A Classical Musician’s Take on the Synthetic Symphony

A Classical Musician’s Take on the Synthetic Symphony

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This past Christmas, I joined the multitude of Star Wars fans in the theater to see the long awaited addition to the saga. As the bright yellow title flashed across the screen and the famed scrolling text began, I experienced the sensation that can only be described by a cliché: i.e., chills ran down my spine. However, this reaction was not caused by any visual cue. The sound of John Williams’s classic opening title to this film brought back every memory I had of watching the movies.

It’s amazing to think about how much the soundtrack to a particular film or TV show can influence an audience’s emotional reaction to the work as a whole. This is not just true for television. Music has always played a key role in establishing the mood for an audience in any setting. Weddings, parties, funerals, gallery openings – all require some kind of background music to be effective. Music was created from the human soul, and is therefore permanently connected to it.

Symphony orchestras are composed of upwards of 100 performers. The quality of sound and expression that a group as large as this can produce is incredible, and has captivated film audiences for years. Typically, a large part of a film’s budget is designated to hiring a symphony not just to play the score, but for the rehearsal time involved with the composer. Star Wars, for example, hired the London Symphony Orchestra to record the first six movies and composer John Williams to conduct rehearsals and create the score. Needless to say, soundtracks are an expensive part of the film industry.

So what if you’re producing a very low budget film or TV show? How does one produce a soundtrack when you’re lacking the immense budget of a blockbuster such as Star Wars? What if you’re Ennio Morricone scoring a spaghetti western? Morricone’s solution was to employ very limited instrumentation and use lots of sounds that were very simple to create, such as the iconic whistle from The Good the Bad and the Ugly.  However, in the early 2000s a new solution emerged. Hire a synthesizer.

The term “synthesizer” is not always indicative of strange, abstract noises that you hear in science fiction films. In fact, synthesized instruments have become so advanced that someone who doesn’t work in the music industry may not necessarily realize that the sound he/she is listening to is not performed by a real person. These synthesizers are created by recording samples of a live musician and afterwards combining different techniques and sounds to create a realistic sounding virtual instrument. The company “Eastwest” has a line of virtual instruments entitled “Hollywood Strings.” Films such as the first Spirit Stallion of the Cimarron use a virtual orchestra, and the TV show Dexter also has a soundtrack created entirely from virtual instruments.

As a performing artist myself, the idea that technology is becoming so advanced is in many ways terrifying. Although it sounds crazy right now, live musicians could become obsolete in the recording industry within 10 to 15 years. There seems to be a big misconception that being a performing artist consists of playing live for an audience as much as possible, either making it big or living in a box, and putting out albums for sale. The reality is that studio work is a very large source of income for performing artists. Some of the most talented and successful performing artists are completely unknown in popular culture because their work is the background track to some bigger entity. If virtual instruments could fulfill the needs of whatever company is hiring them, many people would be out of work.

However, as much as I could go on about the impending doom of live music, there are many benefits to these virtual instruments. Composers have the opportunity to hear their music played back in high quality without having to hire an orchestra. Having done some experimentation in the composition field myself, I understand that it can be very difficult to conceptualize a piece of music without hearing it performed. The standard form of playback in most compositional programs is midi, which is actually quite grating and inaccurate as far as the representation of the sound. Additionally, the increase in the amount of television shows has produced a greater demand for soundtracks, and having an alternative to hiring a symphony allows many film companies and composers more opportunity to be prolific and creative with their work.

Classical music seems to have the reputation of adhering too closely to archaic traditions. Although it is necessary for the industry to accept change and progress in technology, it is difficult to find a balance between adhering to old traditions and moving forward with a very fast paced world. It will be interesting to follow the progress of the virtual instrument technology and to see how it affects the careers and lives of performing artists in the classical music industry.

by Kat French

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