UNL Symphony concert gets technology assist

Assistant professor Damon Thomas Lee (left) and professor Tyler White listen to the harp sound on the Yamaha AvantGrand Piano in Westbrook Music Building.
Assistant professor Damon Thomas Lee (left) and professor Tyler White listen to the harp sound on the Yamaha AvantGrand Piano in Westbrook Music Building.

Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird" premiered in Paris on June 25, 1910. One hundred years later, the UNL Symphony Orchestra will tackle the opulent piece on Oct. 10 with an assist from some 21st century music technology.

The UNL Symphony Orchestra concert is at 3 p.m. Oct. 10 in Kimball Recital Hall. Tickets are $5 general and $3 for students and senior citizens and are available at the door.

The performance is the first in a multi-year series of commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the premieres of the three great early Stravinsky Ballets. The Symphony Orchestra will perform "Petrushka" in 2011 and "Rite of Spring" in 2013.

"The Firebird" ballet is based on the Russian folk tales of the magical glowing bird that is both a blessing and curse to its captor. The original ballet was written for a large orchestra.

"One of the things about these early ballets is not just that their musical language is revolutionary and exceedingly influential for all Western classical music ever since," said Tyler White, professor and director of orchestral activities. "But one of the things that particularly characterizes them is the really extreme opulence of the orchestral technique and the orchestral requirements. One of the sources of that opulence in "The Firebird" is Stravinsky's use in the orchestra of not one, not two, but three harps. Three separate harp parts."

Much of that has to do with the technical requirements of playing the harp.

"That's not just for louder harp sound," White said. "It has to do with how the instrument plays chromatic notes and the rapidity with which the harmony changes. Stravinsky often moves very quickly from one chord to the next while also expecting big swooshes of harp sound. In many cases, there simply is not time for one single harpist to reset the instrument for the change in harmony. But if you divide the music between three players, by the time you cycle through the third player, the first player has enough time to reset the instrument and create a continuous background of harp colors."

But in a university orchestra setting, particularly in these budgetary times, the hiring of three professional harpists is cost-prohibitive.

"What we're in the process of doing is finding a way of using some recently purchased technology within the School of Music to solve some of this problem," White said.

Instead, the university hired one live harpist, alumnus Heidi Beran (B.A. 2005). The other two harp parts will be produced electronically. The School of Music this year purchased a Yamaha AvantGrand Piano, a digital piano that is touch-sensitive.

"It feels like you're playing a Yamaha grand piano," White said. "It sounds extremely close to the sound of a grand piano, and yet of course, it has all kinds of digital inputs."

The piano does not have a harp sound built in, so with assistance from newly hired Assistant Professor of Digital Arts Damon Thomas Lee, who began teaching this fall, they will use a harp sound from a digital library, through software called Logic. Then the pianist, Master of Music piano student Jaime Castellanos, will play the second and third harp parts on the Yamaha AvantGrand piano.

"We have a situation where we need to have a good, clean harp sound playable from the piano keyboard," Lee said. "So we will take the signal from the MIDI grand piano and use it to control a databank of recorded harp sounds. It's going from the instrument to the computer, and then from the computer back to the instrument, and utilizing the instrument's speakers so the sound will actually emanate from the instrument."

White said it was important to have one live harpist for the performance.

"I would be loathe to do this without any real harps there because having the sound of one actual harp can coax the ear into imaging the other harp sound," White said. "I hope there is not a marked contrast in timbre [the quality of a musical note] between the acoustic and digital harp sounds because the tricky thing is rewriting and combining these other two harp parts so that they are playable on the piano."

White is rewriting of the harp parts, taking his cue from Stravinsky himself.

"I'm taking some cues from Stravinsky's own revision, when for the 1919 Firebird Suite, he compressed the original keyboard and harp forces," White said. "Of course, as the composer he has every right to change the color and change the mood and the texture the way he did in the 1919 revision. But looking at some of the techniques he used and some of the ways he combined harp sounds into piano sounds is one of the things I'm taking as a partial model."

White says patrons should not be concerned about digital music replacing the sounds of the university orchestra.

"This is simply a way of using technology to fill in for an extraordinary resource requirement," White said. "It's just highly unusual to have this particular requirement, and it seemed to me that the artistic benefit is of such a substantial nature, that it certainly was worth the extra effort to put the arrangements together in order to perform this magnificent work."

Lee said it's important that technology play only a supporting role.

"I like technology to be invisible. You can get attracted by the various features that it has, how the gear is, how fast it is," he said. "You can lose sight of the fact that technology is only a tool. It's an instrument like any other that requires the kind of touch of human involvement in the procedure of making music. I don't want it to become machine-like and devoid of human spirit."

In addition to "The Firebird," the Oct. 10 program also includes a celebration of the 200th birthday of composer Robert Schumann with his Cello Concert, performed by Associate Professor Karen Becker; and a celebration of the 200th birthday next year of composer Franz Liszt with a performance of his symphonic poem "Orpheus."

School of Music Director John W. Richmond is excited by the creative possibilities that technology is bringing to the School of Music.

"It is so exciting to see the technology initiatives we developed as a part of our strategic plan in the School of Music now taking off in such compelling ways," Richmond said. "The truth is that we've assembled a community of artists, scholars and technologists that will be the envy of all but a very few universities in the country."

For more information on the School of Music, visit http://www.unl.edu/music.

- Kathe Andersen, Fine and Performing Arts

More details at: http://go.unl.edu/ere