Audio Engineering Society

Chicago Section

Meeting Review, November 1997

other meeting reports 11/20/97 Meeting Highlights
by Patrick Wolfe

On November 20 Frederick Bianchi and David Smith spoke to the Chicago section about the Virtual Orchestra, a network of computers and multi-channel speaker playback designed to simulate a real orchestra. Drs. Bianchi and Smith demonstrated the Virtual Orchestra and explained the reasons for its invention, as well as current and future uses of Virtual Orchestra technology.
The evening's presentation began with a "live" Virtual Orchestra performance (sans conductor) of the overture to Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. Although not conceived to replicate the experience of a full symphony orchestra in concert, the Virtual Orchestra has been designed to function as a complete pit orchestra for opera and musical theater productions. In addition to mimicking a traditional orchestra, explained Drs. Bianchi and Smith, the Virtual Orchestra is capable of performing electronic music, computer music, sound effects, or any combination thereof. In fact, one of the principal reasons for the Virtual Orchestra's invention was to promote the use of computer music in opera and theater. Drs. Smith and Bianchi, unsatisfied with the lack of advances in that area, decided that technology must meet opera and theater in its existing form. This led to the invention of the Virtual Orchestra, a real-time device whose orchestral emulations are procedural as well as sonic.
Its inventors were quick to point out that they consider the Virtual Orchestra to be a true musical instrument rather than simply a complex playback device. Although a full demonstration was not given, they claim that the Virtual Orchestra can follow a conductor and respond expressively to a variety of musical situations. In the second performance of the evening, the Orchestra provided accompaniment to a Puccini aria: Dr. Smith conducted an excellent vocalist while Dr. Bianchi continuously tapped tempo into the Virtual Orchestra so that it followed the varying pace of Dr. Smith. In a real production, explained Dr. Smith, the score would first be entered into the Virtual Orchestra and then much time would be spent programming style, tempi, and dynamics to the style of a particular conductor . Then, using four accelerometers in the conductor's tuxedo, the Virtual Orchestra would be able to respond to subtle deviations by the conductor from programmed tempi and dynamics. Drs. Smith and Bianchi did not address technical aspects of the Virtual Orchestra's operation such as audio synthesis algorithms, preferring rather to concentrate on the wide variety of uses for their product and its previous successes.
The Virtual Orchestra has been used in productions such as Twelve Dreams and God's Heart at Lincoln Center, and bring in da noise, bring in da funk on Broadway. In what its inventors consider its greatest success, the Virtual Orchestra was also used exclusively in the national tour of a Tennessee opera company. Tales of a resulting picket by the Musician's Union led to a heated discussion amongst members as to the pros and cons of such a device, and the value of live acoustic music versus the importance of exposing opera to a wider audience.
In the future its developers hope to see the Virtual Orchestra used as a delivery system for new musical ideas, especially new operas. It may also allow the staging of some works, such as Schoenberg's Guerreleider, which have prohibitively large instrumental personnel requirements. The Virtual Orchestra appears to be well on its way toward its ultimate goal of providing companies around the country the ability to tour and disseminate artistic product. Drs. Bianchi and Smith remained to answer specific questions and to distribute autographed pictures of the Virtual Orchestra. The Chicago section would once again like to extend to them a sincere thank-you for presenting and discussing their thought-provoking work.