Mothership, YouTube, & Our New Century

After all the buildup, Mothership lifted off in Australia last month — with 1.8 million people watching.

The piece, commissioned by Michael Tilson Thomas and the YouTube Symphony, imagines the mothership parked in Sydney, an orchestra of musicians from all over the world. Various soloists from continents far and wide periodically ‘dock’ with the mothership, improvising on the work’s thematic material over action-packed electro-acoustic orchestral figuration. Simultaneously, projected onto the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House was beautiful digital imagery, a surrealist journey through outer space.

All these moving parts meant there was a lot to go wrong in a performance that was broadcast live on YouTube.

Thankfully, everything was as close to perfect as I could ever imagine it: the orchestra grooved right in sync with the high-octane beats, the soloists tore through their solo passages with great flair, and the digital projections synced up perfectly to the performance. Ensconced in the percussions section, pounding out the techno on my electronic drumpad throughout, I remember looking up at Michael at the moment when the orchestra locks in for the last time — and grinning like a mad hatter.

So, what can the orchestral establishment learn from a mega-produced endeavor like the YouTube Symphony? A lot.

Most importantly, the great orchestras of the 21st Century will embrace technology as a powerful means of communicating. Program books, for example, could be stunningly enhanced by cinematographic program notes projected around the hall between pieces. Not surprisingly, the two places where I’ve seen this — the San Francisco and New World Symphonies — are run by Michael, the reigning king of digital outreach. But it is a format we have also been experimenting with on the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW concerts, a new-music series I curate with composer Anna Clyne. Theatrical lighting, fluid transitions, and projected program information create an immersive experience far more engaging than sitting in a bright hall flipping through an immense program book.

Beyond projecting information, technology can also extend an orchestra’s reach. Imagine for a moment that an American orchestra was web-casting excerpts from its subscription series onto YouTube. Whichever orchestra does this first will reap huge rewards. Web-casting a concert will turn on legions of new fans without cannibalizing the concert experience itself: after all, watching Bruckner on a laptop is just a taste, not a replacement for the real acoustic experience. Anyone anywhere will be able to check out what’s happening at the symphony that week, including critics and bloggers, and that magnifies the reach of the orchestra far beyond the walls of the concert hall.

And finally, the YouTube Symphony can teach the orchestral establishment that digital culture can greatly benefit even a historically unplugged artform. Seamlessly incorporating electronic sounds into the orchestra is no easy task, musically or logistically, but it is certainly no harder than, say, integrating an offstage instrument or an organ.

In fact, in my own music, I have reached a place where the electronic component presents very little challenge in rehearsals and performance. Dozens of performances of my electro-acoustic works happen without me, and it is merely a matter of downloading a specially-designed, easy-to-operate piece of software that a percussionist uses to trigger the sounds. Just set up two speakers and a few onstage monitors, and voila: suddenly one is able to travel to outer space (The B-Sides, using clips of NASA space recordings); to the Deep South in the heat of summer (Rusty Air in Carolina, using field recordings of insects); or to the inner core of the Earth (Music From Underground Spaces, incorporating earthquake recordings).

Orchestras provide a much-needed respite from the hyperactive, plugged-in pace of today’s world. We are constantly surrounded by digital culture, so it is wonderful to enjoy the acoustic warmth of the symphonic experience. But that doesn’t mean orchestras have to keep the 21st Century at arm’s length all the time. If handled carefully and substantively, a bit updating could do the symphonic world a lot of good.