Welcome to the League of American Orchestras, dedicated to advancing the orchestral experience for all.
by Rebecca Winzenried
If there's one standard in the wired world, it's that the standard changes every nanosecond. There you sit, settled comfortably into your own Web-browsing habits, blissfully unaware of a parallel universe known as Internet2 where researchers are hard at work on the newer, faster, next-generation Internet. And here's the exciting part: Orchestras and classical music educators are not only getting into the act, they are helping to push the technological envelope.
Nearly 200 colleges, universities, corporate and affiliate partners, including Miami's New World Symphony, are members of the Internet2 consortium. The group is concentrating on technological advancements that take advantage of the fast-as-lightning connections that are the next step for the Internet, but also on how those technologies might be utilized for education and other purposes. Given that Internet2 connections have thus far been limited to institutions of higher learning, it's a no-brainer that experiments have delved into such areas as remote surgery and earthquake data analysis. It is a pleasant surprise to learn that performing arts have been a primary area of concentration.
"The requirements of participants-high-quality video and audio-are one of the reasons the 'commodity' Internet never took off for the performing arts," says Ann Doyle, Internet2 manager for Arts and Humanities Initiatives, echoing a concern long expressed by orchestras that are still wrestling with how to best deliver music over the public-use Internet (and often wondering whether they should bother). The Arts and Humanities Initiative was organized in late 2000, right on the heels of the first initiative in health sciences, to encourage collaborations among performing arts disciplines and to lend a hand in coordination of events. "These are the kinds of Internet applications that understand that the artist and music come first," says Doyle.
Internet2 Arts and Humanities projects have included a remote barbershop quartet, a dance program involving performers at three locations in the United States and South America, and a musical theater piece with actors and musicians on two stages located 160 miles apart. A virtual celebration for Halloween 2000 featured musicians from the University of Oklahoma School of Music and the New World Symphony, among others, with some onstage at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts at Georgia State University and others at locations in New York, Oklahoma, Florida, and California.
Along with such large-scale events, master classes have demonstrated Internet2 advances over current videoconferencing technology. One master class conducted in early 2001 by the Manhattan School of Music in collaboration with Canada's National Arts Centre had Pinchas Zukerman, stationed in New York City, working with violinist Wu Jie, who was in Ottawa. A virtual conducting master class last October involved the school's Chamber Sinfonia in New York, led by conducting student Donato Cabrera, and New World Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, who was in Miami.
For that virtual class, an audience of conducting students and personnel from the orchestra industry gathered at a Columbia University auditorium. (The Manhattan School of Music does not yet have its own Internet2 connection.) Monitors on either side of the stage and a large screen at the back, behind the orchestra, allowed Cabrera and the audience to see Tilson Thomas. As the orchestra played, the high-definition video transmission captured every expression that flitted across Tilson Thomas's face-every smile, smirk, and rise of the eyebrow. The CD-quality sound gave participants at both ends a sense of the nuances achieved as Tilson Thomas worked the orchestra through portions of the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.
Internet2's latest connection capacity of 10 gigabits per second is almost 200,000 times faster than a dial-up modem. With a delay of approximately 500 milliseconds for the October event, Tilson Thomas was able to demonstrate a more effective way to sharpen the woodwind entry, and to try his hand at conducting it long distance. "It wasn't completely in synch, but it was very close," says Christianne Orto, director of recording and videoconferencing for the Manhattan School of Music.
Internet2 is focusing not just on speed, but on what researchers call "quality of service," or delivery of information without breakups or degraded sound. A few glitches during the approximately hour-long virtual class caused the conductors to repeat questions to each other, but in general the instruction and music flowed freely, particularly in comparison to the jerky, stop-and-go, "live from lslamabad" motion and muffled sound of other videoconference experiences. Conducting students who had attended an in-person workshop with Tilson Thomas earlier in the year commented that there was little difference between the live and long-distance experiences in terms of how Tilson Thomas was able to communicate his message.
Most Internet2 performing arts events to date have been transmitted from the site of origin to a theater setting with a live audience. Demonstrations have deliberately emphasized the idea of interactivity and audience feedback, dispelling notions that master classes or performance over an "improved" Internet will be isolating experiences, viewed by solitary individuals sitting at computer monitors. "It will never, ever totally replace a live performance," says New World Symphony Director of Information Technology Tom Snook, voicing a sentiment that is repeated over and over by those involved in the various Internet2 music events.
Internet2 may actually be a way to supplement live performances, bringing them to audiences who might be unable to attend otherwise, in much the same way that orchestras now use run-out concerts. Except that Internet2 webcasts would allow the orchestra to stay at home. "There are certain situations where you can use the technology to extend who your audience is," says Doyle. "What if you took a performance and streamed it live to an auditorium? The audience still has some sense of a shared experience, which is so important to music."
Equipment costs and the need for knowledgeable technology staff, along with less-than-desirable audio standards, have been key factors keeping orchestras from jumping headfirst into Internet projects. The cost of equipment for an Internet2 webcast can run $20,000 and up, although Shepard points out that the one-time investment can eventually pay for itself as an organization offers more and more long-distance events. He, Orto, and others are working to develop lower-cost equipment that basically uses off-the-shelf components. In a perfect world, a rehearsal space could be set up for Internet2 use, as the New World Symphony has done at Lincoln Theatre, so that equipment could be left in place. Musicians would then be able to come into the room, flip a switch on the video camera, monitors and computer, and get down to playing.
Standardization of equipment will bring prices down eventually as more users gain access to broadband connections. (Internet2 research is expected to continue as a parallel to the regular, public-use Internet, even as the high-speed connections become more universal over the next three or four years.) Corporate Internet2 partners are always on the lookout for products that can be adapted to what they call the commodity Internet.
In the meantime, Doyle is encouraging partnerships with institutions that already have Internet2 connections, such as the Manhattan School of Music has done with Columbia University and the New World Symphony did with Florida International University prior to wiring its own facilities. Internet2 now has member universities in all 50 states and plans to add public schools, libraries, and museums. "It's the old town-and-gown theory, with orchestras working with the local university that has Internet2," says Doyle. "Many community theaters and universities have facilities that are underutilized. They might charge you for use of the facility, but a one-time cost is manageable and it helps the university as well."
She sees the potential for orchestras to better prepare via Internet2 by connecting with conductors or artists who have heavy travel schedules. "You and I would be able to rehearse together before we show up to perform in the same city." Slight transmission delays that take place as information is encoded and decoded at each end of an Internet2 connection currently make it difficult for members of an ensemble to truly rehearse together from different locations. However, a recent Canadian experiment allowed a cellist and violinist to play a duet in 'real time,' with no more adjustment than they would make if sitting a few feet apart on stage. Access to Internet2 connections could allow orchestra personnel to research scores or music students to view archived master classes from institutions like the New World Symphony.
The future may already be here, at least as far as budding musicians are concerned. An entire generation of students has passed through the Manhattan School of Music since it pioneered videoconference teaching and classes in 1995, a result of faculty member Pinchas Zukerman's interest in using the technology to keep connected with students. The school plans to continue with current videoconferencing technology at its Mischa Elman Distance Learning Center, even as it explores Internet2. "The generation of students coming through the door now are taking this very much in stride," says Orto. Where five years ago students were a little hesitant to step up to the camera and microphone for videoconference sessions, they now jump at the chance to engage in long-distance lessons with Zukerman when their violin instructor is traveling. "They want access to him. That's the bottom line."