Thursday, September 22, 2005

Barbarians at the gates....

"....sampling and synthesis technology gets better all the time -- we're on the cusp of an age when artificial orchestras will be indistinguishable in recordings from real ones, and of course be substantially cheaper to use. I suspect that the future of new orchestral music lies in this technology, and will thus remain healthy -- although the orchestra performance jobs will suffer." from a comment by Galen H. Brown on my post Is the Symphony Dead? on Sequenza21.

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7 comments:

Garth Trinkl said...

Pliable, thanks for the great post and picture! Please don't believe that all Americans are technology-obsessed barbarians (though a share are), or that all American new music composers are pale-skinned, science-fiction loving academics worshipping technology and artificial intelligence in ivory towers and who regularly dis the Western classical music tradition and its orchestras and musicians.

For example, while American composer Galen Brown, who you quote, was apparently on his computer last night dissing orchestras and orchestral musicians over at Sequenza21, the slightly older American composer Jerod Tate (who happens to be a native American Indian and member of the Chickasaw tribe on the American Great Plains of Wyoming) opened the National Symphony Orchestra's 75th Season with the world premiere of his new orchestral-choral work Iholba (“The Vision”), which is set to the Chickasaw language. This 25 minute work was for chamber orchestra, chamber chorus, and amplified bass flute.
In my opinion, it was an excellent way for an increasingly important American orchestra to open an important gala season, and to show support for the Western classical orchestral tradition as that tradition tries more firmly and viably to establish itself on the North American continent. [Last season, the National Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Philip Glass's Symphony #8 - "The Toltec", based upon Yaqui Indian chants Glass transcribed from a north Mexican ethnographic recording. No synthesizers here, either -- apparently Glass has learned to respect and love the Western orchestra, and he is no longer trying to make all of his ensemble music sound as if they were composed for an electronic synthesizer or amplified organ.]

In two weeks time, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra premieres at the Kennedy Center (I imagine that it has already played in London, Paris, and Berlin), and this 21st century Chinese orchestra doesn't use synthesizers instead of humans either. I'm going to try to catch this orchestra, since I missed it in HK last November.

And in three weeks time, the Oakland/Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in California, under Michael Morgan, will be celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the United Nations with a Concert for Peace and Humanity which will include a reprise of last year's world premiere of John Vitz's "A Mass for Peace in the Third Millennium". I'll have to check, but I don't think that Mass features synthesizers instead of humans, either.

Garth Trinkl said...

Perhaps I should add, though I really wish that I didn't have to, that the distinguished conductor of the Oakland/Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Michael Morgan, is African-American. I certainly wish that he had received a MacArthur Award at the same time that Ms Marin Alsop became the first conductor to receive a MacArthur Award.

[When I performed with the Oakland Youth Orchestra, years ago, it was also under a distinguished -- though discriminated against -- African-American conductor -- Denis de Coteau.]

Anonymous said...

"My position doesn't have anything do to with whether or not Americans are "technology-obsessed barbarians" (nor do I see how technology obsession and barbarism are related) or whether composers are "science-fiction loving academics worshipping technology and artificial intelligence." It's purely about knowing what tools are and aren't available and where the trends are going. If live orchestras are going away and artificial orchestras are about to be so realistic as to be indistinguishable in recordings from live orchestras, it stands to reason that any tradition that hopes to remain robust of composing for orchestra must migrate to the technology solution."

Galen H. Brown Sequenza21 9/22/05 2:28 PM

M. Composer said...

I wish to second the points that Garth has made (particularly the praise for Michael Morgan, who's doing everything right with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, in my opinion), and I'll spare readers another long list of inspiring live music programing around the country.

Galen is also correct that electronic music technology has become powerful enough that, when necessary, it can be used in place of live instruments. However, I disagree with the basic premise that orchestras are "going away." In fact, I'm pretty sure that Pliable's post on Sequenza21 had to do with the large-scale musical form known as "Symphony", as opposed to the general rubric of orchestral music. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Live music isn't dead. We composers tend to forget (or at least overlook) the fact that members of the public have more than one reason for going to concerts. Yes, there's the music, but it's also a night out away from the kids; it's a social occasion. It's an event. A scenario where 1500 people sit in a concert hall and listen to electronic music doesn't seem likely to draw these folks. Would you take the time to order tickets, hire a babysitter, find a parking place, etc. for that?

As much as the classical music community likes to fret about the end approaching, I just don't see the public demand for this type of entertainment going away any time soon.

Garth Trinkl said...

Michael, many thanks for your very reasonable contribution and new perspective here on this matter.

Thanks also for supplying the correct title to Michael Morgan's Oakland/East Bay Symphony orchestra. I only realized later that I had mangled the name of Michael Morgan's group and Kent Nagano's Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. (Do you have as much great new music in San Francisco "proper" as there seems now to be on the greater East Bay?)

Back for a moment to the topic, I am glancing at the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra site and I see that Kent Nagano and his associates will be celebrating this season the music of Robert Schumann (four symphonies), as well as Alban Berg, Stravinsky, Varese, Carter --
and two living American composers who will be COMBINING live orchestral performance and advanced digital technology -- the distinguished John Chowning (the orchestra's 05/06 Composer in residence) in his Stria and Voices (with Maureen Chowning, soprano) and Edmund Campion (CNMAT's composer in residence) in his Practice. All three of these orchestra and integrated electronics works are presented in association with Berkeley's CNMAT Music Technology laboratory. (The Campion work will be premiered at Carnegie Hall.)

Personally, besides these explorations with new audio and ditigal technology, I am happy to see that the Berkeley Symphony will also be giving the world premiere of Kurt Rohde's oratorio Bitter Harvest, a work "that will challenge the audience to investigate the roots of hatred and what drives an individual to destructive behavior. It will use music to explore the economic, social, spiritual and psychological effects of corporate agribusiness on the small family farmer." [libretto by Amanda Moody and direction and dramaturge by
Melissa Weaver]. [Jane Eaglan will also appear as soloist with the orchestra in Mozart and Berg.]

Michael, good luck to you with the performances of your works in San Francisco and Hungary.

And thanks, Pliable, for the beautiful portraits of musical artists you posted today.

http://www.berkeleysymphony.org/programs/season.htm

Anonymous said...

We've had synths for 30 years, but they still can't perform Bach satisfactorly. In the same way that they use actors to make computer animated characters move realistically, I'm sure there will still be humans prevalent in the musical performance mix in the future.

There are two West End Shows which are using a computer to fill in parts that were previously people's jobs. The bands halved in size overnight last year. This is the single-most depressing thing about the music business that I've read. I have several friends living off depping in these shows trying to get a foot in with their careers.

Hucbald said...

From 1984 to 1994 I owned a Synclavier and did a lot of electronic music composition. I was even a TA in the CEMI department at UNT when I was a doctoral student there. I'll echo the sentiments expressed above that people are just not going to buy season ticket subscriptions to hear music performed by machines. In fact, it was that aspect of the endeavor that eventually drove me out of it: Pressing the "Play" button on the Synclav's Digital Memory Recorder and then sitting back with the audience while I listened to my latest sound sculpture and watched a Mandelbrot fractal image transform on a movie screen was just not satisfying. I missed performing.

Sure, for film and TV music digital virtual orchestras are the wave of the future, but nothing will ever replace an orchestra of live performers, in a hall, with a conductor, performing for an audience. There will always be a market for that, but Darwinian pressures on them to be good or perish will be very great. Obviously, there are positive and negative aspects to that future: There will be less orchestras, but their general quality will be better. They will be less accessible and more expensive, but market forces will drive them to excell.

The thing about sampling technology that frustrates me is that it appeals to the lowest common denominator in terms of electronic music at the expense of synthesis technology. The Synclavier's old 8-bit 16KHz FM/Additive archetecture has never been equalled for pure power, especially when you get crossfading timbre frames into the picture (Which were ironically developed to re-synthesize sampled sounds), and dynamic programmable stereo panning effects into the picture as well. The Sync was the only PHASE-ACCURATE playback digital device that didn't utilize tape EVER. No software synth of today and not even Pro Tools can claim phase-accurate playback, and phase is GOD in the digital realm. Because of sampling tech's mindless addictiveness, there are no market forces to create truely great synthesis archetectures anymore. And, to me, THAT'S the power of electronic sound creation technology: The ability to develop new and unheard of classes of sounds. I have worked out a GUI for such a system, but there just isn't any market to support the hardware requirements (Think in terms of at LEAST eight of the fastest processors now running PC's just to get phase-accurate sound and playback for eight voices, and MANY gigs of RAM).

So, I'm just a solo guitarist until somebody can top the old Synclavier, which I don't see happening anytime soon.