Mahler, Chopin, Clara Schumann, Elgar. Could any of them have ignored Twitter? Would they have used it to simply sell more tickets or perhaps as a tool for inspiration?
I ignored signing up for Twitter for a couple of years. It had a reputation of people Tweeting they were ‘drinking a cup of coffee’, ‘I’m on the bus’, ‘the dog’s in the garden’ and other such life shattering events.
Then I needed to find out if there were any classical orchestras using Twitter, so I joined up. I quickly discovered the classical music world had more than a beach head on the social network site, they were all over the platform. I read about an idea which was being passed around by Alexis Del Palazzo (flute), Erica Sipes (piano) and Kim Hickey (flute) which suggested someone was looking to form a symphony orchestra on Twitter. I Tweeted the source behind such a stimulating idea; an American composer, Chip Michael.
Chip lives in Orange County, California. I asked him what had sparked the idea?
“I posted an article on my blog “New Music Looking for an Orchestra” and some of my twitter friends started talking (with me involved). If I was looking for an orchestra, why didn’t I just start one of my own, through my Twitter friends. So, I started the Twitter account @TwtrSymphony and got the ball rolling”.
How many musicians did he think would apply?
“Initially, I was hoping to get a mid sized ensemble, something around 20-30 players”.
Chip set about assembling his orchestra by composing a few short audition pieces for musicians who had shown an interest in joining. He was open to all music grades though the audition pieces were aimed to discover the professional level players.
“I recorded a “midi sample” instrument playing the part over a wood block recording the beat. That way the musicians not only had a click to follow, but actually had a sample of what the music was supposed to sound like. The more accurate they could get with playing along with the midi, the better the final recording would be. It may not be a skill many players are use to, but it’s a skill I think they should learn moving forward, as these kinds of virtual ensembles are going to be more and more popular”
More than three hundred musicians enquired about joining @TwtrSymphony and 147 musicians requested an audition. They came from all over the world: USA, Japan, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Australia, Austria and the UK.
I interviewed five of the musicians from Chip Michael’s newly formed orchestra: Kim Hickey (flute), Craig Stratton (violin). Michael Ormond (clarinet, composer), Susanne Hehenberger (violin) and Alison Wrenn (cello, composer). How did the classical players cope with a click track dropping into their e-mail boxes and the recording process which awaited them?
Kim Hickey (flute) lives north of New Orleans.
“It’s not easy but not outrageously difficult ….. but then when you get into it and are playing with a click track you are pulling your hair out ….”
Susanne Hehenberger (violin) – Salzburg, Austria.
“The first moment I saw it, I thought it was quite difficult. There were a few difficulties for me to change quickly between arco and pizzicato. I had played once before with a click track….though I am used to practicing with a metronome, so to play to the click track was easy.
Craig Stratton (violin) – Buckinghamshire, England.
“The quartet I play in do a lot of recordings using a click track. When you are playing to backing tracks you often need a click track … So, it wasn’t an alien thing for me, it wasn’t a problem”.
Michael Ormond (Clarinet) – Cincinnati, Ohio.
“For me the click track was easy to play with. That probably came from all of my marching bands and drum corp experience, Dr Beat blaring over a loud speaker. So, that wasn’t a new concept for me. A metronome is something very different usually just giving the downbeats versus the sub divisions and I think that is something people aren’t use to”.
Alison Wrenn (cello) – Bedfordshire, England.
“Apart from the technical issue of an impossible change from arco to pizzicato (in the space of a semiquaver without a rest) it was a challenge to count and did seem perhaps unnecessarily rhythmically complex, but I understand that it was designed to be difficult to establish the the best players”.
How did the musicians adapt to the audition process of having to record themselves?
“I had difficulty with recording because I am new to all this technical stuff. I’ve always had someone to record for me. Then we found out there were some technical issues with the click track. I recorded my audition piece on my phone; used an old microphone then played around with all sorts of configurations to get the sound right. All those involved are going to have to learn a new skill set; compression and dynamics. So there will be a great learning curve”.
“I think a lot of musicians were having problems finding the right programme or even the right equipment to produce the quality of sound that they wanted for their own personal taste”.
“It was fine. The University of Surrey run a very good sound recording degree, so I got the opportunity to do some recording sessions while I was there”.
“Being completely computer illiterate …. I decided to go to a friend of mine …. He’s got a shed in his back garden with a microphone and a desk. I recorded there.”
When the musicians had managed to get their recordings to their own satisfaction how did they get them to Chip?
“They sent their files to me via DropBox. This is an easy way to share one folder with a large group of people and allows them to have access.
However this being an online project there were bound to be a few gremlins along the way.
“One of the technical problems is the way different pieces of hardware/software deal with recorded media. The bit rate and speed (Mhz) a track is done is processed different by the various hardware/software platforms – and not consistently.
If you create something on one platform and then play it back on another, it is possible the other platform will play it at a different speed. This is what happened with several auditions. Several musicians had taken my recording file, converted it to use on their platform, put it into a portable device for playback and it played at a different rate than what I’d originally intended. In the end, every audition that made it to the judging was in sync as far as the original click track was concerned.
Some of the recordings were extremely accurate and required no real adjustment other than making sure the first note lined up. Other recordings took a bit more care. Still, the overall quality of the recordings was much higher than I expected”.
Who judged the audition tapes?
“I compared the audition with the original midi recording in terms of timing and pitch. The tracks were then ranked according to which ones require the least amount of work to get to match perfectly. Then the set of auditions for a single instrument were put into a single file, played one after another with a slight pause. This single file was then listened to by a panel of local professionals (paid a small stipend for their time) who ranked each track”.
What did the musicians think of Chip’s grand projet?
“I think it’s brilliant, it was just a couple of weeks ago that Chip was talking about finding an orchestra to play his piano concerto. Alexis Palazzo and I said ‘well if You Tube can have a symphony orchestra why can’t Twitter?”
“It brings musicians together from all over the world. Maybe some of us will meet one day. It has given me the chance to know musicians I would never have had any contact with before Twtrsymphony”.
“I think it is an incredible and innovative opportunity for musicians to collaborate and perform. I have been able to connect with some of the finest musicians in the world who are going to be participating”.
“When I first read about it on Twitter I was a little bit reluctant to join; then I thought, ‘why not?’ It’s a great way of connecting with other musicians. Also a good opportunity to experiment with the technology.
Chip Michael seems to be very driven and dedicated to the project, so I’m sure it will go from strength to strength. Though it will be a lot of work for the person editing all the parts together to ensure a high standard is achieved and maintained”.
What will be the duration of your first piece?
“We’re not looking at just one piece, but a series of pieces. If you think about a ‘beat’ in terms of time, 140 beats at one beat per second, and that’s pretty slow music, the piece would last just over a couple of minutes. So, most of these pieces are going to be between one to two minutes in length — enough to give an idea, a theme, a concept, but not really long developed music”.
Do the musicians feel it would be possible to play a longer piece, something around forty minutes in duration, using the same approach?
“Playing from a distance with no conductor would be a challenge. Eventually we want to meet up and play together but to start out it ‘s going to be long distance, sending in a recording. I’m not saying it’s going to be the next stage in classical music or that is how all orchestras are going to play; you have to have the human element. I don’t think it could be done with a click track. I also think Chip would be pulling his hair out if he had to put together eighty tracks of forty minutes duration”.
“In theory it would work though it’s not going to be the same as an whole orchestra playing in the Festival Hall. The job of the conductor is to feed the expression to the orchestra. If the musicians were sitting on their own, recording each individual part thousand of miles from each other, we’re not all going to do the same expression”.
“I don’t see why not. In fact any bars rest could just be skipped and players could record passages in separate takes, or over several days. Though it would take a lot of editing for the person assembling all the individual recordings”.
Twitter now seems to have found it’s feet. It has a relevance far beyond what the creators could have imagined. Would Beethoven had been on Twitter? I think so.
Clara Schumann would have been able to promote her own music and not have to rely on others and Gustav Mahler’s disagreement with Tchaikovsky about who would conduct ‘Onegin’ at the first German performance could have been settled with a Tweet (Mahler won that battle). ***
“I think Beethoven would be on Twitter. Musicians who aren’t using Twitter now are missing a great opportunity to connect with fans and other musicians. TwtrSymphony is all about connecting musicians and getting that connection out to an audience. Twitter is the perfect vehicle for that. I hope this changes the way we think about collaborating within classical music, it opens the field to numerous opportunities for musicians and gets music out to the public. They want classical music, but aren’t always interested in going to the concert hall.
Where does Chip’s idea develop from here?
“Actually, the next few pieces will use the full range of the orchestra. We are TwtrSymphony, not a chamber ensemble. Other groups have done remote sessions with chamber works. What we want to do is go beyond the chamber sound to the full orchestra. There are many more musicians who, even though auditions are done (for now), want to participate – at the rate of 10-15 more per day. Eventually, TwtrSymphony may become a hub for collaborating musicians. It may spawn other groups or just be the example other’s use to know “how it’s done”. We’ve only been around for four weeks and there is a lot more potential than we’ve begun to tap. We are headed in the right direction. But doing it right will take time! Now I’m in the process of writing the first piece. A number of musicians turned in their auditions a few weeks ago and they’re chomping at the bit to play more, so I need to get something to them”.
At sometime in the future would Chip like his TwtrSymphony to give a public performance?
“Sure that’s a dream. We’ve already been approached for funding, which is insane. So, the idea of getting these musicians together for a live performance is definitely something to think about in the future. Many of the musicians have already put in a lot of time and effort. It would be nice if it paid off for them by rewarding them with a live performance”.
Ron Taylor, 2012
All music copyright: Chip Michael / TwrSymphony ~ 2012
Downloads possible but not for commercial use. All rights reserved 2012
*** Maria Kraus Weiner – ‘Erinnerungen an Gustav Mahler’ Teplitzer Zeitung, 30th., May 1911 –
“Mahler – a documentary study’ – page 193 – Thames and Hudson – 1976