Recently, a full orchestra performed the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with a twist: While normally these musicians might put in weeks of practice, this time they showed up to the concert hall with no idea what they would be asked to play.
The sheet music was printed out on various Canon imageCLASS printers based on pre-programmed coded timing and the musicians had to play it as it printed. Check it out if you missed it — it was pretty cool. Eager to learn more, I spoke with the masterminds behind the event, conductor Eric Hachikian and Lelah Cafuoco, a senior technical engineer at Canon.
Tony Carnevale: How did you recruit the musicians for this?
Eric Hachikian, conductor: We got some of the top players in New York together, members of many of the top orchestras in the city, and we assembled the group for this “pickup orchestra” to do this surprise performance.
TC: Was it really a surprise to them?
EH: I, as the conductor, knew what was going to happen, but the musicians really had no clue. They knew they were showing up for a wild surprise, but that was all they were told. They were told to bring their instruments and that the music wouldn’t be ahead of their playability. They were all very concerned — “Oh no, am I not going to see the music?” So they were just told, don’t worry about it, you’ll definitely be able to play this. Other than that, they were just told to come. When they showed up and the music really wasn’t there on the stand waiting for them, everyone was a little anxious about what was about to happen.
TC: How did you make sure the printing was going to be timed out perfectly?
EH: There’s sort of a base tempo marking. You count out the seconds against how fast the tempo is and you time at what point in the music a certain measure will appear. Once we figured out where everything was falling, we passed on all the information to Canon, and they made their magic happen, and all I did was tell them, “Hey, page two needs to start printing at 20 seconds.”
Lelah Cafuoco, senior technical engineer: [Prior to the musicians’ arrival, we] had to play around a little bit with the timing,* because we used two different models of machines, and some of those had different warm-up times—so in order to get all 19 printers to start on the same exact note, there was a little trial and error. It was very interesting. Once it was working, it was amazing.
TC: What types of programming technologies did you need for this performance?
LC: You have to learn Visual Basic, because you have to write scripts that will talk to each printer at certain times so that each one prints pages for the right orchestra members at the right time.
TC: You already knew Visual Basic, right?
LC: You mean, like, in college, years ago? I don’t ever use Basic at all, no.
TC: So you had to learn it for this project!
TC: Did anything go awry on the day of the performance?
EH: I don’t think so, to be honest. It went much more smoothly than I anticipated. I was anticipating the timing not being accurate—that, despite my planning ahead, once we had real people and real printers, this wouldn’t actually work. But it worked.
TC: What did the musicians say to you afterwards?
EH: They all thought it was fun. I don’t think they get to do this every day, and the idea that this is possible is pretty cool.
LC: A lot of them wanted the printers. They were like, “Can I take this home?”
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
*Pre-programming and configuration created specifically for this experience. Printers connected to same ethernet network via one 24-port switch. Print speeds may vary depending on job and paper settings. Typical warm-up time is seven (7) seconds or less.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer for Studio@Gizmodo.