for blending though for electronic music and the symphony orchestra tradition would be new forms of music that really take advantage of what these instruments can do, because these instruments can create all kinds of complex, rich sounds that you just can’t do with an acoustic instrument. They can provide playing techniques that aren’t otherwise feasible. They can have virtual instruments such as Tod has pioneered where the musician is doing something with the controller and there is some intelligence in the instrument that can then augment, and add additional sounds; figure out walking bass lines and other types of odd rhythmic transformations of what the musician is able to do, thereby creating sounds and sequences and note sequences, that a human couldn’t do because we don’t have the dexterity or the training, etc., etc. It has just widened the palette. So just kind of miking traditional instruments or replacing a flute with a flute controller that goes through a synthesizer to create flute sounds, is not really the potential of this.

TOD MACHOVER: We’ve been talking about how things might change on stage, how things might change for a composer, but what about for audiences in terms of the experience actually in the hall? Arguably, our whole idea of what it means to go to a concert is in itself a 19th-century idea: the fact that you sit in the audience, that the performers are up on stage and you have one perspective. I think that even if you’ve grown up listening to CDs or radios, and Symphony Hall is a particular case, but even the sound is kind of up there on stage, so I’m wondering how technology might actually increase the impact of actually being in a hall with other people, what that might be, and whether you might hear differently.

RAY KURZWEIL: Well, I think the genre is about having multiple musicians interact in real-time, perhaps with some pre-programmed elements, perhaps some sequences or software that’s been prepared ahead of time, but that you have real time musical intelligence in multiple musicians and probably that’s going to come most easily not by starting with the traditional 19th-century orchestra and or at least as we know it in the 20th century, and trying to modify it, to add these new elements. Generally if you have a concert that involves synthesizers it’s just one synthesizer, maybe two, and very often it’s in the context of sort of contemporary music, but out of the tradition of classical music or any tradition, to have the key concept of an orchestra, which is a substantial number of people, you know, ten, twenty people interacting with electronic technology, you know, forget being limited by the tradition of the classical orchestra but have that concept of many people interacting, but using electronic instruments.

GIL ROSE: It seems that technological uses have kind of broken into two camps, too. There seems to be the enhancement camp and the more pure form of making something new. There’s always this idea, and we’ve been talking mostly about acoustic realizations and technology, but video realizations will kind of get to your question. There’s a certain school of thought, which says you know, all of a sudden we want a screen behind and we live in a world and our future audiences are people that are impacted by audio-visual information all the time. I was fascinated to see on CNN, Headline News has all of a sudden gone to a format where there are four screens. There’s a ticker on the bottom and then the stock quotes here and this thing here and that thing there and they evidently made this. They summarized that people are able to obtain more information and it can actually keep them from clicking channels so much if, instead of one talking head, you’re giving them four pieces of information. That same logic has been applied to get people into the audience. You put a screen in the back and you’ve got this interpretive art thing while the music’s playing and that’s the technological thing. I always wonder how we’re going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Berlioz. If you go too far in trying to hold their hand and coddle them, though, you’re going to take away the primary acoustic relationship of listening to an orchestra. If you give them so many bells and whistles to get them in the door, how are they ever going to focus on Brahms?

RAY KURZWEIL: One thing along those lines that has emerged in some of the dance clubs has been having multiple motion capture devices. And there are different types of motion capture. There can be quite a few degrees of freedom, in terms of moving the different limbs, connected either to different synthesizer parameters or triggers, to trigger whole sequences or interacting with algorithmic elements. But you see these people moving and they are triggering and controlling the music and after a while you actually understand what it is. OK, this is a synthesizer parameter and when he goes like this it’s triggering a sequence and some other movement is the amplitude of the pitch. So you quickly learn how it is they’re interacting with music, but it’s actually an exciting blend of dance and musical expression.

GIL ROSE: You can really attract people for the long hall with that kind of thing if it’s part of an original composition, but I think that when you start sprucing up Night on Bald Mountain in this way, you’re really belittling the experience. And also you’re setting up an expectation level which you’re just never going to satisfy… It’s like Disney, one of those theme park rides where things are poking you from the seat and there’s steam coming out. We’re trying to make this whole 3-D technological realization while what we should be concentrating on is getting people involved in listening to music and using technology to do it. It’s just that there’s a whole set of barriers. But I think that just about every barrier there is could be circumnavigated simply by creating a public will to make exploring new ideas the norm as it used to be as opposed to what it is now. It is very strange heretical talk that anybody would suggest that a symphony orchestra should play 90 percent new music and 10 percent old music like they did in Beethoven‘s day. You know, it was a pretty good time for music. You know, we developed a lot of good stuff with that recipe. Why is that such a hard argument to make? And if we can’t finally make that argument, what hope is there for any of these ideas? We’re just going to be at the whim of things other than the public force. The funding starts to dictate all of the issues. If we can take it into the public arena in a way which puts real momentum behind what we do, it will all come out fine.

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