Computer-driven 'virtual' orchestra to ring in 2000 at Times Square

November 30, 1999

Times Square's New Year's Eve 1999 celebration will feature the world premiere of an anthem for the millennium by a Peabody Conservatory composer, performed by Peabody students and faculty and by a computer-generated "virtual" orchestra developed at the conservatory.

"Ascent of Time," by Peabody composer Charles Byungkyu Kim, will debut in Times Square in Manhattan in the last minutes of Dec. 31 and be heard around the world through a satellite television feed. Just after that four-minute performance, at 11:59 p.m. EST, a 6-foot, 1,070-pound, Waterford crystal version of Times Square's famous New Year's Eve Ball will begin its descent toward midnight on the 77-foot flagpole atop the One Times Square building.

The heroic sounds of "Ascent of Time" are a blend of old and new. The "old" is represented by a taped performance by Peabody organ professor Donald Sutherland and about 100 students of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. The "new" brings in electronic timbres and textures, produced live at Times Square by another Peabody artist, Lightning virtuoso Forrest Tobey, "conducting" the Virtual Orchestra he developed at the conservatory.

Tobey will stand alone on an elevated stage in Times Square, armed with only a pair of infrared light-emitting wands. Reaching the wands into the open air around him, he will activate and play non-corporeal instruments, combining the gestural expressiveness of a symphony conductor, the exertion of a percussionist and the subtle movement of a Tai Chi practitioner. Tobey treats the Virtual Orchestra software as an instrument that responds to his physical movements, just as if he were playing a violin or a piano. Downward strikes may conjure up a marimba. Flourishes to the side may call forth the sound of a tree of hanging bells. Still other spatial gestures play elaborate melodies on hybrid instruments of breath and electricity.

The location, direction, and speed of the batons through space are tracked by an infrared receiver, translated into data and sent to a computer. The light-emitting batons are part of a unique instrument known as the Lightning, developed by Don Buchla and Associates of Berkeley, Calif. Buchla redesigned his device to withstand the infrared signal saturation of Times Square.

Kim, 27, and Tobey, 44, are double-degree graduates of the Peabody Conservatory, a school of The Johns Hopkins University. Peabody, established in 1857, is America's first music conservatory. Kim also holds a computer science degree from the university's Whiting School of Engineering. Kim and Tobey are artists-in-residence in the Peabody Computer Music Department.

The pre-midnight performance is part of a televised 24-hour celebration, "Times Square 2000, The Global Celebration at the Crossroads of the World." The multi-media celebration, produced by the Times Square Business Improvement District and Countdown Entertainment, begins Friday, Dec. 31, at 6:30 a.m. EST. Starting with the arrival of 2000 in the South Pacific, Times Square will celebrate cultures from around the world as midnight strikes in each time zone.

Tobey's Virtual Orchestra will be heard in Times Square at several points during the 24-hour celebration, performing other compositions and arrangements by Kim. As the first zones to celebrate the New Year include Pacific islands like Fiji, New Guinea and New Zealand, the Virtual Orchestra begins with aborigine-type instruments evoking drums and hollow logs and moves through an ethnic spectrum to Debussy-like sounds of Western classical music. Producers also requested something uniquely American. Kim arranged a Virtual Orchestra version of "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland, whose centenary will be celebrated in 2000.

Enormous technological sophistication and logistical support are required to perform live at Times Square on New Year's Eve, with all the potential hazards of weather, crowds and electronic interference. Making the Virtual Orchestra work on an outdoor stage in an arena of skyscrapers with the necessary split-second timing "is the computer music equivalent," says one member of the Peabody production team, "of Evil Knievel jumping the Snake River Canyon."

The Times Square performances by the Peabody musicians are under the artistic direction of Geoffrey Wright, director of Peabody's Computer Music Department and of its Technology Transfer Office.
Detailed information about Peabody's involvement in Times Square 2000, including background on the artists, is available on-line.

Also available is detailed information on the entire Times Square 2000 event.

Photos are also available; contact Anne Garside (contact information above).

Johns Hopkins University

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