Electric Orchestras and the Future of Music

 In opinion

Souless Killers

There has been a lot of talk recently about the staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in West Hartford, Connecticut. If you are unaware of what is going on let me give you a brief explanation. Charles M. Goldstein, founder of the Hartford Wagner Festival, has been planning for the last sixteen years a staging of the Ring Cycle using sampled instruments. Since 2005 he has been entering Wagner’s scores into a notation program with then intention of having sampled electronic instruments in place of the traditional acoustic fair. He had even planed to set up two dozen speakers in strategic positions to imitate the usual seating arraignment of the orchestra.

Now this is all fine and good, more power to the man for making due with what he’s got, but what is really surprising to me is the backlash from the rest of the community. Members of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra even sent some of the singers in the company an email advising them that if they did not leave the staging “the live musicians of this country will remember [them] for the rest of [their] career and treat [them] as a traitor to our art form.“

There is a great article from the New York Times explaining exactly what is happening.

This whole debacle has got me thinking, and I am conflicted. I can see where the musicians are coming from; they are scared, scared of what will happen to them and others like them in the future. With an influx of stagings and film going with sampled instruments jobs for orchestral musicians are getting more and more scarce. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is only a 5% projected increase in the field of singers and musicians for 2012-22, less than half than all other occupations. The bureau cites digital downloads and streaming video making it easier for fans to access the content they want without having to attend live performances as a possible reason for the decline in numbers. A smaller number of available jobs breeds more competition and fewer musicians employed.

There will never be a substitute for a live orchestra, but the problem is that most people probably won’t care. If the average person walks around listening to low quality mp3 files with mediocre earbuds, do they really care about hearing live orchestral music in the concert hall?

The orchestral musician as we know them just may be going the way of the dodo.

From the perspective of the composer it is different. Certain composers such as Joseph Schillinger were looking to the future of musical performance as early as 1918. He looked forward to the day when electronic instruments would be the norm, musicians still playing but without the “sportsmanship and competition” that the pursuit of perfect tone instills in the player. Without the toil and constant practice of tone production the musician would have more time to devote to the actual study of music. When speaking of the burgeoning electronic music of the 1920s he said:

“There is no turning back from this road, regardless of the absolute value of today’s models of electronic instruments. The fact is that a new principle of sound production and control has been established, and this principle will bring further improvements and perfection.”

Here we are almost a century later an it is finally happening. Legitimate theatre and films are using “canned music”. Countless independent films use “fake” orchestras and I could be wrong, and I welcome corrections if I am, but I am certain at least some, if not all, of Captain America was scored with sampled instruments (Kirk Hunter Studios has an “Actual cue used in Captain America” track in their audio demos page). Is this a good thing or a bad thing? With increases in computer processing power and amounts of storage unfathomable thirty years ago, it is becoming cheaper and easier for an independent composer to have an entire orchestra at his or her fingertips. To me it harkening back to the days when there were composers in the employ of various nobility that had orchestras at their disposal, or in the case of Haydn, his own personal group.

Technology is creating a world where the composer has instant access to almost everything they could want. Experimentation in timbre and playing techniques are still confined to the realm of acoustic instruments but even that may change in the future. Synthesizers such as Apple’s Sculpture allow the user to physically model sounds, with digital strings, metal plates or even glass. Sounds can imitate being bowed, blown or plucked, combinations and morphing effects can also be achieved.

As it stands right now I feel like there is still no replacement for a live orchestra with live musicians, and all the nuances of a real player, but all of that may change in the not too distant future.

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