Now when we can get a computerized audience, we'll have it made.
March 25, 2007
Theater's Alive With the Sound of Laptops
By JESSE GREEN
AMONG the uncommon pleasures of the 2003 Broadway revival of
'Wonderful Town' was that you could actually see the orchestra,
arrayed like a decorative garland of brass and polished wood
across an onstage bridge. Another was that there was enough of
an orchestra to be worth seeing. Nearly matching the original
1953 instrumentation, the show's producers sprang for a hefty
complement of 24 musicians. At least at first.
After a while, though, as is not unusual with shows anxious
to maximize profit, the ensemble was cut back to 20, still well
above the Al Hirschfeld Theater's house minimum of 14 (including
conductor) as stipulated by greement between the musicians union
and the league of Broadway producers. If not exactly a symphony,
this was a number capable of producing, with amplification, a
moderately rich sound not unlike what the show's composer,
Leonard Bernstein, might have imagined when he wrote it.
But audiences attending a performance of the production's
nonunion tour - which stopped last Sunday at the Tilles Center
on Long Island and continues on the road through May - are seeing,
and hearing, something quite different. The orchestra is down
to 12 traditional instrumentalists, including four reeds and
three horns, with only a lonely violin and cello to sweeten
the mix. So why does it seem as dense as it did on Broadway?
Why is the string sound so big, if not exactly Bernstein-y?
That would be the work of musician No. 13, sitting behind the
reeds at a Qwerty keyboard attached to an ordinary PC running a
software program called Notion and wired into the sound system.
This copy of Notion has been loaded with all the string parts
for 'Wonderful Town,' broken down in individual instrumental
lines that can be muted or played at will, all triggered by a
finger tapping the rhythm on any key in the A-S-D-F row. If the
conductor speeds up, so does the finger, and so does the music
Notion produces. If the leading lady lingers over a note, or
skips six bars, the finger can too.
Small as it is, that one finger, doing the work of hundreds, is
the center of a controversy now playing out in amateur theaters
and national markets and coming soon to Broadway. Already the
musicians union has dug in its heels against the use of Notion
and similar products. 'We're not Luddites opposed to technology,'
Mary Landolfi, president of Local 802, the American Federation
of Musicians, said recently. 'But we feel that people come to
the theater to hear live entertainment, and they should have
Critics have been denouncing nonlive - or, more accurately,
nontraditional - instruments in Broadway pits for decades.
At first the complaints were about the awful or just unwelcome
sounds they made. Electric guitars and organs, imported from
the world of pop music to go with the pop scores of the 1960s,
offended purists, who mourned the loss of European-style
orchestrations, heavy on strings and light on rhythm. When
synthesizers started replacing instruments that producers wouldn't
pay for or that couldn't fit in the ever-shrinking coffins to
which orchestras were consigned, criticism shifted to the poor
quality of the mimicry. Synthesized trumpets sounded like oboes
and oboes like burglar alarms.
The mimicry has improved tremendously in recent years. If the
current production of 'The Sound of Music' in London has a rich,
symphonic sound, it's not just because of the string players
(there are only 6, reduced from the original 12); it's because
of three keyboards programmed to sound like strings. This feels
wrong, but the proof is in the experience; and at least such
patches, as they're called, require live players. At many small
ballet companies around the United States, the orchestra is a
tape, and in many schools putting on musicals, it's a pirated,
karaoke-style CD. Even Broadway shows use click tracks and
prerecorded accompaniment for parts of some numbers.
But Notion and its more established competitor, a product made
by Realtime Music Solutions and marketed under the names Sinfonia,
OrchExtra and InstrumentalEase, represent a huge advance on those
limited technologies. They are therefore a huge threat to
advocates of entirely 'live' music. For one thing, they are
cheaper and more compact than older systems, which required a
vanful of equipment and a dedicated tech nerd and cost thousands
of dollars a week to rent. Notion comes on CDs that sell for
These products are also cheaper and more compact than human
musicians. They do not get sick or have bad nights. And after
years of gradual improvements, their sound is now good enough
to fool many nonexperts, especially since they are almost always
used, as recommended, alongside traditional instruments. Their
processing capacities are large enough that details of articulation
and attack, vibrato and decay, can be reasonably approximated,
if not gorgeously rendered. (Brass and bass drum, I mean you.)
And the notes themselves are no longer digitally created but are
based on thousands of samples from real instrumentalists. Notion's
main sample source is the London Symphony Orchestra.
Why London? No American ensemble would cooperate. Nor has
Notion been used on Broadway. The closest it's come was an
industrial show for Enterprise Rent-a-Car at the Broadway Marriot
Marquis hotel in October, where Sutton Foster and other musical
stars sang with a 26-piece orchestra pumped up to symphonic
density. No one seemed to notice the ringer.
Sinfonia has come even closer. In 2004 it drew protests when
used (along with several traditional instruments) to accompany
a short-lived Off Broadway musical called 'The Joys of Sex.'
A year earlier, in anticipation of Local 802's strike against
Broadway producers, shows including 'Les Miserables,' 'Thoroughly
Modern Millie' and 'Oklahoma!' prepared Sinfonia versions of
their scores as a precaution - and perhaps as a provocation.
But no audience ever heard them; the strike lasted four days.
The resulting contract expired three weeks ago, on March 4,
but the house minimums stipulated within it remain in effect
through 2013. Still, because those minimums are often breached
by 'special situations' (almost anything can be a special
situation), and because emulation technology is not specifically
banned in the old contract nor likely to be banned in the new
one now being negotiated, the union remains wary. In picketing
and press releases, it refers to products like Notion and Sinfonia
as 'virtual orchestra machines': a kind of alien in the pit.
(Jeff Lazarus, the chief executive of Realtime, prefers the term
instruments, and said the union's tactics amount to 'musical
gerrymandering.') Ms. Landolfi, of Local 802, further asserts
that the technology interferes 'with the ability of creative
teams to decide artistic issues without undue economic pressure.'
Maybe. In an informal poll I asked members of such creative
teams to consider this: You're reviving a show that depends on
full orchestral sound, like 'South Pacific,' which is in fact
being revived in 2008. The maximum number of instrumentalists
that the budget (and the pit) can accommodate is 20, far fewer
than the original 31, but higher than the theater's minimum of,
say, 15. Having preserved jobs by hiring those 20 musicians,
would you then consider using a technology like Sinfonia or
Notion to push the sound to symphonic levels?
Music directors were clear that they would not. Ted Sperling,
who conducted 'The Light in the Piazza' with 15 acoustic
instruments, said, 'I'm a believer in making the most with what
you're given, not pretending that something's there when it's
not.' Paul Gemignani, who will lead a 'South Pacific' with full
symphony orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl this August, agreed,
saying he'd 'respectfully bow out' if the producers wouldn't
reorchestrate for 'all live instruments.' He added, 'To me it
would be like doing 'Death of a Salesman' with one great big
star and the rest of the cast on a recording.'
Mr. Gemignani has lived and died by that sword; the 'Pacific
Overtures' he conducted at the Roundabout in 2004 employed 7
musicians, down from 22 in the 1976 original; though the 7 were
live, they sounded skimpy and, as processed through the sound
system, even artificial at times. For that reason most producers
I surveyed and, surprisingly, most composers, weren't so quick
to disavow the new technology.
'A machine-generated orchestra isn't such a terrible proposition,
if the music director and sound designer work in coordination,'
said the composer Michael John LaChiusa. 'Do the machines provide
the human touch of a live musician? Not to my ear, but because
of miking, many of the live pit orchestras on Broadway sound
canned already, sometimes even pre-taped. To use or not to use
a machine to supplement, or even replace, the orchestra for a
revival isn't an ethical or moral argument. It's not even a
sentimental one. It's a question of aesthetics.'
Many artists, or their heirs, seem to have answered that aesthetic
question. Sinfonia has now been used in the West End (but not
the Broadway) production of 'Les Miserables' and in American
non-Equity tours of 'Oliver!' and 'Miss Saigon.' The Gershwin
estate authorized a Sinfonia-enhanced production of 'Porgy and
Bess' that visited minor markets from 2001 to 2005. Notion can
be heard not only in 'Wonderful Town' but also in ballet and
Meat Loaf concerts everywhere.
Whether jobs are being lost as a result is a matter of
interpretation. Yes, 'Wonderful Town' has 11 fewer musicians
now than it did when it opened on Broadway, but the show probably
wouldn't have toured at all had it been required to maintain the
full complement. Keith Levenson, the production's music supervisor
and a paid adviser to Notion, said he is in that sense saving
jobs, not cutting them. (He pointed out that Notion too is
played by a live musician.) But union representatives call such
arguments nayve; what if the producers of the next 'Wonderful
Town,' having heard how this one sounds with Notion, decide they
can only afford nine musicians, or five?
Some see the slippery slope as most precarious not at
the uppermost levels of production but at the lowest. Ms.
Landolfi complained that the manufacturers are marketing the
technology heavily to schools. And it's true that after years
of experimentation and internal debate, both R&H Theatricals (a
division of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization) and Music
Theater International, leading licensers of shows for amateur
and stock production, now allow customized versions of Sinfonia
to be rented with some of their properties. For rehearsals
customers can use R&H's AccompanEase or M.T.I.'s RehearScore.
For full performance there are products called InstrumentalEase
and OrchExtra. Perhaps the most telling portmanteau is one that
was proposed in an employee contest to name the orchestra product
at R&H: PitBull.
But philosophical anxieties (what would Rodgers, he of the
sweeping string tuttis, think?) and musical misgivings eventually
gave way to technical advancements and demand from amateur
licensees, especially schools. Customers now pay about $1,400
for a four-week rental, which includes a two-octave keyboard,
connection equipment and an Apple MacBook preloaded with the
score of the show being performed. (M.T.I. offers 18 of its
most popular titles, R&H five, with many more in development.)
A knowledgeable musician, especially one savvy about computers,
can have it playing within minutes.
Customers clearly love the result. Peter Hoopes, director
of technology as well as conductor of the annual musical at
St. Andrew's, a co-ed boarding school in Delaware, said that
in previous years he'd had to make do with whatever instruments
his volunteers happened to play. This year, having ordered
InstrumentalEase for a production of 'Annie Get Your Gun,' he
turned on the MacBook, clicked 'mute' for the instruments he had
in the pit and produced the remainder of the orchestration by
tapping while he conducted. He was astonished, as were his
'When they first heard it,' Mr. Hoopes said, 'one of the comments
was, 'Well, I guess you don't really need us here anymore.' And
it did cross my mind that if I wanted a perfect sound, I could
just eliminate them. But we're a small community, and part of
the thrill is that everyone's contributing. On the other hand,
it was nice knowing that if one of the players got sick, I could
just unmute that part and go right on.'
No one did get sick, and by the time 'Annie Get Your Gun' opened
on Feb. 23, Mr. Hoopes said, not only had he created a seamless
ensemble featuring sounds he could never previously have mustered
(try finding a harpist at a boarding school) but his 10
instrumentalists had improved by trying to match the quality
of the software.
This is the ideal situation; other schools may prove more willing
to ditch their squawky pubescent clarinetists. The licensers'
requirement that live musicians be used with the software is
largely unenforceable. It's partly for this reason that the
union opposes these products even at the amateur level. 'We
think they really undermine the idea of music education,' said
Ms. Landolfi, 'which undermines the audience for Broadway and
classical music. Now the schools can say, 'We don't need a music
program because we can just buy this very affordable machine.'
But in the end what kind of cultural life would we have94
A valid concern, and one shared by the manufacturers and licensers,
most of whom are musicians themselves. They admit to ambivalence,
but argue that the new technology is helping to build future
audiences by allowing more shows to be produced and by accustoming
young people to sounds they no longer have the chance to hear
on a regular basis. (Lori Jarrett, the chief executive of Notion
Music, said she hopes her product will promote 'a renaissance
of more sophisticated art.') Sure, everyone would prefer full
orchestras in grade school and Broadway minimums of 35. But on
that score perhaps, Richard Rodgers has left the building.
'Technology is always a threat to live music,' said Bruce Pomahac,
director of music at Rodgers & Hammerstein. 'When the pianoforte
replaced the harpsichord, every harpsichordist was out of a job.
And we all fall in love with the art we grew up with. But this
is not about putting musicians out of work. They're already out
of work. This is about trying to get back, in some new form,
something that's lost.'
That may end up being the best the musicians union can hope
for too. Could we one day find our orchestra pits filled with
tuxedoed men and gowned women tapping at laptops? Mr. Lazarus,
of Realtime, said he doesn't want to wave a red flag at the
union, but that the products are already working - and getting
Anyway, don't expect labor fireworks just yet. Wait until July,
when the contract with Broadway's stage crews expires. Because
Sinfonia doesn't just mimic cymbals and saxophones. It can be
programmed to control scenery too.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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