Symphonies gingerly embrace digital performers

Pushed to cut costs and attract new audiences, some experiment with laptops.

Stefan Cohen/Courtesy of YouTube
The YouTube Symphony Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall this past April. International auditions were held online and voted on by viewers. Winners were brought to New York to play.

Every season at your local concert hall, the drill is the same: Musicians tune up their instruments, a conductor walks onstage, taps a baton, and works of past compositional masters spring to life.

This scenario has not been tampered with for centuries, a fact that many cherish and others lament about the symphonic experience. Now, threatened by the high costs of producing orchestral concerts, shrinking endowments, an aging subscriber base, and the slashing of music curriculums across the country, which diminishes the role of music in young people’s lives, classical music has arrived kicking and screaming into the Digital Age. Computers are helping change the way people make, perform, and listen to symphonic music.

“Orchestras are floundering,” says Greg Bowers, a composer who teaches music theory and composition at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “They want to fill seats desperately. A lot of them are cowering, they’re afraid to do anything that may challenge the audience. Their patrons are older and less amenable to new things. So you have this incredible, aesthetic bind.”

Because it’s so difficult to have new symphonic works performed, composers increasingly turn to technology, where software can replicate acoustic instruments and perform an entire score without the need of a single, live musician. In the past, digital technology was used only to help the composer develop a work before it was submitted to a conductor for consideration. However, as concert seasons provide less room for new work and soloists yearn to perform works with an entire orchestra, computers are filling the void.

Now, new works under the classical banner are being performed onstage by combinations of computers and live musicians. Traditional orchestras are flirting with social media – for example, providing Twitter feeds during operas – or playing new roles, such as performing live scores to accompany the screenings of popular films. Even the concept of the orchestra is expanding with the advent of chamber groups that perform new works through live groupings of laptops and even mobile phones.

Paul Henry Smith, a composer and developer of the Fauxharmonic Orchestra, says the development of cheap disc space and affordable processors has allowed sampling libraries to grow more refined, both in the number of instruments allowed and the shades of tonal quality available. Although Mr. Smith says hearing an acoustic orchestra “is still the best thing you can do” to hear symphonic music at its highest level, he says his device is a “viable, expressive instrument.”

Through regular concerts he performs across the country, or in recordings he provides to composers and soloists who request to hear their music accompanied by an orchestra, Smith demonstrates that software is not enough. His musical training is required to “conduct” the digital orchestra through a Wii controller and a board he stands on, both of which allow him to control tempo and volume.

Mr. Smith says the human element is essential in bringing out what he calls “the missing musical knowledge” of any score.

“When Beethoven writes ‘forte,’ or there are two melodies and one has to be more prominent than another, that information is not in the score,” Smith says. “You glean it from the score. If you don’t do that, it will sound as though you don’t know how to make music.”

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.

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.]

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