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Thanks to iPods, satellite radio, and peer-to-peer networks, technology has transformed the way we listen to and share music. It has also forever altered how music is performed and played.
Musicians are replacing conventional instruments with high-tech digital alternatives, jamming with fellow artists in other parts of the globe and engaging audiences to become active participants instead of passive listeners.
Here’s a look at the latest cutting-edge musical innovations:
In the key of Mac
Instead of the usual string, brass, woodwind, and percussion sections found in most orchestras, Stanford’s Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) uses MacBooks to create computer-generated sounds. Although laptop performances have been around since the ‘80s in avant-garde European nightclubs, laptop orchestras are a relatively new concept that requires skillful collaboration.
“SLOrk combines technologies such as powerful laptops and new interfaces with traditional social music-making,” says Ge Wang, conductor and assistant professor for Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).
“Computers afford us the ability to make new sounds you wouldn’t hear otherwise and can also make fantastical automations. We hope to transform how music can be made with this new technology,” says Wang. One sound might resemble an electric flute or underwater violin, a gentle breeze or monk-like chanting. “We can do recognizable melodies, chords and harmonies, or at the other end of the spectrum, experiment with crazy computer music by creating new sonic worlds that don’t exist with conventional instruments,” Wang says.
Online and on time
Last spring, SLOrk performed in real time, via the Internet, in front of a live audience at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium, along with musicians from Beijing University more than 6,000 miles away. With the aid of synchronizing software, a discerning ear, and giant video screens, the two groups were able to collaborate on famous pieces, such as Terry Riley’s “In C.”
Another Stanford project, SoundWIRE, allows musicians at separate campus venues to perform together via high-speed connectivity. “The group’s goal is to enable high-quality real-time audio between two or more locations with fairly low latency,” says Wang. “We’re getting to the point where it’s like being in same room at the same time.”
With broadband Internet connections and innovative music software, such as JackTrip, a Linux-based system used for multi-machine real-time jam sessions, SoundWIRE can achieve professional-quality multichannel audio streaming.
Although you might not know his name, his music is most certainly familiar if you’re a gamer. As a video composer for nearly 20 years, Tommy Tallarico, a veteran of more than 250 games, recently embarked on a high-tech -- and highly successful -- world tour.
Video Games Live is a live concert event where music from some of the video game industry’s most beloved franchises is performed by a symphony and choir. Notable soundtracks include those from “Final Fantasy,” “Halo,” “The Legend of Zelda,” and “World of Warcraft.” While traditional instruments are used during performances, everything is synchronized with video, lighting, special effects, and interactivity with the crowd.
With Video Games Live, Tallarico will pick members of the audience to “become” the video game, such as a human “Space Invaders” match. If you are the participant on stage, you move left and right to control the spaceship on the video; the orchestra improvises the game music in real time based on the participant’s actions.
“It’s hard enough to have three or four musicians play together ‘on the fly’ with an audience member, but imagine doing this with 100-plus classically trained musicians on the stage,” says Tallarico. “To accomplish this, we came up with a system to do this: We put sheet music on the page a bit differently, have specific lighting and color cues, hand signals, a click track system, and more.”
Video games have become the radio for the 21st century, says Tallarico. “If Beethoven was alive today, he’d be a video game composer. Some people play video games between 40 and 80 hours a week, so your music will be heard a lot more than in a movie.” Video game music also changes dynamically depending on what the player is doing in the game, says Tallarico.
Jamming at home
Other technologies help you sharpen your skills as an amateur musician.
JamVOX is an integrated monitor and software system that extracts the guitar tracks from virtually any song in MP3 format and lets you play along on your guitar. Alternatively, you can isolate the guitar parts to practice along with the pros -- and even slow down the tempo to keep up without changing the pitch. JamVOX also includes authentic recreations of 19 famous guitar amps and 54 vintage and modern effects to accurately reproduce the sounds of your favorite guitarists.
Richard Wagner wasn’t referring to technology when, in 1849, he coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which means “integrated,” “total,” or “complete artwork.” But indeed, technology is enabling musical performance to become a more interactive, intimate, and engaging experience.
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