The Conductor in Real Life
"I was always curious to see how good a musical instrument could be made with technology," says Paul Henry Smith a few days after the Fauxharmonic Orchestra''s premiere performance, "whether it would be expressive, flexible and simple enough to play the repertoire I was in love with. But looking around in the early 1990s, I concluded it wasn't going to happen in my lifetime." Smith is a classically trained cellist, composer and orchestra conductor, with degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Brandeis, and studies in Germany. He has also been a visiting researcher and consultant on musical expert systems at MIT's Media Lab. Like many conductors, he is frustrated by the lack of opportunities in the modern era.
"The music I want to play and the ideas I want to express can't be done unless you have an orchestra," he laments. "My training was to do very meticulous work, really getting into the fine points of performance with lots of rehearsal, and you can't do that, especially in the U.S. Orchestras are having a hard time. I don't necessarily love them as institutions, but as musical instruments they still can't be beat."
Smith decided to leverage a different set of skills and formed an Internet startup in New York City, with the goal of making enough money that he could eventually afford to set up an orchestra of his own. "We did pretty well at the beginning," he recalls, "but when the stock market crashed in 2000, and then with everything else that happened after 9/11, we ran out of funding."
In 2003, however, he found himself intrigued by the just-released Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL). "When I first encountered VSL, I thought it was idiotic to have that brute-force approach," he says, referring to the enormous number of samples that the library contains. "But I didn't realize how fast disks and computers had gotten. Everything was pointing to the fact that I was wrong about how long it was going to take to make really good [virtual] instruments. The rate of improvement was much faster than I thought. So I wanted to be one of the first people to do this well."
Today, Smith's main gig is using Logic Pro, VSL software and other computer tools to perform and record music written by other composers. "They need exposure and recordings to convince ensembles to play their music," he explains, "or to apply for grants or residencies in artists' colonies. Increasingly, to judge the work of a composer, you have to hear it. Reading scores is a lost art; if a composer just sends someone a score, it's ignored. Sometimes I'll even get a piece that's already been recorded by a live ensemble, but the composer isn't happy with it for some reason. So I'll make a recording, which he can then shop around.
"Some composers get VSL and think they can do it themselves, but that can be like a composer who''s writing a piano concerto and decides to buy a piano and learn how to play it," he continues. "It doesn't make sense. People feel differently about digital tools than acoustic instruments; they figure, 'Yeah, I can play that.' But then they realize that they could either spend all their time futzing with it or they could be talking to [film] directors and actually composing. So that's where some of my business comes from.
"When I first started, I thought it would be mostly film and TV, but out in Hollywood, every studio now has 10 people who do what I do. So I get some film work, but it's mostly low- and medium-budget documentaries, or it's something that's almost finished and they're under the gun and they need it done in one or two days."
Despite his post-production work, Smith started the Fauxharmonic project because he hadn't lost his taste for live performance. "There are things you can do in a live situation that you don't have in the studio," he says, "like hearing a sound in a space and responding to it in real time, or waiting for a sound to die out before you go on to the next phrase, or holding down the tempo because each chord needs time to resonate. And having the audience there is important. It's fun to be in a situation where people come together and see what happens.
"In a real orchestra you get a lot of variation; musicians don't play things exactly the same every time. The players roll with the changes, and the audience doesn't even know it's happening, but it creates a kind of tension that the audience can feel. Here I have the tension of 'Will it all work?' And there were glitches, like in the Beethoven. There are several fermatas at the beginning of that movement. Instead of pre-timing them, I tell the sequence to stop and then I press a button to go to the next marker, which is the next phrase. Well, it jumped a couple of markers. And I thought, 'Do I go back and repeat what I missed, or just go ahead?' I decided to play it safe and go on. But Beethoven wrote that part to keep the audience off base—'What's he doing?'—and it certainly did that."