Orkestra Futura goes virtual

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It’s quite a lineup that composer Stefan Smulovitz and bandleader Coat Cooke have assembled for this week’s debut of Orkestra Futura, formerly known as the NOW Orchestra. On the bandstand will be 14 skilled improvisers, including guest vocalist Christine Duncan and the great Seattle-based violist Eyvind Kang. Accomplished as they are, however, for sheer star power they’ll be eclipsed by the four conductors who are assisting the event.

Wielding the baton, as it were, will be new-music legend Pauline Oliveros, whose “deep listening” theories have helped put a feminist spin on the avant-garde; cultural provocateur John Oswald, the inventor of Plunderphonics and a thorn in the side of musical orthodoxy for more than 25 years; the deeply soulful bassist Lisle Ellis, a major force on the international improvising scene; and saxophonist Paul Cram, director of some of the most creative big bands ever to hit the Canadian stage.

Except that they won’t really be there. The occasion is the debut of Smulovitz’s Mad Scientist Machine, which is both a highly conceptual composition and a daring new computer program that essentially allows conductors to run a band by remote control.

If you’re interested in experimental music, this is a must-see event.

Smulovitz, a doctoral student at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, has been interested in the intersection of art and technology all of his working life. He’s both a classically trained violist and an accomplished writer of computer software, and he got the idea for his aptly named Mad Scientist Machine in 2008, while designing a digitally controlled lighting system for choreographer Henry Daniel’s Touched.

“I started exploring what I could do with those lights, and I was also thinking about [the late psychedelic philosopher] Terence McKenna, who had this idea that the octopus, by changing colours, is communicating telepathically,” Smulovitz recalls, on the line from his Roberts Creek home. “I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but the idea that an octopus could communicate with another octopus through colour kind of made me think about how I could use lights to communicate ideas.”

What he’s arrived at, so far, has two parts. Mad Scientist conductors are given a computer interface that allows them to control various musical parameters—speed, density, dynamics, et cetera—in real time, and that also lets them assign specific tasks to any member of the band. At the other end of the digital transmission, the players are seated at custom-made “music stands”, which are actually triangular plinths equipped with light-emitting diodes that glow according to the conductor’s desires. Red, for instance, denotes melody; white signifies long tones; green triggers noise.

“The most important thing, for me, is for the audience to understand that the lights are controlling the players,” Smulovitz stresses. “It’s not a colour organ; it’s not that the lights are responding to the players. It’s the other way around, and that’s an important fact to let the audience in on. I’m going to be doing an intro piece myself, and I hope I’ll be making that very obvious.”

The point, he adds, is to bridge two very different gaps: that between the on-stage performers and their absent conductors, and the one between composition and improvisation. In terms of the latter, Mad Scientist Machine is a necessarily, and deliberately, imprecise undertaking. It’s not intended to deliver a finished score, but to expedite a collaboration in which the conductor controls the general shape of the music while allowing performers to have considerable input into its melodic and timbral content.

“One of the reasons I was interested in this is that I really believe in the Dutch concept of instant composition,” says Smulovitz, referring to the work of such pioneering musicians as Misha Mengelberg and Willem Breuker. He adds that he’s used the system with some SFU music students, with good results. “Individually, they weren’t on the same level as the improvisers I’m going to have with Orkestra Futura, but because there’s structure and form there, you’re able to have music come out.”

And while Mad Scientist Machine was devised with experimental musicians in mind, Smulovitz is already thinking that it might be useful for other creative types.

“Originally, I hadn’t conceived of having other people using the system,” he admits. “But I was using this once and [SFU theatre prof] Don Kugler was there. Now, he loves music, but he’s never conducted an orchestra and never thought about doing it. But he used the system and used it really well. Actually, the players were really surprised”¦.He was thinking about form and structure, but not the way our musical brains have mostly been taught. So if there’s a painter who’s really thinking about form and structure in time and space instead of just visually, or a choreographer, or a dramaturge, or a director, it could be a great system to use to communicate those ideas.”

There is, of course, one possible drawback. “Hopefully, none of the players are colourblind,” says Smulovitz. “But it’s worked out okay in the tests that I’ve done.”

Orkestra Futura debuts Mad Scientist Machine at the Cultch on Saturday (November 28).

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