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Virtually There

By Charna Westervelt
Photography by Patrick O'Connor

On the opening night of Les Miserables in April 2004, WPI Music Professor Frederick Bianchi sat in the audience of the Queen’s Theatre in London. There, in the city’s West End, he listened. He listened to every beat of every measure of every song that night. He listened for each musical line and phrase, anticipating each instrument’s entrance. And he listened for the nuances— the fermatas, the rubatos, the musical embellishments.

Bianchi, of course, knew them all. He was completely attuned to the orchestration.

That night, his creation—the virtual orchestra (a.k.a. Sinfonia)—was in the orchestra pit. The show signified a milestone in Bianchi’s work, for following the audience’s standing ovation, the show’s internationally renowned producer, Cameron Mackintosh, turned to this WPI professor and said, “A moment in musical theater history has been achieved tonight.”

Now, after nearly 20 years of tweaking and troubleshooting, Bianchi believes that this moment—this international acceptance and recognition—is propelling the virtual orchestra, its concept, and interactive entertainment to the next level. “It’s like writing the Bible and then having it endorsed by the Vatican,” Bianchi says. “This kind of technology is no longer an experiment.”

What started in the mid-’80s as an idea to simulate the sound and behavior of a live orchestra, in real time, using a sophisticated network of computers, is now revolutionizing the way we listen to, compose, and perform music.

“The Sinfonia isn’t just about some music technology people with their heads in computers,” he says. “It’s an inter-disciplinary and diverse activity that requires a broad range of sensibilities.” Patented in 2004 by Bianchi’s New York team, Realtime Music, the Sinfonia has been used in more than 15,000 performances worldwide, including the National Broadway tours of Jekyll & Hyde, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Annie, Ragtime, Titanic, Miss Saigon, The Music Man, Cinderella, Seussical, Oklahoma, and Les Miserables, and the world tour of Porgy & Bess. Last February, Bianchi’s team collaborated with Cirque du Soleil on its new production, KA, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Photo by Tomas Muscionico; costumes by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt; Cirque du Soleil Inc.

“Cirque is the essence of live and real-time performance, beyond anything you would see on Broadway or at Disney,” says Bianchi. “It’s very interactive and nonlinear.”

The Sinfonia, played by a musician alongside other live instruments, fit well for Cirque du Soleil, Bianchi says, because the performance of Cirque’s music is so flexible and unpredictable. The music needs to reflect what’s happening on stage at every moment, even if it’s unplanned. If the actors miss a trick, for example, the music must adjust, without the audience noticing. “It’s very much like a video game. The musicians are all watching to see what happens, how to react, and which way to go,” says Bianchi, who is also a co-founder of the Interactive Media and Game Development program at WPI.

Not only was Cirque du Soleil a good match for Sinfonia, but the show has “pushed the evolution of the instrument as well,” Bianchi says. Over the years, the creative design team at Cirque du Soleil had many requirements for the technology, which went beyond the capabilities that Bianchi and his team had ever imagined. At the same time, Bianchi believes the Sinfonia “is ushering in a completely new wave of interactive performance technology.”

The virtual orchestra concept dates back to 1986, when Bianchi was director of computer music at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music. At that time, a production of the opera Iphigenie en Tauride was scheduled, but, for various reasons, the orchestra was reluctant to play it, he says.

“I stepped forward and said to the director, ‘I think we might be able to put in some type of electronic simulation.’ When I think back to it now, our technological resources were laughable compared to today,” Bianchi says.

Thus, the evolutionary wheels began turning. The philosophy behind the Sinfonia was borne out of the growing trend in which support for the performing arts was—and is—declining in the United States. The rising costs of performing an opera or musical—including hiring a full orchestra—have forced theatre companies to raise ticket prices, or even shut down. At the same time, many composers aren’t writing theatrical music for orchestral instruments anymore, Bianchi says. “What’s out there now are shows that are very loud, spectacular, and high energy. For the audience born after 1945, this has become the logical and accepted aesthetic.”

Following the virtual orchestra’s debut in Cincinnati, Bianchi formed Realtime Music with partners and co-founders David Smith and Jeff Lazarus. In the early 1990s, the Sinfonia was used for the national production of The Wizard of Oz. Those performances led to other engagements, including, in the winter of 1995, the world’s first use of this technology with a major opera company. Those performances were picketed by the unions and landed the virtual orchestra in the international spotlight of controversy.

“From an artistic point of view, the idea was always that the virtual orchestra should be good enough to simulate a real orchestra, but the whole thing started a wave of controversy that continues to this day,” Bianchi says, adding that it is ultimately up to composers and producers to decide how they want to use the technology.

Philosophically, the idea of integrating such technology into orchestras has been a hard one for many musicians to swallow. “Technology has always been a problem in society—especially when it displaces workers,” Bianchi says. “To make matters worse, this is one of the first instances of technology threatening a highly skilled labor pool.” He explained that Sinfonia has been used exclusively to complement and enhance, rather than replace, live musicians. “And the outcome has been a positive one for the industry.”

The technology has certainly struck a nerve with musicians worldwide. Since the early 1990s, when the virtual orchestra became more widely used, unions have vehemently protested the use of this technology in pit orchestras. In March 2003, when Broadway went on strike for four days, producers threatened to replace musicians with the virtual orchestra. And the New York musicians’ union has continued to place the banning of Sinfonia as one of its top priorities.

“When somebody performs the Sinfonia, they need to understand and be aware of almost everything that is going on in the music.”

To Bianchi, the claims against the technology are without merit. “The union likes to reduce its argument to the simplest terms and has thus positioned itself as ‘the humans against the machine.’ But it’s not like that at all,” the professor of music says. “Anyone familiar with the evolution of any technology develops an appreciation and understanding that transcends the moment, and sees beyond the political swagger, myopia, and self-interest of the opposition.”

The evolution of an instrument

As the virtual orchestra became more widely used during the 1990s, its creators received continual feedback from the musicians and composers using it, helping shape and improve the instrument. Over the years, the virtual orchestra has become more compact. It began as a collection of oversized racks and cases in the back of a large truck and has been reduced overall in size and weight. Bianchi expects a laptop version, with the same capabilities as the larger Sinfonia, to be operational in 2006.

The ability to design a laptop version of Sinfonia, Bianchi says, can be attributed to the jump in processor speeds and memory. “Memory and speed are the major liberators in realtime applications,” he says. “In 1986, the basic processor speed was about 10 MHz, so our ideas were really hard to realize.”

In laptop form, the Sinfonia will open itself up to more venues, including amateur productions, Bianchi says. The virtual orchestra could help smaller organizations that don’t have the proper configuration of musicians, instruments, or space. When amateur and professional musicians play alongside Sinfonia, he adds, it helps enhance and support their own musical efforts. He recalls a rehearsal of the national Broadway tour of Titanic in 2001, which used the Sinfonia alongside an ensemble of live musicians. The orchestra sounded great, he says, until Sinfonia sat out for one song. Bianchi immediately heard the difference—instruments went flat and musicians missed rhythms.

The future of music

Bianchi believes Sinfonia will increasingly be used in future musical performances. That said, the instrument would be ill-suited for music that is indigenous to the acoustic tradition. For example, if the BSO performed a Beethoven symphony, there would be no logic or aesthetic motive to use Sinfonia.

But the question is, What will be the ratio of those traditional types of performances to new types of performances in the future? Bianchi says, “If music has always been a delivery system for new cultural ideas, artists aren’t going to continue, or succeed at, creating and expressing themselves with tradi-tional resources. This isn’t a death wish onto music. Rather, I’m optimistic that it will push the boundaries of expression.”

As a corollary, Bianchi expects the future demands of being a musician to increase, not get any easier. “When somebody performs the Sinfonia, they need to understand and be aware of almost everything that is going on in the music. The traditional idea of a symphony orchestra—or a large ensemble composed of single, individual components—is becoming a thing of the past,” he says. “Technology and invention have led us in this new direction.”

“You know,” he adds, “if Mozart had had access to a microphone, amplifier, and speakers, he wouldn’t have used 20 violin players.”

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Last modified: Dec 22, 2005, 11:18 EST
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