The Digital Future

Classic Arts Features   The Digital Future
The Philadelphia Orchestra continues its tradition of technological innovation, with its Online Music Store, high-definition video, and real-time workshops via Internet2.

Building on nearly a century of achievements in recordings and broadcasts, The Philadelphia Orchestra has reached a new generation of listeners through a series of critically acclaimed recordings, a newly launched Online Music Store, and national radio broadcasts. Current technology allows listeners to remain connected to today's Philadelphia Orchestra like never before. Within weeks, the concert you hear today in Verizon Hall may be available around the world through the Orchestra's Online Music Store. But even as audiences discover — and rediscover — The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Orchestra itself is looking ahead to the technology that will shape its next century and redefine how orchestras connect with their audiences at home and abroad.

Next Generation Video

You may have a hard time spotting them from your seat in Verizon Hall, but the recent installation of seven high-definition video cameras — a visionary gift from the Joseph and Marie Field Foundation — has put The Philadelphia Orchestra on the cutting edge of video technology and digital media distribution.

These cameras transmit video to a control room at the back of Verizon Hall, where the cameras are controlled by two technicians using a sophisticated system of robotics. With this system in place, the Orchestra can produce high-quality video for a wide range of applications, including the use of live video in the concert hall, traditional or high-definition television broadcasts, the creation of DVDs, Internet streaming and digital video downloads, and pioneering Internet2 applications.

(If you are playing a visual game of "scavenger hunt" in Verizon Hall, here are some hints: There are three cameras hanging from the edge of Tier One, one from Tier Two, and one from Tier Three; the remaining two can be placed in several locations on or near the stage, and are set up only when a concert is being filmed.)

We are in the middle of an important cultural shift in the accessibility and distribution of video. Through Web sites like YouTube and Google, and the launch of video download services on iTunes and similar sites, audiences have an unprecedented range of options for accessing video. Increasingly, portable media players — including iPods and many cellular phones — allow us to download and play video on the go.

With the affordability of digital video cameras and editing software, amateur enthusiasts are able to explore their creativity through self-produced video and share their work with viewers around the world over the Internet. Budding filmmakers are no longer constrained by mediocre formats and poor image quality; stunning, high-definition video is becoming increasingly widespread and accessible. High-bandwidth Internet connections in homes and inexpensive video technology are making the creation and distribution of video more and more accessible. In short, video is playing an increasingly important role in our lives.

In addition to sharing the visual experience of a Philadelphia Orchestra concert with audiences around the world, the robotic cameras in Verizon Hall will be used to enhance the live concert experience itself. Coupled with projection equipment and screens suspended above the stage, the camera system allows the Orchestra to create live video in the concert hall, adding excitement to special event concerts, enhancing the educational experience of Family and School concerts, and deepening the musical exploration of the Access Concert series.

Internet2: High performance network technology

The robotic camera system in Verizon Hall is also integrated with Internet2 technology, connecting Philadelphia's cultural hub, the Kimmel Center, into a global network reserved for high-bandwidth research and educational applications. (Think of it as a second Internet infrastructure, one that is capable of very high-speed transmissions, and is free of the traffic and congestion generated on the "commodity" Internet by home users, online stores, commercial music and video download sites, etc.) With this technology and connectivity, the Orchestra will be able to stream its concerts and other programs to classrooms and concert halls around the world.

This past November, The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted its first experiment with Internet2 technology, in partnership with the New World Symphony and MAGPI (an acronym for Mid-Atlantic GigaPoP in Philadelphia for Internet2, operated by the University of Pennsylvania). Orchestra Music Animateur Thomas Cabaniss taught a workshop on audience engagement techniques with a quartet of bass players from the New World Symphony. Cabaniss was in Philadelphia on the University of Pennsylvania campus, and the bass players were on the campus of the New World Symphony in Miami. With the Internet2 connection eliminating the time and expense of travel, Cabaniss was able to invite two musicians from the Orchestra to join him in the workshop, horn player Adam Unsworth — himself a New World Symphony alumnus — and Assistant Principal Bass Neil Courtney.

As the Orchestra's first experiment with this technology, the workshop was done on a small scale, demonstrating the flexibility and portability of the current technology. In Miami, musicians from the New World Symphony were able to watch — and participate in — the workshop while they ate lunch in the lobby of their concert hall. Internet2 technology, however, is capable of many simultaneous connections. The technology could quite easily allow Philadelphia Orchestra musicians to conduct master classes with young musicians at multiple sites around the country — or around the world. Such an event would take advantage of one of the greatest strengths of Internet2 technology: its capacity to host fully interactive events that take place live, in real time, over great distances, with very little delay between connection points. Internet2 technology is capable of creating a remarkably natural feeling of presence, as the video screen and microphones seem to disappear and people interact quite naturally as if in the same room.

Building a global online community

The Philadelphia Orchestra's experience with Internet2 and advanced video technologies will put the Orchestra at the forefront of innovations that will eventually reach home Internet users as high performance network connections become more widely available.

Building on The Philadelphia Orchestra's long history of electronic media "firsts" and experimental use of new technology, The Philadelphia Orchestra became the first major orchestra to launch its own online music store, on the opening day of the 2006-07 season. Still in its early days, the Philadelphia Orchestra Online Music Store is already reaching listeners around the world, from more than 78 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Its catalogue is growing steadily through the addition of new recordings from the Orchestra's archives and live concert recordings from the current season. The store also offers the Orchestra's recent commercial recording releases as well as physical CDs and downloads.

As the Orchestra's Internet presence develops, its Online Music Store will be an important part of a growing online community, made up of Orchestra listeners around the world. Future enhancements to the Orchestra's Internet site will offer opportunities for interaction among users, educational and enrichment opportunities for people of all ages, and forums for interaction with Orchestra musicians and guest artists. It will be a platform for video distribution, and a showcase for the Orchestra's experimental use of new technologies. The online community will play an important role in nurturing lifelong relationships between The Philadelphia Orchestra and its audiences at home and around the world, complementing — but never replacing — the live concert experience of this world-class ensemble.

"The technical aspects of music, radio, and recording ... are important to the degree in which they serve music — they must always be secondary to the higher aspects of the art." These words, written by former Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Leopold Stokowski in his 1943 book entitled Music for All of Us, still ring true today, although they come from a time when FM radio was "an important new development" and "television instruments" were still "slow in becoming available" and "not easily made by mass production."

Stokowski himself saw the global potential of electronic media distribution and passionately engaged with emerging technologies. Indeed, he set The Philadelphia Orchestra on a lasting path of leadership and innovation in electronic media. He wrote, "Today, through radio and records, music has come directly into our homes no matter how far we may live from cultural centers. This is as it should be, because music speaks to every man, woman, and child — high or low, rich or poor, happy or despairing — who is sensitive to its deep and powerful message." It is this, the individual experience — or the millions of individual experiences happening all around the world — that musical applications of new technology ultimately must serve. Surely, all who have been moved by such a musical experience share in Stokowski's wish, that "many who otherwise might not hear such music will come in contact with it, and through this experience, it may become an inspiration in their lives."

Christopher Amos is director of electronic media for The Philadelphia Orchestra.

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