Shulgold: 'Virtual orchestra' breeds real rage from musicians
December 18, 2004
Recorded music has benefited from the digital revolution, with lifelike reproduction possible in a variety of formats.
That's not always a good thing, because professional musicians find themselves competing for work with a device known as Sinfonia.
The introduction of this "virtual orchestra" into opera and Broadway pits has stirred resentment, lawsuits and countersuits. Even the definition of what it is has generated heated debate.
Operated by a player who can control tempos and dynamics as a performance unfolds, Sinfonia is equipped with both musical and computer keyboards, samplers, state-of-the-art computers, monitor screens - oh yes, and a place to rest an old-fashioned music score.
It produces sounds amazingly similar to orchestral voices. But is it an instrument or merely a fancy mechanical substitute? Musicians who claim to be put out of work by the thing sneeringly call it a machine. That reaction is upsetting to Sinfonia's inventors, Realtime Music Solutions (RMS). Jeff Lazarus, CEO of the New York-based company, insists it's a musical instrument.
"You could say that a flute is a machine, because it is a device that must be operated by a person in order to do its job," he reasoned. "But we call flutes - and violins and trombones - musical instruments. It's the same with Sinfonia."
Realtime created it in 1999, along with a smaller device called OrchExtra - and in so doing, created a windstorm of controversy.
"The reality is, they're displacing musicians," said Pete Vriesenga, president of the Denver Musicians Association.
Lazarus counters that Sinfonia is "an enhancement for a pit orchestra," noting that the instrument is operated in real time and in conjunction with a gathering of musicians, led by a conductor.
"We've never claimed that this is the same, as good as or better than an orchestra," he said, responding to resentment to its use by the Opera Company of Brooklyn. "Humans are capable of making an infinite variety of sounds. We're always trying to make Sinfonia better, but we can never replace a live orchestra."
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