Brooklyn Musicians Fight Virtual Orchestras

While the use of synthesizers has become routine in many types of music, they continue to be controversial when used as a replacement for a traditional orchestra. Kiku Enomoto and her six colleagues at the Opera Company of Brooklyn, members of the local musician’ union, refused to play with the OCB last February when it tried to use a virtual orchestra machine during performances of The Marriage of Figaro. Their actions resulted in the first ban on virtual orchestra machines in the world.

Mikael Elsila sat down with Enomoto and asked her about her fight against the use of a virtual orchestra, and standing strong with her colleagues.

Mikael Elsila: What happened the night you were going to play with the Opera Company of Brooklyn with the virtual orchestra machine?

Kiku Enomoto: What happened was, a bass player and I were coming into the theatre, and we saw union members and reps picketing. [802 President] David Lennon and a colleague came up and explained the situation and we listened. We didn’t know what to do. So we heard them out and heard that we were playing with a virtual orchestra machine and it needed to be stopped. Otherwise the future of live musicians would be banished. This struck a chord with me since I am a Las Vegas native.

Mikael Elsila: Could you explain why being a Las Vegas native helped you appreciate this situation better?

Kiku Enomoto: I was raised in the Las Vegas scene, and my teacher was a musician for Wayne Newton. A lot of jazz musicians had come to Vegas to play in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. But when I started playing violin it was 1980. A lot of things were going on; musicians were protesting because Vegas was going to canned music. A lot of the musicians just up and moved to Los Angeles so we lost a lot of our great musicians. And a lot of my teachers and a lot of the people I looked up to. My teacher ended up staying. Wayne Newton was the only one who stayed with his live musicians.

Mikael Elsila: When did you first hear of the virtual orchestra machine?

Kiku Enomoto: I live with an 802 member and he is a jazz musician – I had borrowed Allegro (magazine) from him and I had read about it. And going to a conservatory, you also hear about this kind of thing through the grapevine. I had also heard about the machine from another musician who had to play with it for a Broadway rehearsal [last year], and he said it was so hard to play with not a real harp and not a real flute; trying to tune to that was just insane, he said. But I didn’t know that the OCB was using an actual virtual orchestra machine.

Mikael Elsila: Did you hear the virtual orchestra machine as you were rehearsing with the OCB?

Kiku Enomoto: I definitely knew that I heard something that we were not playing. There were only two violinists in our orchestra, and it sounded like there were 20 or 30 violinists. I knew there was a computer of some kind. The person that was playing it was a pianist. And then a couple of rehearsals into it, I went back there and checked it out. I saw it only had five keys. I got to know how it was run. But still at that time, I didn’t know it was the virtual orchestra machine, the machine I was told to stay away from. But that night when David Lennon and his staff approached us, I realized that what I had seen was the virtual orchestra machine.

Mikael Elsila: What does the virtual orchestra machine sound like?

Kiku Enomoto: It sounds like a tinny orchestra.

Mikael Elsila: Why did you and your colleagues decide to support the union?

Kiku Enomoto: I had a lot of reinforcement from everyone else who was there. We’re all right out of college – most of us went to the same school. If the virtual orchestra machine were to continue, then none of us will be able to take a stand in the future. This is something big that we have a voice in now. We have a voice in what happens to us and our kids in the future.

Mikael Elsila:What would you advise to other musicians who are facing the virtual orchestra machine?

Kiku Enomoto: I know that a lot of the touring shows use synthesizers and even virtual orchestra machines. It’s not a good thing. At least with the synthesizers, there is some talent that goes along with it. I would say, if you do have to play in something with a virtual orchestra machine, it’s not good.

Mikael Elsila: Where do you see the virtual orchestra machine taking music?

Kiku Enomoto: It’s the death to all musicians. Are we playing music for the money or are we doing it to play music with other musicians?

Mikael Elsila: How did it feel when all of the OCB musicians were standing together in solidarity?

Kiku Enomoto: It felt really cool. It felt like, “Wow, this is something where we really do have a say and a voice!” It felt very empowering. I’m glad that in turn it helped the union negotiate more agreements that contain bans on virtual orchestra machines. What I did I couldn’t have done without everyone else being there with me, supporting each other.

Guest Author – Mikael Elsila
Note: This story originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Allegro, the newspaper of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), Local 802.

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