Decades ago, in the dark ages of the cassette tape, the question was: Is it live or is it Memorex?
In the future, the question might be: Is it live or is it Fauxharmonic?
The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's next program will let audiences hear the premiere of a new work for strings performed both by live musicians and a digitally created ensemble. The wryly named Fauxharmonic Orchestra uses digital versions of musical notes to replicate conventional instruments, a technology that may have applications in the future for bringing nearly real orchestral music to out-of-the-way places.
"It's not a question of 'Can you tell the difference, and what do you like better?' We'd win that," says the BCO's music director Markand Thakar. "People like human beings better. At least we hope so."
Paul Henry Smith, the Boston-based creator and "conductor" of the Fauxharmonic Orchestra, says that "the goal is not to fool anyone, but to see what sort of musical experience can emerge."
Synthesized musical sounds have been around for decades, and digital orchestras are not new. But the technology keeps advancing, and Smith, who has degrees in musicology and composition, has taken full advantage of that.
"By chance, I came across an electronic orchestra at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology]," he says. "It was nowhere near flexible enough to serve as a substitute for a real one. There was too little expressivity in the system. I saw no way around that. I thought that maybe 400 or 500 years from now it would sound like a musical instrument."
But things improved a lot sooner.
A few years ago, Smith invested $10,000 in a product called the Vienna Symphonic Library, which provides millions of digitally sampled sounds made by all the traditional instruments of an orchestra.
"I wanted to see how far I could push it," Smith says. "I wanted to put the technology into a setting where it would be used for aesthetic, not just commercial, purposes."
To do that, Smith draws upon his own musical sensibilities.
"I get the notes and rhythms into the computer," he says, "and then go through each bar of music, each phrase. It takes a lot of tweaking, listening and stepping back. I spend about 80 percent of my time on the musical part, less than 20 percent on the technical part."
Finding the A-flat violin note or D-natural viola note is just the beginning. The notes have to be connected smoothly together..
"One of the most difficult things is a line that crescendos and decrescendos," Smith says. "That energy isn't in those sampled notes. I have to add that. If I'm looking for a cello sound, maybe you can find three, four or six seconds of a cello making a crescendo on a note. But what if you need 3.5 seconds?"
There's a practical reason for all of this effort. "My day job is to produce recordings for composers," Smith says. "It can be difficult to get the attention of a conductor by just sending a score to them."
Composers of means can hire musicians to make a demo recording of a new piece. Others use MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a computer process for generating synthesized sounds.
"When you hear a MIDI realization, you cringe," Thakar says. "What Paul is doing is generations beyond that technology. The degree to which it approximates acoustic instruments is startling."
Matthew Qualye's nine-minute Gridley Paige Road for string ensemble will be premiered at the BCO concert (the rest of the program, which will be performed twice in the Baltimore area and once in Brooklyn, N.Y., is all natural, with works by Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner and Jonathan Leshnoff). Quayle finds the prospect of hearing his music Fauxharmonicized enticing.
"I know composers who have given up writing orchestral pieces because it's so difficult to get performances today," he says. "It could be that this technology will give them more incentive. Having this to send to orchestras could be useful in getting actual performances."
The composer credits Smith's involvement with making this product substantially different from anything like a MIDI version.
"In this case, there's a knowledgeable person overseeing the technology," Quayle says. "I have instructions in my score about particular interpretive ideas that are important to me. I'm looking forward to how [Smith and Thakar] decide to follow them."
Smith says he has "taken what Matthew has written and put sounds together so it sounds like an orchestra playing it."
Other applications of the Fauxharmonic technology involve instrumental and vocal soloists who have engaged Smith so they can have an "orchestra" to perform with. (For a Fauxharmonic recording of a work requiring 15 musicians to 25 musicians, for example, the charge is $10 per measure.)
Smith envisions taking digital versions of Beethoven symphonies into places where orchestras do not, for financial or logistical reasons, perform.
As for the philosophical issue of machines producing sounds ordinarily produced by professional musicians, Quayle sounds a cautious note.
"In the concert music world, I don't see any significant risk of a digital orchestra replacing the need for traditional orchestras," he says. "But definitely it would be more of a concern in the Broadway or Hollywood worlds."
Thakar, likewise, sees the Fauxharmonic as non-threatening.
"But where Paul's digital orchestra will always have us beat is that his performances will never be out of tune and will always be together," he says. "Whether you're talking about our orchestra or the New York Philharmonic, we are human. We play out of tune sometimes; we play not together sometimes."
Smith's role is not just to organize and process those well-tuned, coordinated notes. He gets in the act as conductor, wielding a kind of electronic baton.
"If I stop moving, [the music] will keep playing, but my moving can stop it," he says. There's a fermata [a pause] in Matthew's score, and I'll stop for that."
Although Smith has never worked as a conductor of a human orchestra, he studied conducting with two legendary podium masters, Leonard Bernstein and Sergiu Celibidache, and he will be using easily recognizable gestures.
"This is a very natural feeling for me," Smith says, who makes his "conducting" debut at the BCO concert. "It will be different to have people staring at me. I think I'll face them. It would be incredibly boring without the motions. The audience would see somebody oddly disconnected to what's going on."
The Fauxharmonic's inventor likens his product to "a mushy plastic thing that's in one shape already, but you can bend it, and it will spring back. It feels like a gelatinous thing," he says. "I can make the cellos a little bit louder in real time. And the little podium I stand on is sensitive to my weight. If I lean toward the first violins, they play louder. That's kind of fun."
Of course, there won't actually be a bunch of violinists sitting to his left on the stage. Just space. And sound, emerging from state-of-the-art speakers lent by Bang & Olufsen for the occasion.
Although in-the-moment elements will separate a Fauxharmonic experience from a mere tape playback, that may not persuade people fundamentally opposed to nonacoustic music.
"But the sound entering your mind, the sense of melody, of things being louder and softer - that experience happens whether the sound is coming out of loudspeakers or a live violin," Smith says. "There's a reason 'art' and 'artificiality' are related. Technology is not questioned at all except in classical music, the last bastion against acceptance."
That bastion may be weakened a bit by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's experiment.
"The concert hall is definitely the place to have the comparison," Smith says. "I'm just so happy to have an opportunity to demonstrate it."
IF YOU GO
The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and Fauxharmonic Orchestra will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, 3300 Old Court Road, Pikesville, and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson. Tickets are $25. Call 410-685-4050 or go to thebco.org.