Unconventional Orchestras

by Erin Lambroza

Our recent studies of operas have led us to discuss what an “orchestra” is. In fact, Professor Dolan defined it as “an ensemble that comprises a core group of string instruments, which are doubled along with pairs of wind instruments, and, often timpani and percussion”. We have already seen one kind of unconventional orchestra – the Portsmouth Sinfonia, which allowed musicians to play on instruments that they had never learned how to play before. What if we look at a whole new kind of unconventional orchestra that actually challenges the definition Professor Dolan gave us?

Consider the New York Times’ article, “For Unconventional Music, Build a New Orchestra” by Chloe Veltman (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/us/18bcinstruments.html?_r=0). It highlights how much society’s means of creating music have changed since the dawn of orchestras, and it suggests that a whole new kind of orchestra must be created to accommodate these new methods. Paul Dresher is a composer from California who focuses on creating music with computers. His goal is to use these computers to expand upon the music that traditional instruments can make. For example, people can now compose symphonic music on laptops and various iPhone apps such as “Ocarina”. Musicians like Dresher are using these new technologies to create new instruments and new orchestras. The article also addresses the many flaws that modern-day technologies have when compared to normal instruments. For example, people would rather watch music be created by a symphony of intricately moving instruments rather than listening to it while staring at the back of someone’s laptop. In addition, using a computer as one’s instrument of choice gives the composer less control over the music. The goal of musicians like Dresher is to create new instruments that combine both the technologies of computers and the control of traditional instruments to create new instruments and whole new kind of orchestra.

It makes me slightly uncomfortable that society’s obsession with technology is beginning to shift our perceptions of such old traditions. Why do you think society diverged from this classical notion of an “orchestra”? Can our various new means of creating music, including computers and iPhones, truly create an ensemble that counts as an orchestra?