Monday, October 8, 2012

Virtual Ensembles?

For last week’s blog post, I was debating between writing about the Classical Revolution and Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir. I ended up writing about the Classical Revolution, and I am glad I did, because after reading Peter’s post about the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra, it provided me with more of a direction with which to discuss the virtual ensemble.

Back in 2009, Eric Whitacre started experimenting with the concept of a virtual choir. He gave an excellent talk on TED about the experience, and has then proceeded to produce 2 more installations of the virtual choir, with a third in progress. After watching the TED talk, I was amazed by the sheer number of people who participated from all across the world, ranging beginners to experts. For his piece Sleep, the choir comprised 2,052 singers. For something like this to be possible is truly awe inspiring and owes everything to the great technological advances we have been able to make. However, when I listened to the final product, I couldn’t help but notice certain musical and ensemble issues. The diction isn’t always consistent, many of the consonants at the ends of words and phrases finish at different times creating a strange effect, tuning isn’t always the greatest, and the performance lacks the sense of an ensemble working together to make music with each other. In other words, it’s not what you would call an excellent performance. But it did bring 2,052 people together to share in this musical experience, and for all the issues, it is pretty good. During the TED talk, Eric shares some feedback he got from some of the choir members. They were all super positive and raved about the whole experience, expressing their excitement for the next one. This got me wondering if perhaps the process itself makes up for the lack of ensemble unity and musicality.

Enter the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra. As soon as I read about it, I signed up, and not just because I love Doctor Who. This is the perfect opportunity to see what the virtual ensemble experience is all about. The deadline for submission is in December, so I’ll hopefully be able to report back on how things progress from my point of view. I think the virtual medium is an interesting one for ensemble experience, but as of now, there is no true ensemble work actually happening. Yet the participants are an ensemble; they are part of a group that sang the same piece (just not at the same time) and produced a final product of a performance. I thought Skype, or something like it, might make for a solution to the ensemble feel, but the coordination of that would be a nightmare, and would most likely result in excluding many people from participating. The technology is not quite there yet, but I bet it will be soon, and we should all be keeping an eye on what it means for us as musicians. It would be pretty awesome to be able to have a true rehearsal or performance experience with people from around the world through our computers. Until then though, the current virtual ensembles will continue making progress and bringing us together for the love of music, Doctor Who and technology.

Questions for Dean Chin:
1. How does Longy compare to other conservatories by staying relevant in the changing world of (classical) music?
2. What kinds of technology could/does Longy employ to expand our outreach not only in terms of education but performance?
3. When have you found technology to enhance a performance or any musical experience?

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