Virtually Classic: New World Symphony's cutting edge technology
BY ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ
Herald Staff Writer
''This is weird,'' said Scottish composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. He was about to be ''carried'' from a meeting room at the New World Symphony's Miami Beach headquarters downstairs to the Lincoln Theater, when in fact, he was in Amsterdam.
Turnage was sitting in front of a video camera in Holland, ready to listen to a Miami Beach rehearsal of his Dispelling the Fears, and what was being ''carried'' was his live image, which would play on a giant video screen behind the conductor's podium.
With this move, the New World Symphony just got newer, using the break-through technology of Internet2, a communications sytem that moves data 200,000 times faster than the average modem and 1,000 times faster than broadband.
On Wednesday night, the New World Symphony had experimented with a violin class by a New World fellow via Internet2 with a student in Beijing 8,075 miles away.
Then Thursday morning, New World upped the ante with the rehearsal of Turnage's piece, conducted by Stefan Asbury in Miami Beach. Internet2, which allows high-definition image and CD quality sound, put composer and musicians in the same virtual space.
Mozart, Beethoven and practically all classical composers conducted their own works. Internet2 is a step in restoring the composer's role in our era of globalization.
Before the rehearsal, composer Turnage and conductor Asbury used Internet2 for video conferencing. Asbury was curious about Turnage's use of muted trumpets and if that was a direct reference to Miles Davis (it was), and wanted to know if Turnage approved of how he had placed the trumpets (he did).
However, after Turnage was ''carried'' down to the theater, the composer, now seeing and hearing the orchestra, did ask Asbury to move the trumpets, which indeed sounded like Miles, closer to the front.
Most of the time Turnage was a pensive, Buddah-like figure hovering above the orchestra, asking only for minor adjustments. Asbury did his job, telling instruments to modify their approach. At one point he asked for a sound ''like a tape being played backward'' -- this is a very modern piece.
Michael Tilson Thomas was the visionary who placed New World Symphony at the cutting edge of technology when he began experimenting with the new medium in 2000. The orchestra's new campus will be wired for Internet2, which, unlike the original Internet, is carried by a propietary non-profit network.
The genie in the bottle is Thomas Snook, New World's chief technology officer, the leading authority in this new medium.
''The Beijing connection yesterday [Wednesday] was better,'' Snook said apologetically about some glitches, like echoes, on Thursday. Research was underway to eliminate undesirable echoes, Snook went on, and, to diminish latency, the lag between the sound and its arrival. Not that it's huge. ''With satellite technology, the delay is between 30 seconds and a minute. With Internet2, the delay is 100 milliseconds,'' Snook said.
Will a time come when a conductor can lead an orchestra in virtual space? Or when two musicians miles apart can play together?
''Michael Tilson Thomas conducted an experiment connecting musicians in Miami and New York's Columbia University,'' Snook said. The conductor was far from satisfied. Snook explained that it takes 10 milliseconds for the signal to travel between Miami and New York. ``At the University of Southern California they discovered that if musicians know what the latency is, they can compensate for it.
``In short, the answer to the question is: potentially yes, depending on the music.''