Orchestra Tech: Introducing Technology into the Orchestra

Orchestra Tech: Introducing Technology into the Orchestra

GIL ROSE: It’s no mistake that a lot of early electronic music grew up in fiscally sound, academic environments, and/or in Europe. Even Koussevitzsky at the Boston Symphony, who was at the forefront of commissioning new music and new works, had no experience with that kind of technology stuff. In his defense, it was a little bit before his time.

FRANK J. OTERI: But it’s interesting that Stokowski, who was of the same generation, used a theremin to double bass lines with the Philadelphia Orchestra in standard repertoire pieces, which was along the same lines as playing a Bach piece on the piano, playing a work for an earlier version of an instrument on a later version.

GIL ROSE: But it shows you what leadership can do. Stokowski is a great example, much better than Koussevizsky. It shows you leadership, not just leadership on the technological front, but leadership in youth concerts and in experimental music. One stubborn person can make a big difference.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’d like to play Luddite for a minute…


TOD MACHOVER: Luddite, anti-technology…

FRANK J. OTERI: And I’m saying this as a fan of technology, as a fan of this music, but I want to turn it around to give voice to the dissenting opinion and talk about music in the future. Is there a place in the future for musical works that do not involve technology on any level?

GIL ROSE: There’s space in the future for every kind of music because Pandora’s box has been opened up. That’s one of the truisms of our musical culture. There are a lot of sources for inspiration. Sometimes you’ll have somebody playing an indigenous instrument who’s electrified it. And there’s other places where people will go in a whole different direction. I can tell you that after having basically conducted and produced a very technologically heavy concert, I really wanted to do something with rocks and sticks.

RAY KURZWEIL: There was a beautiful concert with bamboo flute by an Indian master just last night at MIT… But to respond, there are two connotations of the Luddite challenge: one is employment, which is how the Luddite movement started and the other is technology as an assault on pure, traditional forms, and certainly we see that in music. And sometimes people resent technology as not being consistent with the purity of certain traditions. The Luddite movement started around 1800 in the textile industry in England with these weavers whose families of many generations had enjoyed these livelihoods from a certain guild and craft of weaving which had been turned over on its head by these new automated machines. And it seemed clear to the Luddites that soon employment would be enjoyed by just a small elite because one person could do the work of ten or twenty and the machines were getting more sophisticated, so pretty soon there would be almost no employment. And ironically, employment actually increased and wages went up and there was actually a period of prosperity, which is the main reason why the Luddite movement died along with some violent oppression. A reason for the increase in employment was that new industries were created to create the machines and also it’s human nature. We didn’t create the same number of shirts with a smaller number of workers. Now that the common man and woman could have a well-made shirt, people didn’t want just one shirt, they wanted a whole wardrobe, etc., etc. And if you look at the whole sweep of automation in the last couple hundred years we have actually ten times as many jobs today as we did a hundred and twenty years ago, both on a per capita basis and on an absolute basis. And what we tend to do is automate jobs at the bottom of the skill ladder and create new jobs on the top of the skill ladder, so the whole skill ladder moves up. And we’ve seen that in music. There was a lot of controversy, which I was a part of too, with synthesizers and the union and others. With synthesizers, one person could do the work of ten or twenty, particularly in commercial music where people were used to blowing a trumpet and getting gigs for television commercials, and now they were using synthesizers. This was back in the 1980s. And it’s true. Certain types of gigs, certain kinds of performances were being automated. However, the advent of this technology made music more exciting, particularly in the popular world. A group of three or four musicians could make a much richer, a more complex sound. One musician with a synthesizer could create an interesting soundtrack for movies, so they would actually hire a live musician with a synthesizer rather than using recorded music, which had been the practice up to that time in industrial films and government films and so on. And there actually are more musical opportunities and you can actually measure that economically in terms of financial statistics. Musicians are better off. There’s a lot more excitement in the world of music and there’s more economic activity as a result. As for the cultural challenge, that’s a challenge that exists not just in the world of technology but anytime you have change and there are guardians of the old values and sometimes that gets tense. Sometimes you see that in the world of politics in terms of reactionary forces that resist modernity, change. Sometimes violently, usually not in the world of music but there are guardians of the old traditions and sometimes there’s a resistance to new forms and that’s another aspect of the Luddite issue. Overall, I think, I agree with what you said, that there’ll be room for continued traditions and that the new doesn’t extinguish the old it just provides new options and new alternatives, new ways to express ourselves. Music’s always using the most advanced technology in at least some of the forms. That was true in Beethoven’s day. In the 18th century they used the wood-making crafts and in the 19th century the metal working industries. Then we used analog electronics and now we have the full gamut of digital signal processing to expand, not to replace, the old modalities.

TOD MACHOVER: For the last several years in particular, and I think partly because of being here at the media lab at MIT, I’ve gotten increasingly concerned that, as much as I am interested in technology and love technology, I think technology for the past five years or so, maybe a little longer, has had such a momentum and a tendency to capture the public imagination and grow so fast that in many ways, certain times technology has a tendency to outstrip what we know how to do with it and what we want to do with it and I think it’s had a certain momentum just to come up with advancements for the sake of not just for the markets but for the kind of imaginative sense effective of just doing better. And so I’ve been sort of screaming that especially in the technological context, since we’re in the middle of it here, one of the most important things to remember is what it is you want to get done, what it is you want to express, what it is you want to do and then you feel that you’re looking and that’s obvious. But I think technology has had such a momentum of its own, it’s sometimes hard to remember that. And I think that in the last couple of weeks, about the only positive thing that’s happened so far is that it has shaken so many of us to just simply think back on what we’re here for and what the important things are and I find myself looking for any kind of wisdom that I can find anywhere, how to view what’s going on or how to just go day by day in such a confusing situation. People will need a certain kind of escapism just to get through things, but art for entertainment’s sake is not going to mean much to people for a while now. And I think technology for it’s own sake, because it’s cool, is not going to mean anything to people right now. On the other hand, sharing with each other what each of us considers important and worth doing and what art is really for is really important and I think that’s got to be healthy for the field. It’s hard for me to imagine it, and frankly, so many things are in question now that what technology is going to have to do with our lives period is probably a bit more of a question than it was six months ago or four months ago or three weeks ago. Ray often makes the point about technology changing exponentially. Things aren’t just changing, change is changing and it’s hard to imagine. And we’re involved in a really major struggle right now about the future versus the past in our culture and, obviously, in the world. So these are big issues that are going to get played out and we’ve unleashed big forces that none of us can predict. I would imagine that Ray’s description of the future is probably going to happen. I’ll put words in his mouth, Ray’s contention is that once you start putting intelligence in machines that you’re enabled to do things that you couldn’t do before and that the sophistication of these machines grows very, very fast and it builds… So I think that to imagine that the core parts of our culture are not going to involve more and more sophisticated technology is naïve. I think it will. And I think probably we’re going to want to find ways to incorporate those ideas into our forms of expression because that reflects our experience most. So I think orchestras probably really should be thinking of ways of embracing the technological world and leading in the technology world and helping to create new art forms in their midst rather than outside it. And obviously you can always make great art and great thoughts, all you need is a mind and a heart, you know what I mean. It’s not the tools that do it, but I think these tools are here to stay.

RAY KURZWEIL: Well, I think the threshold we’re on now are not cybernetic geniuses but we are creating machines that have narrow intelligence. We have a program on our Web site called Aaron, which is a cybernetic artist that actually creates good quality art and every painting is different. The creator of it, Hal Cohen, who has worked on this for thirty years, has joked that he’s going to be the first artist that’ll able to have a posthumous exhibition of original work, because the system keeps creating original paintings and they have a particular style but every painting is different ’cause human artists have a recognizable style as well. So he has embodied this program with his understanding of visual art. Clearly, we can do similar things in music and there have been experiments like EMI, David Cope‘s experiments in musical intelligence, which are beginning to do some similar things, in my mind, not for broad works, it’s very actually convincing for brief snippets of music, but not the sort of full musical expression of music that makes sense over a period of time. But I do think we can create sophisticated systems today that have narrow intelligence that can work collaboratively and interactively with human musicians and I know, Tod, you’ve experimented with this concept. And I think that’s really exciting, to have a system that has narrow A.I., that understands something about music, that can anticipate what the musician is doing and then can kind of fill in. Once it’s programmed it can actually think faster than humans, so it could very quickly finish a walking bass line or fill in a rhythmic pattern, do things more quickly than a human performer could do and interact with a human performer. And that’s a threshold we’re on. I mean, thirty years from now we’ll have non-biological intelligence, in my mind, operating on human levels, and they’ll be creating music and everything else, but right now I think it’s a tool that can really amplify human intelligence and I think what we really need more of are people who really understand something about technology and understand music and have the artistic insight to use these tools. Because to some extent there are two different worlds and we need more of a bridge between the whole idea of artistic expression, which is communicating emotion from a performer to the audience and understanding what the technology can do, which I think is a lot. We need the people who can form that bridge.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.