Symphonies gingerly embrace digital performers
Pushed to cut costs and attract new audiences, some experiment with laptops.
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That musical training may be slowly diminishing with classical music no longer a viable commercial radio format and schools cutting back their music curriculums. Brian Shepard, who teaches composition and music technology at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, says he notices how adept freshmen are at writing complex scores on their computers but that they often can’t comprehend the subtleties that exist between different instruments or even harmonic registers – most likely because they haven’t heard much classical music performed live.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Shepard says digital orchestration is best used not to replace acoustic instruments but to add new sounds that composers living centuries ago had never imagined. “I love the orchestral instruments, but I also love the sounds that are created electronically. I don’t see it as an either/or situation,” he says. “I certainly hope [digital media] will expand our [aural] color palette.”
That is happening with the development of laptop orchestras in cities around the country. Through programming developed to engineer new sounds or to interact with modified audio components, these groups of six to 20 players use everything from joysticks to mouse controllers to drum pads to mobile phones to create orchestration that is considered the next level of symphonic music.
“Anything we can use as an expressive interactive medium, we take advantage of,” says Ge Wang, cofounder of laptop orchestras at both Princeton and Stanford universities. “You can think of it as a big sonic kitchen.”
Laptop orchestras have garnered legitimacy, entering the curriculums at music schools throughout the United States and with concerts held in prestigious venues including New York’s Carnegie Hall. Composer Wang, whose degrees are in computer science, says that despite the advancements in technology, the performances have to stand up artistically.
“The music has to matter,” he says. “The music and the experience should be something that stands on its own. I don’t believe that just because we’re using this new technology it validates what we are. We are truly here to try to make music.”
Wang’s Mobile Phone Orchestra at Stanford makes its debut performance in December. The group uses software created for the iPhones to create sounds. One of the sounds is the Smule Ocarina, an application Wang invented that allows users to blow through the microphone of their iPhone to create sounds, change pitches and keys, and play music with other users around the world in real time. Since the application debuted in October 2008, it has sold more than 1 million copies.
Its success takes computerized music one step further to democratization of a process that many consider arcane or even obsolete.
“In the end, they’re just making music, whether it’s with a computer or a cello,” Wang says. “What music they’re making is not that important. It’s the fact that they are unlocking expression within them.”
[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated Ge Wang's name.]