In 1954 Edgard Varèse completed 'Déserts' for orchestra and tape. This was one of the first of many pieces combining acoustic and electroacoustic media in an orchestral concert. Tape was the preferred medium for such work, in particular because it enabled the composer to produce a highly edited and precise realisation of the musical ideas. Works for orchestra and tape still abound today, although digital media have gradually superseded magnetic tape.

One major issue when working with tape is synchronisation. Tape runs at a constant speed and the events occur in exactly the same way each time the tape is played. The orchestra, on the other hand, moves at a 'musical' speed and likes to 'breathe'. Various strategies have been used to try to overcome this problem, including variable speed tapes and deliberately un-synchronised material. The advent of digital media, however, has provided more solutions, including timestretching in real time, sequencing individual sound files, and live electronics.

Digital media include broadcasting and entertaiment, film and television, and most other areas of contemporary cultural life. Orchestras today are very familiar with such processes and many movies and TV shows have some kind of orchestral presence, even if oit is only through sampled sounds. Digital media in concert music include images and technical use of such media (e.g. for synchronising offstage musicians with the conductor). Opera and other theatrical performances often involve a large amount of streaming images and projections which are synchronised with the orchestral music. Usually a computer sits at the hub of such activity.

Perhaps the most adventurous use of digital media at the present time is in networked performance. At its 'Miramon in 2001' celebration, for example, the San Sebastian Technology Park (Spain) staged an orchestral concert in which the strings were seated in one auditorium and the rest of the orchestra in a separate auditorium several kilometres away. The sound was mixed separately in both spaces and there was a different audience in both. The conductor was with the strings (the orchestra was the Basque Symphony Orchestra) and synchronisation was achieved using a video link. Delivering a classical concert in this way is unusual, but digital musicians increasingly use networks for live music-making.

The largest network is of course the internet. The use of the internet by orchestras is in its infancy, but explorations such as those conducted by the Philharmonia in their Education and Access programme, are a possible way of drawing in new audiences and offering an orchestral experience to those who are unable to attend concerts.


The Orchestra: A User's Manual is a free resource and will remain so. It still receives between 8,000 and 16,000 unique visits per month from all over the world. See the testimonials. Thanks to all the donations, I have been able to create this responsive re-design. But the movies and sound clips recorded in 2004 do show their age. I would really like to re-record everything and add many more techniques, especially for solo and ensemble writing. I estimate this will cost around £30,000. If you know a source of such funds, please contact me: a.hugill [at] bathspa.ac.uk