Orchestral Maneuvers

Welcome to the age of technology, where computers run large aspects of daily life in developed nations. There are precious few areas of life to which technology's reach has not yet extended. Now, thanks to a most unusual UA ensemble, Orchestra Nova, performances of classical music have wholeheartedly embraced the technological age. Enter techno-classic music.

This doesn't sound like your parents' orchestra

he Orchestra consists of its conductor, Dr. J.

Timothy Kolosick, professor of music theory at the school of music, and five performers, all UA music graduate students. Orchestra Nova performs standard classical American and European symphonic works; music usually performed by large symphony orchestras. What makes Orchestra Nova so unique is that its instruments are electronic.

Techno-classic music is not programmed computer music like Nine Inch Nails, but people creating live orchestral sounds using synthesizer units, MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) units, and all the technological amenities available to modern recording studios.

This is DEFINITELY not your parent's orchestra.

Kolosick began assembling his performers, tech crew and electronic gizmos back in 1992. There is some unique equipment here. The synthesizers don't have speakers, but are wired to send the electronic sound impulses through a music mixer and then through two external speakers. It took almost a year to get all the software and hardware debugged before musical matters could be considered. The Orchestra gave its first concert a year ago.

Kolosick created the orchestra for a variety of reasons. His curiosity has always been piqued by all things technical, and he thought that merging his interests with his chosen field of music would provide for some interesting sessions. He also thought the opportunities for musical research were outstanding.

"When you put musicians and technicians together the sparks fly," says Kolosick. "The technicians decide how to send the data down a wire, while the musicians decide which data goes down the wire."

Kolosick also wanted piano students to have the opportunity to play symphonic works. Piano students, with the exception of the concerto (a piece where a pianist performs alongside an orchestra), are usually not given the opportunity to play in groups, only as soloists. Kolosick says many piano students have expressed an interest in having the opportunity to play symphonic music without needing to learn to play a whole new instrument ─ playing as a soloist and playing in a group are "two different worlds," and Kolosick thinks every musician should be exposed to both.

Allowing piano students to perform as an orchestra is the principle reason Orchestra Nova doesn't limit itself in the genres of work that it performs. At one moment the Orchestra will be digitizing something by Mozart or Tchaikovsky and the next they'll perform music from the twentieth century.

Kolosick thinks there is no reason classical pianists must perform only classical music. There is also no reason why modern artists couldn't perform classical works. Interesting concept. Aerosmith playing Beethoven's Fifth, or 2 Live Crew performing Handel's Messiah.

Maybe the world's not ready for that one just yet.

But the world is definitely ready for electronic performances of favorite classical works. Some of the more popular classical CD's available today have been electronically performed. Most of these classical CD's don't actually contain new compositions, but rather classical music performed (in a recording studio, not live) by an electronic orchestra.

When one stops to think about it, it seems like there is a lot of digital music around these days.

However, according to Steve Hayne, programming director for KUAT radio, the university's own classical music station, it wasn't always like that ─ it was worse.

According to Hayne, electronic projects like Orchestra Nova can trace their roots all the way back to the 1940s. That is when a man named Vladimir Ussachievsky began spicing up his compositions with electronic devices. Hayne says "the electric guitar was originaly introduced during this time ─ however the public felt that the instrument was a dead-end and its potential was ignored. It wasn't until later that electronic music became very popular."

Hayne stated that it became trendy during the 1960s to produce electronic music ─ and any one who remembers '60s music can agree. Every new device that came down the line was somehow adapted to enhance (or in some cases, destroy) musical compositions. It wasn't until recently, said Hayne, that things have "settled down and composers have become . more concerned with what's appropriate musically for their piece, than with what is technologically new."

t seems like electronic music is coming of age and as a by-product,

classical works are being restored or revived; the latter from classical limbo, the former from that stone-age invention, the phonograph record.

On the other hand, as of today, there is no symphonic music that has been composed exclusively for an electronic orchestra, according to Kolosick. The main reason for this, he says, is not because of lacking interest but because of the difficulty involved. Every electronic keyboard, every synthesizer module, has its processesing units and interior electronic systems built a little differently. Because of this lack of a standard in systems, composers have been wary of creating works for solely electronic orchestras.

Kolosick says, "As the technology improves, a standard is slowly being incorporated into synthesizer designs." He thinks that sooner or later composers will be able to easily create music that will utilize the full potential of an electronic orchestra.

Besides cost and research opportunities, what else is contained within the full potential of an electronic orchestra? If a performer can produce flute sounds with the left side of the keyboard, replicate a violin in the middle, and imitate a french horn on the right, that presents some interesting possibilities for sound combinations. And all one would need to know is how to play the piano.

While an electronic orchestra might present opportunities for some, others might feel threatened by the new technology. Steve Gambel, the second trombonist for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, is such an individual.

Although he thinks the concept of the electronic orchestra is fairly useful, he says that "actual music is only half of what makes up a performance. Human beings reacting with each other vis what makes a performance exciting ─ why people will go to see Beethoven's Fifth (Symphony) over and over.From an artistic venture, (electronic orchestras) don't seem to be much."

It is a valid argument. Much of a performance can be attributed to the human element ─ if that is replaced by machines, what is left is a cold representation of music without feeling or direction.

Kolosick assures the human element will never be removed from the orchestra ─ it is just the equipment that has been "teched-up" a bit. No longer does the performer have the ability to control the volume of the sound with his fingers. His synthesizers are not touch-sensitive, meaning that the volume of the sound produced is the same no matter how hard one presses the key. Performers still retain volume control, but do it using a foot pedal.

Gambel also says that by combining all of the symphonic instruments into one, much of the performers' knowledge of the instrument disappears. Simply put, if a harpist performs some music its soul will be different than if a piano performer plays the piece on a synthesizer.

olosick states that "soulless music" is why Orchestra Nova uses live performers, instead of

programmed music. He says that it is inefficient to program a musical work into a computer and spend the countless hours necessary to make a machine's performance imitate a human's.

"We use electronic equipment musically, rather than watch others produce something less musical." The equipment may be cutting edge technology, but it is evident Kolosick is concerned with the musical aspect of the work.

"Without that (the musicality of a piece), Orchestra Nova wouldn't be worth the effort we've put into it."

Kolosick and his group have put quite a bit of effort into their orchestra. For example, the orchestra employs five trained technicians ─ one tech per synthesizer module. Not only are they there to keep everything well-oiled, but to research the little technicalities about the complex systems. By doing this the orchestra can consistently produce sounds that are more and more authentic.

Kolosick hopes that the technology at his disposal will be soon be advanced enough so that the sounds produced by Orchestra Nova are indistinguishable from those produced by a traditional symphonic orchestra.

Orchestra Nova isn't the only technological endeavour the college of fine arts has undertaken. It is part of the Peter Treistman Fine Arts Center for New Media, which is often affectionately referred to, by the Department of Music, as "The Lab."

The Center was established at the University of Arizona to provide an opportunity for research concerning possible uses of new technology in the fine arts. In addition to Orchestra Nova, the Center's current musical projects also include:

─The Nina Pulliam Training Program for Blind Musicians which blends computer technology with musical equipment to allow visually impaired musicians to produce creative work independently.

─Saguaro and the City, an environmental program dealing with the ecosystems of the Southwest consisting of an interactive CD-ROM project.

Techno-classic music may not be as popular as other forms of electronic music (like rock, for instance), but Dr. Kolosick isn't worried. He is sure that electronic orchestras will become more popular in time, but doesn't think that they could ever replace the full-blown symphony orchestra.

He does think however, that electronic music will eventually be featured at such places as Broadway musicals (in fact, many of Andrew Lloyd Weber's musicals have already experimented with the electronic orchestra) and touring opera companies. Kolosick said that even though there isn't any music composed specifically for electronic orchestras now, it's only a matter of time before it shows up.

After all, he adds, ".wind orchestras didn't have their own music either when they started out."

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