Several concert halls around the country this season are trying out a kind of conducting video game.
In theory, the "UBS Virtual Maestro" allows you to use a motion-sensitive wii controller in a way roughly analogous to how a conductor uses a baton: move it faster and the orchestra on the 42-inch screen in front of you plays faster, use bigger gestures and the orchestra plays louder, beat a steady rhythm and the orchestra keeps time with you.
The computer programming was done by a team led by Teresa Nakra, who seems ideally suited to the task: she is a violinist and conductor, and teaches music technology and game design at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.
She also runs the non-profit Immersion music, which has an ambitious mission statement:
Immersion Music develops and presents new musical experiences that bridge the gap between traditional forms and new technologies.
We build multimedia enhancements to classical music: live performances, museum exhibits, public installations, and educational laboratories.
Our projects expand and transform the skills of trained musicians and define a new set of possibilities for musical expression in the performing arts of the future.
I haven't had a chance to try it, but reports make the Virtual Maestro sound more like a fun early experiment than something that defines "a new set of possibilities for musical expression in the performing arts of the future."
I was struck by comments from a real maestra who played the Virtual Maestro. The Minnesota Orchestra's Assistant Conductor Sarah Hatsuko Hicks said it was "very un-nerving" to have the orchestra be SO responsive to her movements. That in real life, orchestras have a heavy momentum that doesn't instantly react because you're waving your baton a bit faster.
Still...I don't want to let my inner curmudgeon take over this blog posting...if I stumbled across this in the lobby during intermission, I'm sure my inner conductor would have a blast!
This five-minute video gives you an idea how it works, has some nice footage of folks playing the game, and has interviews with the developers.
The Virtual Maestro will be at Benaroya Hall in Seattle through April 28th, at Severance Hall in Cleveland May 2-26, and at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago June 23-August 18.
Want more info? Chris Newmarker wrote a detailed story for AP. Sean Michaels did a fluffy piece for the Guardian. The Virtual Maestro was in the lobby at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis earlier this season, Minnesota Public Radio's Karl Gehrke did a nice audio story, with some good photos. (Karl's story has those comments from Maestra Hicks.)
None of those stories, however, mention that this idea isn't new. A little browsing turned up a similar project that appears to be from a different set of developers, and appears to have originated earlier. The "Personal Orchestra," or "Virtual Conductor" was developed by a German/Austrian team, and documented in a 2001 story in the New York Times. Unfortunately, most of the links on their home page are dead...so at the moment, I have no follow-up for you on that angle...more to come.