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Musicians Feel Threatened by Orchestration Machine

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This is a very profound and philosophical debate touching upon where our priorities lie as a culture. It sounds like just another turf war between jobs and technology – between Paul Bunyan and the power saw – but it is also about our means of valuation of entertainment and art.

    THREE scholars who won a patent for a computerized, virtual orchestra that has been at the heart of a dispute between theater producers and musicians both on and off Broadway, say their system will keep musical theater alive by cutting costs without sacrificing orchestration.

    Musicians argue that the machine, which can not only synthesize various instruments and produce musical notes, but also match tempo and other more subjective elements with a live performance, will eliminate their already dwindling job opportunities.

    The debate has already led the musicians’ union in New York City to demand a ban on the invention, and to an unfair labor practice claim from the system’s manufacturer. After nearly two years of battling the musicians’ union in New York, the inventors are focusing on using their idea to enhance a smaller orchestra, rather than fully replace live orchestras.

    The hardware and software behind the invention are examples of how high technology can reshape the way things have long been done in just about any industry.

    ….The three created a system based on music sequencing, the technology that allows every element of a piece of music to be broken down into digital data.

    “Think of a traditional recording as a sound file you put a microphone out and record a voice,” explained Mr. Smith, who is also a partner in RealTime Music Solutions, a Manhattan company that manufactures the system under the name Sinfonia. “But that recording is stuck in time and space. Once you’ve recorded it, you can’t make any changes.

    “The idea with sequencing is that every note, every sequence, every change in volume, is programmed into the system,” he added.

    Mr. Smith said the invention was intended to “develop an interface between the way music is stored in sequencing and the way it is manipulated in real time, so we can modify various parameters of music, based on the requirements of the moment.”

    ….To manipulate tempo in real time, the invention can be programmed with what Mr. Smith calls tap parameters. “Like tapping your foot,” he said. “As you tap faster, the music will speed up or slow down. That’s the basic template of how we control tempo.”

    The system requires a considerable amount of custom programming before a live performance.

    “Each instrument has to be recorded in, with every note, each articulation and shape programmed in beforehand,” Mr. Smith explained. “Then we have a shaping session with the music director, and go through every note, go through a whole process of making the synthesized music correspond as closely as possible to the music.”

    The next step is a rehearsal with the live orchestra to be sure the machine is integrated with the remaining orchestra members. That is followed by another rehearsal with actors, singers and other performers, during which the person operating the system manipulates the tempo in real-time by following cues from the performers on stage. [NY Times]

Fascinating. So is the priority reduced costs that will help keep musical theater economically feasible or the further erosion of work for live musicians?

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About Eric Olsen

  • SFC Ski

    A smart mmusician is going to stop crying and start learning how to work that machine if he wants to be employed.
    There is a tremendous difference, though, in a machine programmed by a technician, and one utilized by a musician, and the same arguments against synthesizers and MIDI will be used here, and proved wrong.
    Furthermore, I think that there will be snobbery amongst theatregoers who will judge “real” theatre to have real musiciians. How expensive is this machine, will it be cheap enough that a low-budget production could use it?

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    While I can understand the concerns presented by something like this, the possibilities for this outside of musical theater are enormous and fascinating. Just think of what could result when this technology is put into the hands of someone like Aphex Twin.

    I think musical theater’s problems lie with the potential audience, not with the performances themselves. The problem is not that they have orchestras to pay, but that people in general just don’t seem to be interested – and they won’t be even at costs reduced due to using this technology.