Vol. 26 Issue 2 Reviews
Orchestra Tech National Conference
American Composers Orchestra, New York, New York, USA, 10-14 October 2001

Reviewed by Jason Freeman
New York, New York, USA

Over 75 composers, performers, researchers, and arts administrators gathered in New York, October 10-14, 2001, for the Orchestra Tech National Conference, a series of five concerts of chamber and orchestral music and nine panel discussions on a broad set of artistic, technological, and administrative themes. The concerts and panels took place at a number of locations around New York City, including Columbia University, New York University, Carnegie Hall, and the Knitting Factory.

The conference was the inaugural event of the American Composers Orchestra’s (ACO’s) Orchestra Tech project (www.orchestratech.org), which is described as “a multi-year initiative to explore and encourage the integration of technology into the modern orchestra and to stimulate the development of new symphonic music using new media and digital technology.” Tod Machover, composer and MIT Media Lab professor, leads the initiative in his role as the ACO’s Music Technology Advisor.

One of the most enlightening—and sobering—moments of the conference was a presentation by Robert Sutherland, music librarian for the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Sutherland began with a brief historical discussion of music printing since the founding of the Met, illustrating each “improvement” with sample parts from the Met’s music library. With each advance in printing technology, the clarity and longevity of the music suffered: paper faded more quickly; beams became harder to distinguish and had to be darkened by hand; and note spacing became less logical and natural. Today, members of the Met Orchestra request to use the old handwritten parts whenever they are available, because they are in the best physical condition and are the easiest to read. After a melodramatic pause, Mr. Sutherland stated the obvious conclusion: “So far, technology has not done us well.”

Mr. Sutherland’s observation highlighted two recurring themes of the conference. First, orchestras are reluctant to incorporate technology into an ensemble which functions well without it. As one prominent orchestra administrator saw it: “Composers are trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.” Second, the use of technology in an orchestral setting often introduces more problems—artistic, technical, financial, and logistic—than benefits.

These two themes served as a stark warning to anyone interested in uniting the orchestra with technology. Thus, the most interesting performances and panels at the conference were those which heeded this warning and proposed, either through words or through music, solutions: compelling reasons for using technology in the orchestra, and practical techniques to address the challenges its use poses.

Many composers gave persuasive artistic reasons for the use of technology in a chamber music setting, both through their presentations and through performances of their music during the conference. Ricardo del Falla’s Homotecia and James Mobberly’s Soggiorno show how chamber and solo musicians, respectively, can bring a fixed tape accompaniment to life through skillfully composed interplay between live instruments and electronics. Robert Rowe, in a panel presentation, surveyed his use of intelligent machine listening in interactive works for soloist and computer: software reacts to performance gestures to create a true collaboration between human and machine. Randall Woolf’s Hee Haw integrates looped samples of square-dance callers (triggered by keyboard players) with a chamber ensemble and two singers to create astonishing musical textures far greater than the sum of their parts. And Joshua Fineberg’s Empreintes uses real-time analysis of each instrument in the ensemble to capture, analyze, modify, and emphasize different aspects of the performance, giving the computer the role of musical interpreter rather than performer: the machine serves as a prism through which the audience experiences the music.

Only a handful of composers, though, directly addressed the challenge of integrating technology into a large orchestral setting. Mr. Machover, whose new work Sparkler was premiered by the ACO at the final Carnegie Hall concert, uses real-time audio analysis of the entire orchestra to respond to the character of several aleatoric sections of his work. In his discussion of the piece, Mr. Machover was vague about what these characteristics were. He suggested that the software, developed by Tristan Jehan, senses general “perceptual parameters,” such as balance and timbre, which can vary significantly in each performance. By giving the human musicians more interpretive freedom, Mr. Machover believes that the electronics can respond in a more varied and meaningful way, adding a new dimension to the excitement of live performance.

Tristan Murail, whose work Le Partage des Eaux was given its U.S. premiere on the same Carnegie Hall concert, uses electronics to subtly complete microtonal harmonies which would be impossible to realize on fixed-chromatic instruments (such as the harp). For Mr. Murail, adding electronics is also a way to compensate for some of the inherent limitations of the orchestra. For instance, no instrument in the orchestra can play in a very high register both softly and quickly; compensating for this weakness with electronics opens up new possibilities for orchestration.

Roger Reynolds, whose chamber work Ariadne’s Thread was given its New York premiere by the Ethel Quartet, also eloquently addressed the artistic motivations for using technology with orchestra. For Mr. Reynolds, the use of technology in large ensembles provides a chance to explore issues of time, memory, and space in ways which would otherwise be impossible. More than any other composer at the conference, Mr. Reynolds articulated clear motivations for the use of technology, and he has put these ideas into practice in a half dozen works for orchestra and electronics. It was a shame that the ACO was not able to perform any of these large-scale works.

Over the course of the conference, composers, performers, and administrators described an overwhelming list of practical problems inhibiting the success of orchestral music with technology in the American concert hall. These issues range from rehearsal time to union negotiations to equipment reliability to concert hall acoustics. Every participant had a “war story” to share, and there were even a few technological fiascos at the conference performances, ranging from computer crashes to fire alarms. Given the sheer number of works performed, it is actually a minor miracle that the concerts all went as smoothly as they did.

Panelists at the conference offered various strategies for dealing with these practical problems. Rand Steiger, whose work 13 Loops was performed by flutist Carol Wincenc, proposed that orchestras invest in technology just as they invest in percussion, maintaining an in-house supply of commonly used equipment and a full-time staff—equally fluent in music and in engineering—which is accorded a level of training and prestige similar to that of other orchestral musicians.

A more practical solution, at least in the short term, was proposed by David Wessel, who described an ongoing collaboration between the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). Over the last few years, CNMAT has helped the Berkeley Symphony perform a number of works with technology. With an emphasis on seamless integration and reliability, Mr. Wessel mentioned such obvious but rarely used techniques as having multiple, redundant computers (and rehearsing crashes); delivering a full technology setup to a performer’s home to facilitate practice; and setting up a mixing console in the “house” which takes up only a single seat, so as to deprive the orchestra of as few ticket sales as possible. Besides these specific suggestions, Mr. Wessel also proposed a model for collaboration between academic institutions and professional ensembles to together produce performances of music with technology. In fact, the conference itself provided another example of this type of collaboration: a concert by Speculum Musicae was facilitated by personnel and technological support from the Columbia University Computer Music Center.

More than anything else at the conference, Mr. Wessel’s call for collaboration between academia and professional ensembles is an idea which could (and should) be immediately put into broader practice and could have far-reaching effects. Such collaborations make orchestras less wary of programming works with technology, because the technical details of producing the performance are handled by experts in both technology and symphonic music. Students at academic institutions receive practical training in realizing works with technology, moving toward Mr. Steiger’s idea of training orchestral technology staff. And composers at the institutions are grounded in the practical considerations, pitfalls, and techniques of writing for orchestra and technology.

This type of collaboration between institutions and ensembles already occurs quite frequently when the piece is written by a composer associated with one of these institutions. At this conference, for instance, the MIT Media Lab sent a crew of students and staff to New York to assist in the premiere of Mr. Machover’s work. But this collaboration must expand, as it has at CNMAT, to include the performance of other works as well. Only then will works with technology have any real chance at entering the repertory, or even at receiving repeat performances.

Besides these practical performance considerations, an even more basic hurdle for many composers lies in the technological expertise necessary to create the work itself. Along these lines, many composers, most notably Mr. Steiger and Mr. Reynolds, emphasized the benefits of collaborating with a “technologist,” who should then be credited as an essential collaborator in the creation of the work itself. Many such technologists, including Miller Puckette, Perry Cook, Joe Paradiso, Peter Otto, and Mr. Wessel, presented their own recent research at the conference, and several also assisted in the performances.

At several points during the conference, the conversation drifted away from technology and focused on the more fundamental problem of contemporary music and the orchestra. How can composers expect orchestras to risk programming works using technology when they are so often reluctant to program contemporary music at all?

The optimistic view—and one admirably espoused by the ACO itself—is that by embracing technology, orchestras can reach out to new audiences, renew their relevance to contemporary society, and, in so doing, ensure their own viability into the future. A panel discussion with arts administrators indicated that orchestras are indeed ready to embrace technology, but only in ways which will not threaten their role as a musical museum. Joseph Kluger (of the Philadelphia Orchestra) and Martin Verdrager (of the Juilliard School) described a utopian concert hall experience in which interactive TV displays show audiences close-up shots of performers and provide running commentary on the performance.

Few composers would agree with this strategy for integrating technology into the orchestra. Adding a flashy stadium-like scoreboard to the concert experience might reach a few more people of the MTV generation, but it is really only a band-aid solution to a more fundamental problem.

It does indicate, though, that orchestras are ready to incorporate technology into the concert experience. It is now up to composers and researchers to present compelling ideas about how to do so, in ways which are artistically satisfying for composer and audience, financially feasible for strained orchestral budgets, and logistically expedient to reliably and efficiently produce. We can only hope that other orchestras will follow the ACO’s lead in encouraging discussion about these issues and giving composers a chance to experiment with the medium.

For a complete schedule of events for the Orchestra Tech conference, and for more information about the initiative, visit the Web site the ACO has set up (www.orchestratech.org). Most of the panels, symposia, and concerts will also be made available as streaming video at www.newmusicbox.org/.