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YouTube Symphony

December 2, 2008

For the past few years, composers, conductors and musicians have been exploring the possibilities of the Internet for creating global, collaborative musical events. The virtual universe Second Life has witnessed a number of cyber concert experiments lately. By far the most ambitious of these online orchestral endeavors to date is YouTube's newly announced Online Symphony Orchestra. Launched a couple of days ago, the project, which consists of two components, sounds intriguing, though one half of the endeavor comes across as more interesting than the other to me.

In a article for The New York Times, Daniel Wakin does a good job of distilling the project down into its two essential components:

1. The composer Tan Dun has written a four-minute piece for orchestra. YouTube users are invited to download the individual parts for their instruments from the score, record themselves performing the music, then upload their renditions. After the entrants are judged, a mash-up of all the winning parts will be created for a final YouTube version of the piece.
2. Musicians will upload auditions from a prescribed list -- for trumpeters, for example, an excerpt from the Haydn Concerto -- for judging by a jury that Google says will include musicians from major orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony. Entrants have until Jan. 28 to upload their videos.The panel picks a short list of finalists, and YouTube users, "American Idol"-style, choose the winners, who are flown to Carnegie Hall in April for a concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Google will arrange for visas and pay costs.

I love the idea of the first part of the project -- of musicians from all over the world preparing separate parts of Tan's Internet Symphony No. 1 and coming together in cyberspace to perform following an online selection process. I downloaded the oboe parts (the only orchestral instrument I can claim to play) and had a brief look. Tan's writing is pretty demanding, with complex rhythms and fast repeated notes a feature, so I imagine the process will be fairly self-selecting.

What strikes me as altogether less innovative is the second prong of YouTube's Online Symphony Orchestra. As far as I can tell, it's just another fairly unimaginative chink in the long chain of reality TV-inspired talent contests. The online component feels like an add-on rather than a core component compared to the gimmicky, expensive final showcase performance in New York.

What will be interesting to see from both parts of the project is the extent to which extra-musical factors get taken into account during the audition process. In professional orchestral auditions, selection committees often can't even see the performers play. They're hidden behind screens in order to prevent the committee members from being swayed by biases against such factors as the player's sex or skin color.

But with the YouTube project, players will be fully visible to both the professional judges and YouTube community voters. I wonder if selections will be made as much on a player's musical skills as they are on the qualities of a player's appearance? Let's face it, even the best computer speaker systems can't equal the quality of hearing musicians perform live. So it's inevitable that musicianship will have to share consideration with visual factors. The competition rules state that the entries should not "contain pornographic or sexual content" but that doesn't necessarily preclude an entrant from videoing themselves playing in the nude.

P.S. I've just been sent a link to an interesting article about one schoolgirl's quest to get into the YouTube Symphony. Thanks to Ken Wattana for sending this story.

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