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Broadway sings blues over synthesizer invasion
by Staff Writers
New York (AFP) July 29, 2010

While audiences at Broadway's "West Side Story" thrill to the on-stage drama, musicians in the orchestra pit are fighting a battle every bit as vicious as the Sharks-Jets rivalry.

This is gang warfare of a high-minded sort, pitting some of New York's best live musicians against a synthesizer they fear will usurp the job of playing Leonard Bernstein's pulsating score.

Sophisticated synthesizers and computer-manipulated recordings are increasingly taking over orchestras. Sounding almost like real players, while costing much less, they're especially popular with provincial or touring companies.

But until mid-July -- when "West Side Story's" producers announced that a synthesizer was replacing three live violinists and two cellists, or half the orchestra's string section -- staff violinist Paul Woodiel thought that at least the classics would be immune to the trend.

"It was the last straw for me," Woodiel told AFP.

"I was a student and a friend of Leonard Bernstein and it's almost certain he wouldn't have allowed this. This isn't dinner theater, it's not Las Vegas. It's Broadway and Leonard Bernstein was the greatest American musician."

Woodiel's own job was spared, but he caused a stir through the tight-knit Broadway world with a New York Times piece denouncing the "inert, artificial" synthesizer invasion.

The producers did not respond to AFP requests to be interviewed.

Synthesizers have in fact been around for decades, notably in pop music. What's changing is the ability of the machines to enter the far more sophisticated domain of classical orchestras.

"The computer gives you so much more power now. There's ridiculous stuff," says Mike Levine, editor of Electronic Music Magazine.

There are computer programs able to read and play back music scores -- a boon to composers who can now hear their work as they write -- and software allowing conductors to control the tempo of the machine, in the same way that they direct live players.

"It has gotten very, very good with something like drums and bass and strings," Levine said. "With piano they can model almost anything."

Levine said the growing use of synthesizers is positive for basement bands and other music industry start-ups, but a menace to jobs in large, labor-intensive ensembles like orchestras.

"It's all about money and the producers want to make as much money as possible," Levine said. "They always did."

-- Deception or innovation? --


Critics see synthesizers as little better than some barbarian force trampling the classical music landscape.

But one virtual music pioneer, Paul Henry Smith of the Fauxharmonic Orchestra, says the technology will only improve and in any case cannot be stopped.

Smith's system uses so-called digital sampling, feeding from a store of more than two million individual notes recorded in an almost endless variety of tones and styles. "It's kind of insane," he says.

"We don't quite know what's going to happen with this, but computer technology is just so malleable that the likelihood of it going away is probably nil."

Like many new technologies, virtual music poses growing ethical questions.

New York Post arts writer Barbara Hoffman says using a synthesizer in "West Side Story" amounts to cheating theatergoers.

"When you pay over 100 dollars a ticket you should hear real music the way Leonard Bernstein intended it," she said. "Something as sacred as that score, one of the most beautiful scores ever written -- it's blasphemous."

But it remains unclear whether audiences around the country realize what's going on, or necessarily care.

Sarah Franklin, a talented 24-year-old violinist, joined a five-month North America tour for a revival of the musical "Camelot" with an orchestra of just four people.

"There was me on the violin, one cello, one French horn and a conductor with a computer," she said. The computer, using a software called Notion, played the rest of the semi-virtual orchestra.

Frequently the program crashed, abruptly leaving the three live musicians to play by themselves. But despite the glitches, most audience members were none the wiser, Franklin said.

"When people saw us down in the pit afterwards, they'd say, 'It sounded like there were so many more of you!'"

The musicians would wriggle out of the embarrassing situation by pretending that the rest of their colleagues had quickly left the theater.

"We got fed up with explaining and we didn't want to ruin it for them. They didn't need to know," Franklin said.

True aficionados can immediately tell the difference between real and manufactured music.

Woodiel compares playing alongside a synthesizer to "making love with a corpse."

Even Smith readily concedes that today's virtual instruments cannot match live string players "by a long shot."

But advocates argue that axing salaried musicians in favor of a machine during today's economic uncertainty can extend the life of a flagging production, thereby saving many other jobs.

Smith, who studied with Bernstein and researched digital sound at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the most important benefits are subtle.

He sees virtual orchestra programs as a new instrument in their own right, as well as a tool for composers to "get their ideas into sound" and bring new material to human orchestras -- thereby creating work.

"It's not always a bad boy," Smith said. "It's a branching out and expanding of possibilities."

Peter Reit, who plays French horn in Broadway's "Phantom of the Opera" -- where two strings players have been replaced by a synthesizer -- has a more gloomy prognosis in what he calls the "corporate" music landscape.

"You get the feeling that if they had their way, ideally, they would have an entire virtual orchestra," he said.

"They would have all of us replaced with one electronic instrument, then feed that to the public and make more money."


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