Behind the Scenes: The Virtual Orchestra Project

Emmy-nominated, Canadian composer Glen Rhodes hopes to "bring the world together through music" with his groundbreaking Virtual Orchestra Project. Though you may be familiar with similar projects, like the Youtube Orchestra, Glen's Virtual Orchestra is one of the most unique and exciting examples of arts and technology collaborations to date. I recently had the opportunity to interview Glen about the virtual orchestra, and today we will get an exclusive sneak peek behind the scenes of the process.

How exactly does this work?

The Virtual Orchestra begins with musicians across the world.  Musicians play their individual parts of the same piece, follow the same conductor on-screen, record their part, and then submit the finished part.  Then, it's up to me to piece together the audio and visual elements.

The recording takes place in the personal home studio or office of each musician. Orchestra members do not play live with any other instrumentalists. The music for their instruments is available on a main "app" for download as a PDF file. After printing the score, the musician watches a conductor on screen while listening to a computer-generated rendition of the entire piece through headphones (in order to prevent the music from feeding back into the microphone). Once the video is complete, information is entered (in order for musicians to be properly credited), and URL to the YouTube upload is sent to me. That's right - all videos are going to be submitted to YouTube to make intelligent use of their conversion abilities, and bandwidth.

What got you interested in starting this project?

I started this project for three reasons.  One, I genuinely wanted to hear one of my works performed by a real orchestra.  Two, I saw a genuine opportunity, as both a composer and a software developer / author, to accomplish something that had never been done in this form before. There have been virtual concepts; the virtual choir, for example, but I wanted to see an entire orchestra playing my piece, so rather than the soprano, tenor, also and bass of a choir, this would be a piece consisting of 16 or more individual voices.  Third, as a working composer for television, I found it frustrating spending hours trying to "create" an orchestral sound, which is what the shows are all after, without actually having an orchestra. So I thought, "I wonder if this, once established as a 'musical network', could result in music being recorded in a beautiful and authentic way, no fake instruments, but a genuine orchestra. Something people just don't usually have access to.

But, there's another, major side to this that can't be viewed through technical goggles....

I didn’t know why, or perhaps, understand why I started this project until I started getting submissions. It wasn't until I started to hear the small pieces of my humble piece fit into place, and most of all, realized that each one was exactly correct, like pieces of a great puzzle. There have been contributions from Asia to South America and so many other places, yet each come together in a common virtual place.

This is not a piece I have heard performed a thousand times; nor is it a piece the world has heard a thousand times. It’s the first time, and it’s a global union, a project of peace and triumph. As a human I hear so many varied voices, and they’re all speaking the same language of music. As a composer, I am in awe and humbled to bring these pieces together in … perfect harmony.

I believe this project serves a purpose, and we all have yet to see what it will be.  Not because the music is profound, but because the human union is consummate.  It embodies the purity of energy in us all. The candid effort made by each musician is so sincere and contains a lifetime of practice, perfection, pain and satisfaction. I see it in their faces. Some with tears running down their faces as they play, and listen to the guide track.

With the energy put forth in the art, idealism is being created. An idealism of peace through universal connection. As long as the trio of the music, the conductor, and the musicians are balanced then all there can possibly be is harmony and complete anti-conflict.  Perhaps VOP is my voice... my Voice Of Peace.

 The Conductor's View

The Conductor's View

What the conductor saw while looking around. The tripod is the base of the camera. All around the room, scattered pieces of paper indicate where the instruments are seated, so that he can cue and point to them in a spatially accurate manner.

How will people find out about this? Social Media? Traditional Advertising?

People are finding out about it through other people. That's the most amazing part! People are telling other people; who are telling other people - and word of mouth is spreading the message. Instrumentalists who want to play, listeners who want to hear; and simply the interested who want to know, are all taking interest, and spreading the word.  My inbox is inundated. Already, in two weeks, it has surpassed my expectations.  Now I'm just going to let it keep going; and see it play out. See its purpose unfold, so to speak.

What benchmarks will you use to keep track of "successes"?

The benchmarks of successes are changing rapidly. It was initially when the first sheet music was downloaded. Then it was when the messages and friends showed up and then subscribers. The big moment was the first 'submission' - from Taiwan, I heard my Flute 1 played beautifully. And it keeps accellerating from there; it's the bandwagon effect. Once people know that other people are interested, then they become interested. Nobody wanted to be 'first' - but then it happened, and now, it's steady.

So my personal goal was to hear even one single instrument play one single piece of sheet music from the piece; but that's now surpassed. The goal now, I suppose is the 'deadline', currently set at June 1st.  But I may reach an orchestral scope long before then, and then I may just keep going! Let it be the first 500 piece orchestra! It's striking a chord with people somehow.  (No pun intended.)

What have been some challenges along the way?

Initially, it was in the composition, which was composed for sound that computer could do well. Translating that to sheet music presented some challenges. But after consulting with some orchestrator and conductor friends, we found the voicing that split my five horn chords, for example, into a more even spread across the brass spectrum. And that's one example.

Then there was the entire aspect of programming the entire system that would automate the process for me. Assigning numbers to parts (piccolo=1, flute=2, etc.), using international IDs for countries (US, CA, MX, CZ, ZA, etc.); creating the conductor video, which all had to be made before a single aspect of this could be released.

Then, there was a learning process along the way. Originally I thought a simple description, a few posts on Facebook would get the whole thing rolling. I was wrong. People needed to have a reason to listen to me. So I listed some of my credentials (2 time Emmy nominee for music, composer for the Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Oz, etc.).  That increased the interest, but just the general, untargeted interest. I needed musicians.

So I took a two pronged approach.  First, I approached the music departments of almost every major college and university, and asked if they'd spread the word amongst their students. That was mixed, partially because I was missing the third piece of the puzzle ... a visual.  Despite the fact that I could not actually produce a video, I had the computer rendered song, and I had the conductor. So I found as many agreeable photo subjects as I could of instrumentalists, and created the final 'look' (which will definitely not be final, in the end).  But at least then people understood what a virtual orchestra was, how it would look, and, how it might sound.

Armed with the:

  1. Credentials - Here's why you should listen to me.
  2. Example - Here's what it will look like.
  3. Description - Here's what to basically expect the process to be like.

I finally got momentum. It's paradoxical; humans avoid 'effort' - but the more people who've done it, the more likely they are to make the effort.  So, at first I imagine many of the submissions didn't do it because they simply didn't want to go through the effort of setting up the camera, the sheet music, practicing a bit, recording, uploading.. But, as people are beginning to submit, the effort is becoming not so bad, and worth being part of the whole.

And I've had an unexpected help from the numbers of people who simple love the idea. Just the idea alone. Like the old Coke commercial from the 60's, they see the benefit of a world 'playing' together in perfect harmony - and want to be part of that experience. These are not my participants - these are my word-spreaders.

Technology in the Arts thanks Glen for his time and generosity in providing us with such an intriguing interview. Make sure you take a minute to subscribe to the Virtual Orchestra Project's Youtube Channel !