Our Musical Future? “Live” Performances and the “Second Machine Age”

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I love attending concerts, but musicians may think my upcoming words are heresy. I hope technology doesn’t reduce the need for live performers, but the technological future includes many possibilities — more than anyone can imagine. Prepare yourself.

We must start by revisiting the Hartford Wagner Festival, the enterprise of Charles M. Goldstein. He expected to begin a cycle of The Ring of the Nibelung in Connecticut this month. The details leading to its postponement until 2015 can be read on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog, A Ring Without Musicians, or the New York Times.

Mr. Goldstein knew a performance of Wagner’s four opera event would be too costly to stage with a conventional orchestra. According to the New York Times, his monumental effort to create a substitute began in 2005. He started to enter every note of music for the 15 hour epic into musical software, having purchased “access to the Vienna Symphonic Library, a collection of sampled sounds of orchestra instruments (played by real players).” The idea was to create a computerized version of the orchestra out of the orchestral bits. “Singers from the Metropolitan Opera were engaged for the major roles, along with young artists for smaller parts.” Mr. Goldstein collaborated with the musicians to establish tempos. The plan was “to set up 24 speakers to mimic the positions of instruments in (a genuine orchestra) pit.”

Publicity produced a backlash. Singers’ careers were threatened. The inflexibility and sterility of computerized music was attacked and words like “absurd” and “travesty” were written. The Hartford Wagner Festival’s website now lists a 2015 start date.

Is the battle over or is it only beginning? The truth is, the conflict began much earlier. The New York Times covered the story in 2003. Local 802 of the Musician’s Union picketed Broadway shows in response to the threat of fully electronic delivery of what was previously the instrumentalists’ in person artistry. Anthony Tommasini, the critic who described the conflict, thought their argument had some holes. Orchestral and choral amplification with electronic support, synthesized instruments, and body microphones of principal singers were already a staple of the stage, he argued. The Union won, but technology has advanced in the last 11 years.

The Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) is a tool intended to allow the creation of a good, albeit recorded, orchestral performance for the purpose of the user. In the case of Mr. Goldstein’s planned public presentation, input from the singers expected to be on stage, as well as the “conductor,” would determine the interpretation of the composition. Thus, the VSL holds the possibility of something greater than getting actors to lip-sync. Nonetheless, critics believe it does not permit the nuance, spontaneity, and sound of a real orchestra. Moreover, some say, unexpected mishaps on stage during an opera (an early or late entrance by a singer, for example) would be difficult for the conductor to adjust to.

I consulted a couple of musicians familiar with the VSL and its use. How much time might it take to “assemble” a fully realized rendition of a major symphonic work like Debussy’s La Mer? As Mr. Goldstein’s example suggests, they thought the time involved would be far too long to compete with today’s marvelous live instrumentalists (even for a talented, computer savvy conductor familiar with the VSL and musical notation software). You can listen to Andrew Blaney’s version of the second movement of La Mer on the VSL website and judge the quality for yourself. A first-class orchestra typically accomplishes its own magic in a few rehearsals using traditional printed scores. Wouldn’t live musicians therefore be safe?

Not so fast. Once the notes and instruments are “in the machine,” another conductor could come along and tweak the performance to his or her satisfaction. Still, for now at least, a computer-experienced maestro would have to learn how to use the VSL. The time involved in preparing his interpretation would be large even after that.

Does the situation change when we look only at opera and its audience? Might some music lovers be willing to attend an opera of live singers and a digitized orchestra if the price were cheap enough? Perhaps some who live in the provinces would.

Imagine a generous donor purchasing loudspeakers, the computer, musical notation software, and the VSL (one time expenses) for a small community with a decent auditorium, thus enabling staged operas. There exists a plethora of talented young singers and competent conductors of high school, college ensembles, and community orchestras. We are not talking James Levine or Riccardo Muti here, of course.

A digital orchestra reduces costs after the original outlay by our hypothetical donor. Goldstein’s long effort to enter the notes into the software for his “Ring cycle,” once done, needn’t be done again. Of course, he would have to be willing to sell his work product for an affordable price or simply give it away. Alternatively, several small communities could band together to pay whatever price Mr. Goldstein would set, or hire someone to do the job of entering the notes for an agreed upon opera. From that point, it could be widely and cheaply shared among them, as digital music commonly is today.

The cost of such an arrangement would be far less than hiring an orchestra and paying a major conductor tens of thousands of dollars per performance. Still, the result would be both poorer and different, at least until robots and androids are far more developed than they are now; replacements, that is, for some or all of the musicians!

Did I say robots and androids? The latter are robots designed to resemble humans. I’ll get to androids in a moment. Nonetheless, we are already in the world of the “second machine age.” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two MIT professors, elaborate in their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Even Goldstein’s idea of a digital orchestra puts us well beyond the era of steam engines, a prime contributor to the first machine age.

Would an enterprise such as Mr. Goldstein’s have an effect on major opera houses? Much depends upon the audience’s perception of the product. If most opera lovers believe the human beings at the Lyric Opera or the Met are worth the ticket price, as I hope they do, their orchestras have no worries. If, however, a sizeable number of patrons don’t, downward pressure on prices would follow (or at least the portion of the admission fee attributable to the orchestra). Instrumentalists and their salaries may be more vulnerable to the technological changes because they are in the pit, unseen by much of the audience. The human contact between the listeners and the players is more easily realized by the singers and the chorus in an opera house, unlike a concert hall where the ensemble and the podium focus our attention. Nonetheless, I don’t expect the technology we have now puts a superb opera orchestra in danger.

Ah, but the future — a different question altogether. Scientists speculate about something called “the singularity.” The singularity represents the point at which a fully conscious machine with greater than human intelligence is achieved. Coupled with the advanced android capabilities of that time, many of today’s jobs might vanish, perhaps even those of violinists and tuba players. The MIT professors cite evidence of the exponential growth of technology in recent years, predicting acceleration as we go forward. Self-driving cars already exist, as do computers that can beat the best Jeopardy or chess players. Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, made a 2005 prediction placing the singularity somewhere around 2045. Kurzweil is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, won MIT-Lemelson’s half-million dollar prize for innovation, and received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.

If one lets the imagination go wild, the possibility of android orchestras, conductors, or singers is conceivable, regardless of the year they turn up. I didn’t say preferable, particularly since the friendliness of such machines to humans is also an open question. Nor is it clear whether they would be interested in music, in the artistic history of the human race, or in presenting concerts of the works of humans in the formal way it has been done until now.

Assuming they are well disposed to Homo sapiens, however, it might become possible to pour all the recorded performances of the conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, into a capable machine and generate imagined interpretations of pieces for which we have no evidence of his work. A Furtwängler performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis comes to mind. Does this violate Furtwängler’s memory? Were Mahler and Elgar violated, respectively, by completed performing versions of Mahler’s sketches for his Symphony #10 or Anthony Payne’s elaboration of Elgar’s unfinished Symphony #3? And could an android “inspire” human or robotic musicians in the hypnotic fashion of some of the greatest conductors? Would inspiration even be required? Live long enough and perhaps you’ll find out.

IBM is already working on a machine to do something similar for physicians minus the inspiration “to better diagnose what’s wrong with their patients. Instead of volumes and volumes of general knowledge, the supercomputer is being trained to sit on top of all of the world’s high-quality published medical information; match it against patients’ symptoms, medical histories, and test results; and formulate both a diagnosis and a treatment plan. … IBM estimates that it would take a human doctor 160 hours of reading each week just to keep up with relevant new literature,” according to The Second Machine Age authors.

Today we have opera supertitles and a giant in-concert video screen display of the Chicago Symphony in the Ravinia music shed, its summer home. We have digital music at our fingertips and in our earbuds. Robots guided by surgeons work on delicate human body parts. Some operas and orchestras simulcast their work around the world.

Once men thought Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, was silliness.

The MIT authors remind us, never say never.

The Ascent of an Opera Mermaid: Valerie Vinzant


It is one thing to be a talented and beautiful opera mermaid, but how do you get out of the pool of those in training and up to a career on stage? Valerie Vinzant had the courage to talk about this with me. Indeed, she sang on the water in Chicago Opera Theater’s 2013 performances of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a real swimming pool representing the River Styx.

As Eurydice, she was one of the only two musicians, the other being the clarinetist Todd Palmer, who commissioned the 70-minute piece and gave its 2001 premiere. The Orpheus myth is about love, loss, love’s recovery, and Eurydice’s final departure to the Underworld.

In contrast to the clarinet’s Orpheus, the soprano must sing and act the lovers’ story as well as narrate the tale, while moving from a boat to the water’s edge

Eurydice was the most in-depth character I’d ever experienced. I connected with the reality of the character instead of it being just a story; singing about Eurydice as the narrator and singing about myself as the character — commenting on who I was as a person. As the only singer through the entire opera I had to flesh out the story myself. Two other silent actors in the water represented the lovers, but I had to portray a lot of emotions, from happy to deeply devastated.

The Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein said Vinzant stopped “the show with her haunting song, I am Part of Something Now,” a hymn to love in bloom.

Vinzant describes herself as both a coloratura and leggiero (light, lyrical) soprano whose training, especially with Carol Vaness at Indiana University’s graduate program, allowed her to find her true voice:

Regardless of the repertoire you must always sing with your voice: not squeeze your voice into a little role or push too much for a darker sound.

Valerie has made the rounds of many of the finest YAPs (Young Artist Programs) in the country, providing her with various training and performance opportunities, including the Domingo-Thornton at the Los Angeles Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Wolf Trap Opera Studio, Steans Institute at the Chicago Symphony’s Ravinia Festival, Chicago Opera Theater, and the Aspen Music Festival. Her repertoire ranges from the Baroque to the works of Esa-Pekka Salonen, under whose direction she was soloist with the LA Philharmonic in the composer’s Wing on Wing. She also recently portrayed Mabel in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

Valerie Vinzant

From conductor James Conlon at the LA Opera she came to understand some of the things conductors want of singers in addition to vocal beauty and command of their character:

He expected you to know everyone else’s part and never to listen or you are going to fall behind the rest of the ensemble; also, the need for a line of visual and musical contact with a conductor. In actual performances in a full hall you have no time to adjust to the sound of your own voice. He said, “You aren’t going to hear yourself, just be with me.”

Ms. Vinzant now takes more vocal risks than she did when she was a student or in her many YAP residencies. And she speaks with an uncommon combination of self-confidence and humility. No diva is to be found here, but something precious:

I don’t think I’m God’s blessing to opera at all, but I do have a gift, for sure. I now take risks to express more. Part of the difference between being a young artist and having a career is the contrast between someone telling you what to do and knowing, for yourself, what you want to express: exploring more of my voice and the character’s viewpoint, rather than having to be “right” all the time. In a way I’m gentle with the characters, not slapping some preconceived label (like “ingenue”) on them. I pay attention to the character’s journey. I’ve gone from a student mentality to one of an artist.

Risks, of course, come in various forms and Vinzant is one of the fortunate musicians who doesn’t suffer from performance anxiety. Since leaving the YAPs behind in the past two years she has often filled-in at the last moment, as when she sang the role of Agilea in Handel’s Teseo with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque:

They called the Chicago Opera Theater where I’d covered the role the year before and sang once on stage when the lead was ill. The Philharmonia Baroque phoned me two days before the performance and I had to fly to out in two hours. I had little anxiety, I got on the plane, the musicians were fantastic, everyone was at the top of their game, and I fit right in. I loved it! It’s either you do it or you don’t. I never felt pressure.

I don’t let doubts take me over. I’ve learned how to be “present” in the moment. I center myself before going on stage. I breathe and (meditatively) focus on my breath. I don’t have any preconceived notion of what the performance will do for my career, what the composer in the audience will think, or what the critics will think. Then I can fully become the character without judging myself and I sing better.

Valerie is not innocent of the difficulties of her profession at a moment in history when the New York City Opera and Opera Boston recently vanished. Obtaining an agent is among those challenges. One told her she has a wonderful voice, beauty, and presence, but he couldn’t represent her because his roster of sopranos is saturated with her specific voice type. The life of an aspiring opera soloist is like entering a funnel at the top end: few come out at the bottom able to make a musical career. Your odds of becoming a brain surgeon are easy, by comparison.

Undaunted, Valerie is having success, making a living, auditioning, networking, and letting word of her work do the rest. Her reputation in the Baroque repertoire is especially helpful. I mentioned to her the answer Ben Heppner, the now-retiring world-renowned tenor, gave to the question of how long after his training he took to become “Ben Heppner.” His response was reportedly “Ten years.” He and his wife regularly wondered whether he should continue or find another path to pay the bills and raise the children. I asked Ms. Vinzant where her fortitude comes from:

Music is such an essential part of who I am. I enjoy the music so much I get goose bumps rehearsing even in my own room. That is the fuel for me. I know if I get sick 10 people are waiting to jump in, but once I realized I had something unique to offer the competition noise dissipated.  I’m not worried about them taking my roles. If the day comes that I lose joy in performing or preparing a composition or the day music is just a career, then I hope I can let myself accept that… For me it is so deeply ingrained in who I am that it would be like a death if I lost it. If singing became a burden or painful I don’t think I could do it.

Opera is such a difficult career. So many people tell you and warn you that if you can do anything else you should. When I perform I try not to think that this is a big moment because I’m singing at a big opera house and this other gig isn’t because it is with a little symphony. You need to remove your ego. I sing at amazing places, as well as roles at companies that are not in the best of times. I am true to myself when I say that all these elements make a career.

The photos of Valerie Vinzant come courtesy of Ms. Vinzant. The first of these is a backstage picture of her in costume for her role as Papagana in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. For more about her you may wish to visit her website: http://www.valerievinzantsoprano.com/