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The Good, The Bad, & The Digital

The newest chapter in the story of man vs. machine.

by Drew McManus
April 26, 2004

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The double edge sword of technology, it’s an old story.  Advancements in technology have the possibility to harm as much as help, and the world of music is not immune from the phenomenon.  Today we’re going to look at some recent developments in technology and how they apply to music and musicians.

Positive applications of technology

First up is a new device called an eStand.  Ever since the days of Bach music has been written with ink on paper and musicians read that music right off the page. But fast-forward 300 years from when Bach wrote his music by candlelight and you have the beginning of the computer age.  Computer music notation programs like Finale and Sibelius transformed the way music is written and typeset.  What these programs are doing for musicians is what word processors have done for writers. 
 
But even these programs are more than a decade old and musicians still read the notes right off of paper.  But now that David Sitrick, president of eStand, Inc. has made his digital music stand technology a reality, that is all about to change.  I had the opportunity to talk to David about the eStand and I quickly discovered that like many good ideas, the eStand is simple.  It looks, functions, and performs just like traditional paper music but without all of the typical problems that come along with paper.  It doesn’t matter what level a musician’s technological prowess is, even if a player has never touched a computer before they can use this new technology.  The more experience a player has with technology, the better they’ll be able to use the eStand’s unique features. 
 
Another unique technological advancement that eStand takes advantage of is networking capability.  Now you can have anywhere from a duet up to an entire 100-piece orchestra linked together so any changes that musicians need to make can be done so universally.  Image that your the orchestra librarian (a wholly under appreciated lot of people) and it’s one hour before rehearsal and the conductor comes in and casually says “By the way, I changed all of the violin bowings in the first movement last night, here they are”.  Unfortunately, our music librarian is going to have a bad day since it takes far longer than an hour to copy those types of changes onto each violin part in pencil.  What is usually done is the librarian does as much as they can but then they have to take valuable rehearsal time to announce the changes, wait for the players to write them in themselves, work out the inevitable mistakes and then move on.  It’s a huge waste of time and money with regard to labor.  But now the conductor can make changes on the fly right in the rehearsal by using a stylus, a special pencil for computer screens, to mark in the bowing change and then send it to each violinist simultaneously.
 
And that’s just one among dozens of fantastic capabilities of this product, another wonderful aspect is this technology can actually improve the quality of life for musicians.  Since everything is digital, you can make the notes look larger, adjust the brightness of the display, change the color of notes, and the LCD screens eliminate the glare associated with reading paper music.   And you don’t even need to have the eStand hardware to benefit from the interactive qualities the software has to offer since it will operate on nearly any tablet PC device available today.   I didn’t ask David if it’s available for palm devices yet, but I’m sure they’re working on it.  Within the next generation I think you’ll see devices like eStand becoming commonplace in nearly all music settings; performance, educational, and recreational.
 
The potential for abuse

Is technology a good thing if it takes a job away from a live musician?  That’s a pretty loaded question and you’ll get decidedly different answers depending on which side of that technology debate you talk to.  For this discussion we’ll focus on a new device called the Sinfonia®, developed by Realtime Music Solutions (RMS).  First, let’s learn a little bit about what the Sinfonia device is.  The device is essentially a series of networked computers and sound modules with an alphanumeric, mouse, and midi keyboard interface.  The preprogrammed musical score is reproduced via a “tap” feature that allows the device to follow a conductor’s beat pattern.  Sinfonia has the capability to reproduce the sound of any musical instrument and can be integrated into a group of live musicians or even replicate an entire orchestra if needed.
 
It’s fairly obvious that this instrument has the serious potential to replace live musicians entirely so it’s no surprise that the American Federation of Musician’s have fought hard against the use of the Sinfonia in the U.S.  I had the opportunity to talk on the phone with RMS’s president, Jeff Lazarus about their product and how they see it impacting live musicians.  Jeff’s position is that Sinfonia is a musical instrument and is therefore operated by a musician.  “Three years ago when the instrument was in development we invited several members from the national office of the AFM as well as the presidents of the larger local AFM chapters to talk about Sinfonia and review it’s capabilities” said Jeff.  “Since that meeting, the musician’s union has wanted nothing to do with us or Sinfonia and have fought us every step of the way.”
 
The front lines of this battle are being fought by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents musicians in New York City.  One recent victory for the musician’s union is the ruling by the National Labor Relations Board's New York regional director that the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 acted legally in contracting with the Opera Company of Brooklyn (OCB) to eliminate the Sinfonia "virtual music" system from all OCB performances.  Essentially, this serves as a template for the musician’s union to launch similar campaigns toward Broadway theaters, traveling productions, operas, and ballets. 
 
It’s at this point that we begin to get tangled in the web that is this problem.  The musician’s union argues that greedy producers and arts managers will use Sinfonia to reduce their artistic expenditures.  Let’s face it, musician’s aren’t cheap (and nor should they be) but Sinfonia is.  It costs as little as $300 per week for a small high school production and up to $2,500 per week for a professional production.  Given my experience in this business I’m seeing more and more arts mangers trying to cut artistic costs wherever possible, and they are becoming more audacious about fighting the union. I see it in little doses now; even though the music score calls for using a tuba or an extra flute the ensemble administrators make due by not hiring them on the grounds that they don’t have much of a part anyway, then they wait to see if the union files a complaint. It’s small potatoes now but I’m sure once the managers get used saving money that way they will push it as far as they can go regardless of the artistic consequences.  As technology advances and it becomes more difficult for the average person to hear a significant difference in quality between music performed by live musicians and that which is digitally reproduced this problem will only compound.
 
Currently, this is happening at “less demanding” artistic programs, such as education concerts.  The situation at the Brooklyn Opera is a prime example of the worst case scenario.  The opera company is near broke and they can’t afford anything more than a single piano player for their education concerts.  So instead of a pianist, they decide to rent a Sinfonia.  But where do you draw the line between a situation where it’s Sinfonia or nothing at a non-profit organization compared to music theater productions eliminating live musicians in order to simply increase their profit margin?  Due to the intense antagonist disposition between RMS and the AFM there isn’t a line, it’s all or nothing.  That position has led to unrealistic demands from both sides.  The union wants Sinfonia banned from Broadway, opera and ballet productions.  That’s a bad long-term position since fighting technology is never a wining battle.  It always changes, always improves and always finds a way around any legal restrictions you can place on it.  RMS wants to see the Sinfonia accepted as a musical instrument, but that’s more akin to Pinocchio wishing to be a boy.  It’s not that Sinfonia is a machine, synthesizers are machines but they are made to create sounds that are otherwise not possible by conventional music instruments.  But the Sinfonia is designed to replicate and reproduce sounds from the entire field of traditional musical instruments, that in combination with the fact that the score must be preprogrammed into the computer memory leads me to feel that this is nothing more than a very advanced form of a digital sampling and playback device.
 
A much better solution would involve a compromise where any organization wishing to use the Sinfonia for live productions would need to show due cause why they couldn’t afford to hire live musicians.  Granted, that’s a pretty simplistic solution, but you have to start somewhere.

Just plain ridiculous

Then we have the recent entries in the world of humanoid robotics from Sony and Toyota.  Sony’s little 2’ tall robot named QRIO (pronounced “curio”) recently conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic while Toyota’s robot plays “When You Wish Upon a Star” on a trumpet.  Not only should this be embarrassing for the companies, it’s insulting to musicians and the world of classical music. It’s not offensive along the lines of robots reproducing classical music but more toward how these companies can use classical music as a “defining” attribute of humanity when the world wide consumption and interest in classical music is declining.
 
Members of Laurie Niles’ violinist.com message board recently posted their opinions of Sony’s QRIO and this is what they had to say:
“I always suspected we were replaceable.  Presumably next year the whole orchestra will resemble the [robot] conductor”
 
“The robot doesn’t have enough hair to be a conductor”

“[I just heard] about the recent strike by London’s West End pit musicians, incensed that they’re being laid off in favor of synthesized strings (produced by Sinfonia).  Looks like the replacing has already begun.”

“Somehow the term “violinist.com” becomes bitterly ironic...”

Comments (1)


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Robert Sanders from Long Beach, CA writes:
October 23, 2006
But the Sinfonia is designed to replicate and reproduce sounds from the entire field of traditional musical instruments . . .

“Soylent Green” music. Gotta love it.

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