The latest digital technologies are spurring exciting new developments and opportunities in music performance and recording.
I've noticed some interesting twists lately when it comes to electronic technology and music. "Electronic" music - either synthesized or produced using digital samples of actual instruments - has been around for a long time of course, but advancements in technology are constantly opening up new areas in music performance and reproduction.
For example, just last month Zenph Studios - using a combination of high-resolution MIDI files and a whole lot of musical and technical know-how - held a live "re-performance" and re-recording of jazz pianist Art Tatum's original 1949 live recording "Music Starts Here." (See "Music software to "re-perform" jazz piano masterpiece".)
Here, an attempt was being made to extract an original performance from the limitations of the old recording technology in which it was embedded and to recreate it using the latest technology. To hear "before" and "after" examples of a re-performance using this technology (in this case from a 1926 monaural 78-rpm recording of Chopin's prelude #3 in G major by legendary classical pianist Alfred Cortot) check out the following:
While Zenph is focusing on giving new life to old recordings, others are exploring ways to use the latest technologies to create new music performances. One such application is the digital orchestra - the use of digital technology by musicians to produce or perform orchestral music using sound files on a computer. Digital orchestra music is currently extensively used in televison commercials and increasingly in film scores and even to supplement some live performances.
Some of the latest research in this area has focused on real-time performance control. That allows the performer or conductor to instantaneously access and control the proper music sound file(s) from hundreds of gigabytes of data on a hard drive(s), making possible live performances and recordings.
Recently, real-time performance tests were conducted using the Wii game controller - which incorporates accelerometers to sense motion and direction - as a baton. The tests were performed by Paul H. Smith, Musical Director of the Fauxharmonic Orchestra, and can be seen in the following videos, the first (4 min) is an initial explanation and test of the Wii remote (using a passage from the 2nd movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony), and the second (2 min) shows the remote being used to change tempo, loudness and timbre:
Wii Baton Test with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony
Wii Conducting Test 2 - Tempo, loudness, timbre
In a response to an email from me, Paul H. Smith graciously provided some details about the equipment and software he uses:
Computer: MacPro Quad-core (Xeon processor)
Sound material: Full Vienna Instruments from the Vienna Symphonic Library
MIDI sequencer: Apple Logic Studio
Controller software: OSculator (converts Wii data to MIDI and other data)
Hardware controller: Wii wireless remote controller
Studio speakers: JBL LSR4328 monitors
He says the output is, for now, a simple stereo mix (digital audio). He also brought to my attention a new video (8 min) that documents his first attempt to conduct a digital orchestra - stripped of all artificial reverberation - live in a concert hall (with a top-of-the-line Bose PA system), to see how the acoustic properties of the space affected the music:
Wii-controlled system tested live at Yale
As is always the case with new technologies, there will be doubters and naysayers. Purists are sure to ask "what's the point?" And others may wonder whether these technologies portend the end of traditional instruments or human players.
Such perspectives ignore all the new applications (and opportunities for performers and composers) that the new technologies make possible. According to The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology, a group doing research in this area, the current proliferation of new musical applications of digital technologies is "comparable to the flourishing of new instruments that accompanied technological developments during the Industrial Revolution." (Some of those instruments included the saxophone, the Wagner tuba and the modern Boehm flute.)
These new technologies offer the potential to bring new life (and new listeners) to some "old" formats. And, in the case of the traditional orchestra, they promise to extend and "spur forward" what the Digital Orchestra League says is one of humanity's greatest musical accomplishments.