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Music Down A Wire

July 24, 2007

When the telephone was first invented, its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, thought that his invention would mainly be used by people to listen to concerts. The phone, of course, went on to take on a very different role, though the first public stereo transmission over telephone lines was of a concert in Philadelphia to an audience in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 1933.

Scientists continue to be fascinated by the ways in which technology might facilitate the making and transmission of music. One news item that has caught my attention over the last few days comes from Manchester University, where Dr Barry Cheetham, a senior lecturer in The School of Computer Science, is seeking to combine his academic expertise in communications, networks and digital signal processing with his love of choral singing.

He wants to create a choir consisting of people from all over Europe who will rehearse and perform together via the Internet. But to make this possible, according to a University-published article, he will have to address the limitations of existing communications networks.

New 'ultra broadband' networks will be needed, capable of delivering sound and images with far less delay than services like Internet telephony and video conferencing currently achieve. If there is too much delay, the 'real time' interactive experience of singing in a choir will not be achieved. The voices travelling down the wires will need to be processed and digitised quickly to achieve the required high sound quality. The voices will also need to be accurately merged to give the impression all the singers are together in one concert hall. Other challenges include discovering how a conductor can control and rehearse a choir made up of people in different locations and how singers can be made to feel as if they are interacting with fellow performers.

In principal, I think this is a great idea. It'll bring people together from extremely diverse backgrounds. It will enable people who can't physically get to rehearsals (e.g. because of a disability) to sing in a choir.

On the other hand, part of the power of performing in a choir or hearing a choir perform stems from the energy that the group creates together in a physical space. The quality of a performance depends a great deal on this factor -- how the singers interact with each other physically, how the audience responds. You can't simulate this kind of stuff with the Internet.

Still, I'm excited by Dr. Cheetham's project. My initial impulse is that I'd like to be involved. I wonder if he'd consider including people based in the U.S.? I mean, if we're talking about the Internet, then why restrict choir membership to Europe?


  • As a recent newcomer to you and your blog, I am intrigued by your insatiable thirst to constantly (consistantly?) communicate so much information.

    I am also not completely surprized by the lack of responses to your musings for you cut one vast swath of an aptitude for myriad things. The prospect of answering your brilliant brain explosions is a little intimidating, for I think, and I can only speak for myself, you not only state your facts and opinions succinctly but you use, what seems to me to be, a keen eye on a proper grammar. I imagine people want to respond but just don't have all the facts down, or fear they may stumble on their own words and be unable to step up and address The Queen as she requires. I ramble. I love my head.

    Yet, I do not fear you. I just wanted to make the above proclamation so you realize, and forgive me, my shortcomings as I attempt to respond to the beauty of your word with my crass, albiet equally passionate, possibly mispelled and inadvertently inaccurate dribble. Done.

    I was in a large church just outside of Penkem England last summer, about this time, where a famous choral group was putting on a concert based on a well-known composer's work. My girlfriend and I were given the cheap tickets by her parents. I figured we would be way back but would still be able to hear the natural sound of the singers fill the ancient nooks and cranies as we squinted our eyes to try and focus on the performers and guess who was sleeping with whom.

    Well, much to my chagrin, our cheap tickets relagated us to watching and listening to the performance on a flat-screen television through speakers behind the tomb of some great warrior. The warrior thing was cool, but I would rather have barely heard the music in its natural state, from our banished position, than have it electronically altered before it got to us. And seeing those flat-screen televisions in church seemed...well, it was just wrong. I found myself mocking the entire event in its absurd blasphemy.

    I know this doesn't directly address your blog, and its suggesstion of bringing people from all over the world together, which is a worthy gesture, but it just made me think about my experience at that church last summer and how I felt seperated from an event I was actually, not virtually, at. I was at once there and alienated from my experience.

    Which brings me to my final thought: Maybe the world is becoming "flat" but let's not flatten out our opportunities for real, round and around, experiences in whatever back yard we are actually in. Do you know what I mean?

    Just thinking...

    Mr. Stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At July 24, 2007 at 12:33 PM  

  • Mr Stick
    Thanks for your anecdote. The musical experience you attended in that church last Summer sounds appaling. I would have asked for my money back. I'm not surprised you felt alienated -- what's the point of being in a venue if you're hearing the music filtered through speakers and watching the performers on TV? You might as well have stayed at home and watched it all on telly.
    I think your comments touch on a vital point about the effect of mediation on a communal experience.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At July 24, 2007 at 1:35 PM  

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