Peabody's sounds for the millennium; Music: A 'virtual orchestra,' created in Baltimore with sounds from around the world, will usher in the year 2000 for throng at New York's Times Square


You may hear drums beating above the noise of the crowds at the millennial New Year's Eve celebration in New York's Times Square. You may hear bells from Bali, electric violins, trumpets, a "space flute" and an aboriginal didgeridoo.

But you won't see them.

The instruments are part of a computer-generated "virtual orchestra" led by Baltimore conductor Forrest Tobey and developed at Peabody Institute that will perform on New Year's Eve in Times Square at what is being dubbed the "world's biggest party."

As midnight approaches, you'll hear the world premiere of a composition written by Peabody staff member Charles Kim.

The millennial bash, "Times Square 2000, the Global Celebration at the Crossroads of the World," is scheduled to last more than 24 hours at an estimated cost of $7 million.

Organized by the Times Square Business Improvement District and Countdown Entertainment, the event is expected to attract 1.5 million spectators to Times Square and may reach as many as 1 billion television viewers.

"It's a major event, and we wanted to produce something grand. And the use of a virtual orchestra seemed to really fit. We wanted a performance that would show how music has progressed over the years," said Peter Kohlmann, the spectacle's executive producer.

"Man has been playing music for thousands of years, and we are going to have music from all over the world performed," he said. "The virtual orchestra plays sounds that are made with some of the most advanced technology out there."

The party will begin at 6: 30 a.m. -- in time to mark the arrival of the new year in the South Pacific. Revelers in Times Square will be able to watch on huge video screens as New Year's festivities are held in distant lands. Throughout the event, more than 400 dancers, actors and singers will perform and 160 oversized puppets, from "Baby Time" to a Chinese dragon, will stroll through the square.

In the center of it all, on a stage built between Virgin Records with its huge, red-orange neon sign and the Marriott Marquis hotel, Peabody graduate and artist-in-residence Tobey will conduct his virtual orchestra.

Just before midnight, when a 1,070-pound Waterford crystal ball will drop, a composition by 1999 Peabody graduate Kim, "Anthem for the Millennium," will be performed.

Other Marylanders will be part of the festivities. Sound for the New Year's event will be produced by Maryland Sound International Holding Co., a Baltimore-based company that has produced, among other things, sound for last year's Times Square event, the Republican Convention in New Orleans, the Pink Floyd concert in front of Venice's Grand Canal and the current Whitney Houston tour.

"They originally wanted to get someone like Quincy Jones or David Foster to do some music. So they really wanted good talent and they kept thinking, 'Big name. Big name.' And then they saw what Peabody could do," said Robert Goldstein, president of Maryland Sound and a member of Peabody Institute's advisory council. "I think that says a lot."

Who will play Kim's composition and how it will be performed haven't been decided, said Kohlmann. Plans include incorporating into Kim's composition a recording of Peabody faculty member Donald Sutherland playing a pipe organ. The entire piece will be performed by a live orchestra and recorded for the event or will be performed live by Tobey's virtual orchestra.

"The composition is a heroic blend of the old and the new. It is signifying the old millennium moving into the new, and I wanted to evoke sort of a triumphant spirit," said Kim. "I'm still working on it."

The event marks the beginning of the 2000s and the next millennium, though many authorities view New Year's Day 2001 as the beginning of the next millennium.

Tobey's virtual orchestra, a software system developed at Peabody's computer music studios, produces sounds like those of violins and marimbas, East Indian clay pipes and flutes that sound as though they belong in outer space.

When Tobey conducts, he lifts two silver wands and beckons, and, as though from nowhere, music fills the air: the glissando of a harp, the melodic ping of an electric triangle and the weird shuddering of a didgeridoo, a long, bamboo pipe played by Australian Aborigines.

Downward strokes summon music from a marimba. A flourish to the side produces the ringing of bells. Other waves and gestures made with the baton call forth noises that may resemble anything from classical instruments to sounds evocative of hollow logs.

Tobey's batons are part of a Buchla Lightning, a device invented by Don Buchla of Berkeley, Calif. As they move, they direct a beam of infrared light to a computerized receiver. The computer senses the batons' positions and velocity as they move through the air and translates Tobey's conducting gestures into instructions for a synthesizer.

"The music will represent cultures from all over the world: from Bali, the [bell-like] gamelan. From Japan, the [zither-like] koto," said Geoffrey Wright, head of Peabody's computer music department and the artistic director for the Peabody performance.

"One of the questions we struggled with is what represents Western music, because it is a polyglot of styles. One thing that represents the West is technology. And not just any technology, but one that is human. The virtual orchestra is very human."

Precise plans for Tobey's performances have not been worked out, but Tobey hopes to begin with a 3 1/2-minute composition that opens with a "kind of nod to Russian/Near East music, then moves to more celebratory New World music."

In the Peabody computer music studio, the conductor uses synthesizers, four sound modules, a digitally controlled interface and "a bunch of specialty equipment" to invent original, virtual instruments or enhance sounds produced by existing instruments. "For example, I take the basic sounds of the trombone and trumpet and, in a sense, electrify them. I give it an ethnic sound and a little shimmer," Tobey said.

Making music sound as though it is being played by an electric instrument is not his goal. Tobey wants new sounds. "The last thing we want to do is to come up with something that sounds like we just put 14 trombone players out of a job," he said.

Peabody's Computer Music Consort, including Forrest Tobey and his virtual orchestra, will perform at the Maryland Science Center at 7: 30 p.m. Nov. 10. Information: 410-545-2983.

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