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Virtual Insanity?

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Imagine sitting in a concert hall with a conductor standing in front of a bank of laptop computers, speakers, and video cameras with no visible performers, except their images on the laptops#133; Now, according to the Web site, physorg.com, a computer scientist from the University of Manchester in the U.K., Dr. Barry Cheetham, has developed a “virtual choir” which allows singers in distant locations to perform online together for an audience in a single location. Although this is an admirable experiment, as applied to the field of musical performance, is this something that would be desirable to an audience? And, is it beneficial to the singers?

The technology behind this project is limited, to a degree, by the speed of the computers and Internet connections that are currently available. These, along with other limitations, effect how quickly the singer’s voice can be converted from an analog signal, digitized, transmitted through miles of cables, converted back to an analog signal, and fed through an amplifier and speakers. The individual voices would then need to be merged together in the concert hall to be made to sound like a real chorus. The audio also must be of pristine quality, which adds significant complexity to the task. Additional challenges are for the conductor’s image to be sent to each singer’s computer for all performers to be able to interact in real-time. Even millisecond delays in this entire process would affect the overall recital. As we know from normal concerts, if you have just one or two singers in a group who are behind, the effect can be disastrous.

As an exercise, this idea is certainly a worthy endeavor to test the threshold of current technology, but from the audience perspective, it is difficult to imagine that it would generate the excitement of a traditional live performance. Since the singers’ voices would be audible only through a speaker system, it would certainly lack that ever-present “air” and natural sound quality that only live concerts can generate.

Although this technology may not be ready for prime time, it certainly is helping to challenge current paradigms to allow musicians new ways to expand their horizons. Perhaps, rather than serving as a substitute for live performances, alternative uses could be considered for this emerging tool: helping a lonely singer in North Dakota interact with other vocalists from around the world to learn a new piece of music; singers from distant locations gathering for a “e-sing-in” every week; if a member of a particular choir is traveling, they could appear “virtually” for a rehearsal; or a guest soloist could practice with a group prior to an in-person rehearsal. The possibilities are fascinating…

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