Transnational ensemble coalesces arts and technology


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It's a safe bet Bach never saw this one coming.

Sixty-four musicians positioned all over the world, clacking out one of his chorales on computers and filling the Rashid Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University on Saturday afternoon with the sound of music.

Chirping, beeping, humming, music.

Together, the scattered musicians form the Global Network Orchestra, a performance project spanning 20 time zones. Saturday's concert was part of the Ammerman Center 14th Biennial Arts and Technology Symposium at Connecticut College. The weekend conference convened to consider "the intersection of arts and technology."

Call it the computer concerto. The iPhone overture.

Organizing the transnational ensemble are CMU computer science professor Roger Dannenberg and Tom Neuendorffer, principal engineer at Carnegie Speech.

Mr. Dannenberg calls himself the orchestra's semiconductor, a nod to the project's multidisciplinary approach.

Inside the Rashid Auditorium, a handful of musicians on laptops accompanied drummer Janelle Burdell. Ms. Burdell, who was raised in Pittsburgh and taught at CMU, has performed around the world, including with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.

In a performance that sounded part swelling organ hymn, part other-worldly electronica, musicians Saturday performed classical pieces and improvisations. Mr. Dannenberg composed the opening song, "Prayer for Peace."

A jazz trumpeter himself, Mr. Dannenberg said he loved mathematics and music for years before realizing he could combine them.

Now, he is a "computer music" enthusiast who, like the weekend conference, works to bridge the gap between technology and art.

The program collected the musicians' contributions and broadcast them together. A dozen people were in attendance at CMU and others were able to listen to the performance's livestream.

"It expresses the size of the orchestra and the size of the Earth," he said.

Mr. Neuendorffer, who used mandolin recordings to play Saturday, said it was "an interesting experiment" in the music.

"Everything is an instrument," he said. "In this case, the computers really become just like another instrument."

Weeks before Saturday's performance, players downloaded a computer program to record and upload sounds, ranging from vocals and traditional orchestral instruments to electronic sounds of their own creation.

"It's hard to describe," Mr. Dannenberg said of the end result. "Everyone has their own sound. It's not intended to sound like a symphony orchestra."

Playing live is difficult due to connection delays. Sound can take up to a quarter of a second to travel and be heard by other players. Not bad for the 9,300 miles that separate Malaysia and Pittsburgh or the nearly 2,900 miles from Pittsburgh to Iceland. To compensate, musicians played slow-tempoed music that emphasized tone over precise rhythms.

Players logged on from all over the world, from places as far as Spain, Norway, New Zealand and Pakistan, and as close as Irwin and State College.

"It's been my dream to have a global drum circle," Ms. Burdell said. "It's happening, it can evolve. It's amazing to consider collaborating with people you might never meet."

Before the performance, multiple rehearsal times accommodated as many time zones as possible. Remember, noon in Pittsburgh is 2 a.m. in Japan.

Many in the group are "pretty experienced computer musicians" found through friends of friends and colleagues, Mr. Dannenberg said, but also included musical and computer novices.

Notes and cues scrolled across performers' computer screens much like the video game Guitar Hero, showing musicians the keys to hit.

For an improvised section, performers divided into four groups to create what Mr. Dannenberg calls "textual music," layering a variety of sounds together.

"It's about the concept that people all over the world could perform together," he said. "The potential for community that could come about with all of the different cultures and languages, it's powerful."


Lauren Lindstrom: llindstrom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1964.

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