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Symphony Innovation

New technology allows Houston Symphony's The Planets to align

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A new computer system offers musical freedom for Houston Symphony's live multimedia series. Photo by Joel Luks
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A scene from The Planets. Courtesy of JPL & NASA
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A scene from The Earth. Courtesy of Houston Symphony
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Filmmaker Duncan Copp. Courtesy of Houston Symphony
Andres Orozco-Estrada
Houston Symphony music director designate Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Photo by Werner Kmetitsch
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Andres Orozco-Estrada

Think of the ending of Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. From the bike chase to flying across a full moon to the tearful alien's departure, the pacing is masterful. Is there any question that it's the emotive score of John Williams that carries the emotional thrust?

The flawless flow was achieved in a role reversal of sorts. Instead of Williams having to fit the music to the film, Spielberg asked the composer to conduct from his heart. The rest was achieved in the editing room. Spielberg cut the film clips so that they aligned with the natural progression of the powerful symphonic forces.

Now consider the Houston Symphony's live multimedia series HD Odyssey. Both The Planets and The Earth wed music written for music's sake with images from NASA's space missions, a project helmed by filmmaker Duncan Copp. Gustav Holst's The Planets, John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine and, even more so, Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, breathe on their own, the push and pull of the tempi changing from performance to performance. After all, music is a performing art.

But when coupled with an unchanging stream of images, the music can suffer.

"Almost all film projects require the conductor to line up with the film either through memorizing the film or using various systems to know where the music must be in relationship to the film," Kristin Johnson, Houston Symphony director of operations and productions, tells CultureMap. "While this allows synchronization of music and film, it completely boxes the conductor into recreating someone else's musical ideas." 

 "For the operator, myself this weekend, this essentially becomes editing a film in real time in front of an audience."

You can't rush the Strauss nor hold back in the Adams.

Technology to the rescue

"The Houston Symphony wanted to allow the conductor as much freedom with the music as possible and still have the film line up with the music," she continues. "By approaching the film from this direction, the audience, conductor and orchestra all experience a true collaborative and synergistic performance."

A new computerized system allows how the film moves along in the moment. A behind-the-scenes operator has the ability to cue segments of the film during performances. In a way, the operator becomes another active orchestral player.

"For the operator, myself this weekend, this essentially becomes editing a film in real time in front of an audience," Johnson adds. "You must take into consideration whether the cue should happen at the prescribed placement or wait based on how the two segments of film will transition, if all of the story will be told, and how the future segments of film will be affected — not a job for the faint of heart."

Johnson says that Copp endorsed the innovative approach.

"Duncan Copp believes that the film and the music must work together — not simply be placed one atop the other — even when this means that the finished product may be slightly different from performance to performance."

Leading this week's concert run that includes both projects is music director designate Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who admits he's never worked with music and film. Not to worry, though. The maestro can concentrate on what he does best.

So sit back and enjoy the show. It's a good one.


Houston Symphony presents The Planets and The Earth on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at Jones Hall. Tickets start at $22 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-224-7575.

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