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Optical/IP

The (Broad)Band Plays On

A 23-musician ensemble gets to literally phone it in on Sunday, as Telekom Austria AG (NYSE: TKA; Vienna: TKA) and Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) present a five-hour "virtual orchestra" performance to show off the potential of broadband.

The musicians will play in separate apartments around Vienna from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on May 16, with the sounds sent live via DSL to Vienna's Ronacher theater. There, Austrian composer Rupert Huber (no known relation to David) will mix the individual instruments to create the performance. Results will be Webcast at www.private-exile.net.

A symphony might seem less of a pressure situation than virtual surgery (see the Light Reading interview with Pradeep Sindhu, Juniper Networks), but it does require a precision in timing that's hardly guaranteed in VOIP or videoconferencing. And, of course, the connections have to stay up, lest the performance become a rip-off of John Cage's 4' 33".

That's why previous virtual-symphony projects haven't been real-time, says Paul Lehrman, a music lecturer at Tufts University. "People do one instrument at a time and mix it," he says.

The project's Website claims "Private Exile" will be in real time, but the musicians won't all perform at once. They are scheduled in overlapping shifts, creating a series of fluctuating ensembles during the five hours. The program doesn't indicate whether Huber's mixing will be strictly real-time, or whether snippets of, say, the 3:00 hour will be inserted into later segments of the performance. (Neither Alcatel nor Telekom Austria could be reached by press time.)

Classical composers have long sought ways to meld music and technology. In 1924, the player piano inspired George Antheil to write Ballet Mecanique, a piece for 16 automated pianos plus xylophones, airplane propellers, and an air siren, among other instruments.

Because the pianos had to be synched up, "Ballet Mecanique" proved unplayable in its original form until just a few years ago, when Lehrman, a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) expert, dusted it off for a 1999 world premiere. The result combined live musicians and a live conductor with computer-triggered instruments.

If computers are fair game for the symphony hall, broadband might not be far behind. But even with perfect connections and infallible quality of service (QOS), it would be tough for a virtual symphony to play traditional pieces, Lehrman says. "Einstein was not wrong. You can't exceed the speed of light," he says. "If [the delay] is more than a few milliseconds, that's more than musicians can deal with."

Even if the delay is eliminated somehow, the musicians would be handicapped. "They need to be able to interact with each other, not just with the conductor, or the music comes out very sterile and disjointed," he says.

It's certainly possible for composers to create works intended for broadband performance, but that's a bit "anti-social" for Lehrman's taste. "There are enough problems with kids sitting in their basements with laptops, churning out music without collaborating with anyone else. That's weird enough."

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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