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Is It Live or Is It Internet2?: Miro Quartet shows how technology may change the future of live performances

The University of Texas at Austin’s Miró Quartet pulled off a stunning digital magic trick on the evening of Sept. 28. Through the wonders of high-speed networks and cutting-edge technologies from the University of Southern California (USC), the College of Fine Arts’ acclaimed faculty string quartet played for 700 people in two places at once.

While an audience watched the performance in one auditorium, another saw the quartet on video and heard its performance—delivered using high-bandwidth Internet2 technologies—in a nearby theater. At intermission, the audiences switched venues to compare the sound of the live event with the recorded version.

The Miro Quartet's performance as seen by attendees in McCullough Theatre

The Miró Quartet’s performance as seen by attendees in McCullough Theatre.

The performance marked the end of the fall 2004 gathering of Internet2 on the campus of the university. Internet2 is a consortium of more than 200 universities committed to bringing about the next generation of the Internet in the same way it was first created—by working on the demands of higher education and research.

Connected via a high-speed network called Abilene, Internet2 member organizations (which also include some government entities and private research groups) are able to collaborate on advances in sciences and communications, using the network for things like video-conferencing, transmission of large data sets, and the sharing of remote resources like telescopes and gene sequencers.

In the future, connections to networks like the ones maintained by Internet2 will likely proliferate and eventually commercialize and grow outward as consumer uses are found for their capabilities—exactly what happened with the Internet’s current incarnation. Experts see high-bandwidth networks being used in the future for everything from remote surgery to remote education to the delivery of video entertainment.

But as Dan Updegrove, vice president for information technology at The University of Texas at Austin, points out, the history of the Internet has been driven largely by attempts to meet the needs of pure research—which is why the university is involved with Internet2.

“Wherever networks are going, the assumption has been in the past that research universities will likely come up with the next application of them,” he says, “whether it be telerobotic surgery or grid computing or streaming arts performances.”

The performance was captured with musician-specific microphones; larger, 'global' microphones; and High-Definition digital video cameras

The performance was captured with musician-specific microphones; larger, “global” microphones; and High-Definition digital video cameras.

Each year since the group was founded in 1996, the 200 members of Internet2 convene on one of the member campuses to talk about the latest developments—and showcase the latest applications—in high-speed networking technology. The gala that ends each gathering is traditionally used as a venue for entertainment delivered in a way made possible by that next-generation technology. At the gathering two years ago at USC, Updegrove sat in an auditorium and watched as a troupe of dancers used advanced networking technology to perform with a group from the east coast—without either leaving their home campus.

Updegrove was impressed.

“To me, it was quite effective,” he says. “It succeeded in being not only a technical tour de force, but also an effective aesthetic experience.”

He went back to Austin thinking that the bar had been set. When the Internet2 group had its fall meeting in Austin in 2004, the university would do something brand new, something to prove that high-speed networks could be used to advance the reach of the performing arts.

“Having seen that performance two years ago,” Updegrove remembers, “we wanted to do something no one had ever done before.”

The result was the Miro’s performance, mid-wifed by a three-way partnership between Updegrove’s office, the College of Fine Arts and a team of USC engineers led by professors Chris Kyriakakis and Tom Holman, who provided the systems and expertise. Using proprietary technologies developed at the Integrated Media Systems Center in the Viterbi School of Engineering, the team recorded the quartet as they performed in Bates Recital Hall, using four-channel High-Definition video (similar to the HDTV standard) and 10.2-channel audio. The recording was then encoded—turned into data—and streamed about 75 yards over the university’s high-bandwidth Internet2 network to McCullough Theatre, where it was reproduced live, over 26 speakers and on four translucent scrims. Half of the audience began the evening in Bate Recital Hall and the other began in McCullough Theatre, and at intermission, they switched venues to get an idea of how the reproduction stacked up with the original.

Images are projected from behind on translucent scrims hanging above speakers hidden by acoustically transparent drapes on stage in McCullough Theatre

Images are projected from behind on translucent scrims hanging above speakers hidden by acoustically transparent drapes on stage in McCullough Theatre.

Though the audience consisted mostly of attendees of the Internet2 gathering, the unique nature of the program attracted some of the university’s top administrators, including President Larry R. Faulkner, Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson and the deans of several colleges. This marked the first time a musical performance had ever been recorded, encoded, streamed and reproduced on-the-fly. Aside from the novelty aspect, the principal attraction of the gala event was that the technology being showcased could have some important implications for the future of the performing arts.

“It’s quite a remarkable experiment,” Updegrove says. “Conceptually it’s a prototype for what could well be done over long distances if it proves itself.”

He points out that since Bass Concert Hall is facing an upcoming two-season maintenance closure at a time when the Long Center for the Performing Arts is unlikely to be completed, Austin will be left without a suitable venue for many fine arts performances.

This technology could alleviate that by making it possible to seat people in an “overflow hall,” where they could watch a high-quality reproduction of the performance—something good enough to pay money for.

And there’s no reason they shouldn’t—the reproduction in McCullough Theatre was literally double what you get in an average movie. The 10.2-channel audio playback is, as the name suggests, twice the 5.1-channels of surround sound that are standard in movie theatres across the country, and as Holman explains, performances recorded in 10.2-channel audio can produce a range of sound much closer to what you get in an actual performance hall.

Bates Recital Hall is converted temporarily to a high-tech recording venue

Bates Recital Hall is converted temporarily to a high-tech recording venue.

“Traditional surround sound is planar,” he explains, moving his hands in a line level with his ears. “You don’t get any ‘up and down.’ But human beings can hear in many more directions.”

Because of that, Holman says, 10.2 audio allows for much more elaborate speaker setups, which, in turn, allow engineers to simulate the sound of hearing a concert in a great hall, which are designed to reflect sound off acoustic surfaces (walls, ceiling, floor) in three dimensions.

So how did the performance go? Jim Kerkhoff, assistant dean for technology in the College of Fine Arts, believes the evening was a success.

“Everyone was getting a third-row experience,” Kerkhoff points out. “Even though you’d be in the room with the musicians, you wouldn’t be able to hear the quartet in Bates the way you did in McCullough without being very close to the stage. In that sense, the reproduction had an advantage over the original.”

The USC team’s efforts to give everyone in McCullough the equivalent of the best seat in Bates, caused some attendees to comment that the surround sound seemed a little loud. There were also some video problems, including some issues with getting one of the cameras to focus properly during the first half of the performance, which Kerkhoff attributes to limitations inherent in the equipment and software, and the fact that the evening’s performance was the first test of a prototype.

An engineer evaluates images of the Miro's soundcheck as they appear on scrims in the College of Fine Arts' McCullough Theatre

An engineer evaluates images of the Miró’s soundcheck as they appear on scrims in the College of Fine Arts’ McCullough Theatre.

“We had to make allowances for doing everything live,” Kerkhoff says. “So there were some issues—the sound was much better than the video because of some lag in the decoding process and the fact that we weren’t able to use the highest-end cameras out there.”

Other than a few comments about volume and the focus problems on one camera, Kerkhoff says, the bulk of audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive. He, Kyriakakis and Holman all see the first live test of the technology as a success and have hopes that it will indeed change the way performances are put on in venues across the country.

“I think overall we pulled it off,” Holman says. “Remember, this is about a new experience of a string quartet.”

Kyriakakis agrees, and says that other schools have talked with him about the possibility of adopting the technologies for use themselves.

“Several schools have shown interest,” he says, “so we hope it’ll catch on. If you’re a music content creator, this is way past what you could do even with filling the house every night.”

If you ask the engineers and administrators who put on the gala event, it’s all just further proof that technology is becoming a larger and larger part of performance. And College of Fine Arts Dean Robert Freeman sees the university leading the way.

“The implications of this technology for the future of music are significant,” he says. “They invite us to think about our discipline in new and creative ways. Few other music schools are incorporating technology in their curricula to the degree that is true here. The nature of touring, teaching, performing and recording will dramatically change in the years ahead, and we need to prepare our students for that future.”

Gala attendees wait for the Miro to "take the stage" in McCullough Theatre

Gala attendees wait for the Miró to “take the stage” in McCullough Theatre.

“It’s definitely something we’re going to pursue,” Kerkhoff agrees. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but all the elements are available—now it’s time for theatre designers, audio designers and so forth to be thinking about how to implement them.”

And as for audiences who get the reproduction instead of the live version, Kerkhoff sees no reason why they should feel short-changed.

“I could imagine people would see this as a second-best option,” he admits. “But I would hope it turns out to be the opposite, and that it would expand the reach of musical groups, because it can be expensive to tour. Every little town’s got a movie house, and in many cases, little towns are where the arts need to be but frequently don’t go, for whatever reason. If you could outfit a movie theatre or a hall with this technology, you could take the performances all over the nation—anywhere the wires go.”

About the Miró Quartet

The Miró Quartet, one of America’s brightest and most exciting young string quartets was appointed Faculty String Quartet at The University of Texas at Austin in 2003. Since winning first prize at the 1998 Banff International String Quartet Competition and the prestigious Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 2000, the Miró Quartet has captivated audiences around the world. Formed in the fall of 1995, the quartet met with immediate success, winning the first prize at the 50th annual Coleman Chamber Music Competition in April 1996, and the following month taking both the first and grand prizes at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. The members of the Miró Quartet are Daniel Ching, violin; Sandy Yamamoto, violin; Joshua Gindele, cello; and John Largess, viola.

Trevor Rosen

Photos: Lesley Nowlin

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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