President’s Report: Perpetrator Turns Into “Victim”

Virtual Orchestra Machine Files Unfair Labor Charge

Volume CIV, No. 4April, 2004

David Lennon

Did you ever think you’d see the day when a machine designed to eliminate live music, and ultimately jobs, would try to pass itself off as the injured party? Well, my friends, that day has arrived. On March 4, approximately one month after the union reached agreement with the Opera Company of Brooklyn (“OCB”) requiring the use of live musicians in all future productions, virtual orchestra machine maker RealTime Music Solutions filed a complaint against both Local 802 and the OCB with the National Labor Relations Board. As preposterous as that may sound, the machine maker claims that the union and the OCB are trying to put it out of business!

With a name like RealTime Music Solutions, one has to wonder what problem they are claiming to solve. Is the problem live music? If there is any doubt as to the purpose(s) of the machine, here is a little history. This is what RealTime Music Solutions founders Dr. David Smith and Dr. Fred Bianchi had to say on their web site after the machine’s first trial run four years ago at New York Technical College. “Each speaker reproduces a single instrument to produce music that replicates the sound of a live performer;” “unlike pre-recorded accompaniment, small changes in tempo, pitch or volume can be easily effected…;” “the panels recreate string instrument sounds with heretofore unachievable accuracy without using a live orchestra;” “virtual orchestra technology can also supplement a small group of musicians, creating an illusion of a much larger orchestra;” and touting such benefits as its ability to “produce musicals and operas with the sound quality of a large orchestra.” (Emphasis added.)

RealTime’s next move was to arm Broadway producers with the virtual orchestra machine to threaten the replacement of live Broadway orchestras. The makers of this machine and those who would utilize it have shown us their ultimate goal and true intentions — the replacement of live musicians. Last year, the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds prevented them from doing so, in an historic demonstration of solidarity during the Broadway musicians’ strike.

As I said in last month’s column, that strike was not the end of the struggle over the use of the virtual orchestra machine, it was just the beginning.

Presently, our brothers and sisters in London are fighting to keep music live in the face of Cameron Mackintosh’s determination to eliminate live musicians from the pit of “Les Miserables.”

The latest attempt to gain acceptance of this machine in a live performance venue is happening Off Broadway. The show is “The Joys of Sex,” slated to begin previews on April 9 and open on May 12 at the Variety Arts Theatre (110 Third Avenue). Not only is this Off Broadway venue a heartbeat away from Broadway, but Ben Sprecher — who is the show’s producer and the owner of the Variety Arts Theatre — is a Broadway producer with direct business ties to the Shubert Organization’s Gerald Schoenfeld.

Although this show utilized three musicians in two pre-productions, first at a reading and later at the New York International Fringe Festival, the producer came to the first negotiating session with the union claiming a need to add the virtual orchestra machine to the ensemble of three musicians because of the larger venue size of the Variety Arts Theatre. He wanted a bigger sound to accommodate a larger theatre. When he realized the obvious solution to that problem would be to add more musicians, he switched his story. In the next round of talks he described the machine as an “instrument” in its own right. The composer had “composed” for the virtual orchestra machine, he said. That’s about as valid as claiming to have composed for a tape recorder, and about as ridiculous. Remember their admissions to “replicate the sound of a live performer.”

We must understand what is really going on here, who is behind it and what is at stake. It is all part of an interconnected scheme to ultimately replace live music on Broadway and elsewhere, with a machine. The producers’ attempts to turn this machine into just another musical instrument or even just another synthesizer is nothing more than a ploy to gain its introduction and ultimate acceptance into the live performance arena.

This latest attempt on Off Broadway is a way of trying to do indirectly what they were unable to do directly on Broadway last year. Mr. Sprecher is merely their sacrificial lamb. Apparently they did not learn their lesson from critics, audiences and theatrical professionals, who last year condemned their attempts to cheapen and dumb down live theatre. We must refresh their recollection.

The quality of the musical and theatrical performances here in New York has made our city the world’s most popular destination for live music. We must recognize this impending threat to live music if New York is to remain the live music capital of the world. It is unthinkable to consider live musical theatre without live music. That is why Local 802 will continue to aggressively fight the displacement of live musicians by the virtual orchestra machine.

The cliché is that in the industrial world “technology always wins.” But art is not industry! And New York is not Peoria! “Live” is the operative word in “Live Musical Theatre.” And even in the world of industry and machines, technology only wins when it improves the process or the quality of the product. The virtual orchestra machine improves nothing. It is a machine. It is not a musical instrument. It is not played by a musician. It is a machine designed to eliminate live music and cheapen the art form. Producers hope the ticket-paying audience will be fooled, in their belief that patrons won’t notice what’s missing from live theatre. The live part. Shame on them for trying. Shame on us if we let them succeed.