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The Orchestra In His Head

By Gary Wien

originally published: 02/26/2007
Classic rock and roll stations love to say that it doesn't have to be old to be classic. Walt Ribeiro's new CD is certainly proof of that.

Ribeiro, born and raised in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, recently released his first CD ("I.I") of original classical music. The idea of new classical music might be confusing enough, but the story just keeps getting better. It turns out that Ribeiro is only 23 years old (hardly the age range you'd expect for a classical record) and the 80-piece orchestra which performed his work exists only in his computer!

He was playing in a rock and roll band when he first started writing for the piano and then for a string quartet. From there, things just kept getting bigger and bigger. He began writing for a big band of 18-20 pieces and wanted to keep growing. He experimented with writing for a 50-piece orchestra and that's when he discovered the full orchestra. Once he reached that level, he didn't want to turn back. The only problem was he didn't have an orchestra to perform the work.

"I had the option of running around the circuit for 4 or 5 years or maybe more and waiting to get my music performed," explained Riberio. "And even then at that point it might be just for a rehearsal or a reading. I said there has to be another way to get my music out there and get it heard. I needed to somehow get a product in my hand so other people could enjoy what I see on paper and that's when the idea of samples hit. It's never really been done before, but could it work?"

He couldn't find anyone who had used samples for a project like this, so he knew he was on his own. One of the most difficult things was simply mastering the computer software used to recreate the sounds. Ribeiro learned so much that he believes his next CD will sound even better.

The process of getting his music from paper to the record involved engraving his handwritten scores into Sibelius 4, inputting them into MOTU's Digital Performer 5.0, and then sampling them using East West Quantum Leap Gold XP. This was all done with a Dual 2 ghz Powermac G5 with 2.5 G of ram.

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Believe it or not, but that actually sounds easier than it really was. Once the handwritten scores were digitally in the computer and inputted into the sampler, he had to buy the actual prerecorded sound of each instrument. And then comes the really tricky part - he had to attach each sound to every simple note throughout the score to make it sound like a real, living, breathing orchestra. It's a bit like putting a puzzle together piece by piece. And even when the pieces appear to fit, something might be wrong.

"When you think about how instruments sound, what makes it sound like a human is playing it rather than a computer is that computers are perfect and humans are imperfect," he explained. "If I was to sing a melody for you, no matter how good my ear training is it's still not in perfect pitch. We as humans are accustomed to hearing things imperfectly and that, to us, is perfect. When two trumpets play together they never play the same note exactly the same. Even when they hold the note out it's never a perfect wave, it's always fluxuating. In order to create that realism you need that flaw - that human quality or human element - that we're used to but don't ever think about."

"I.I" consists of 7 orchestral, 2 piano, and 3 string quartet pieces - a powerful score by a 22 year old composer that fuses beautiful melodies with crushing roars. When asked of his decision to not have all orchestral pieces "It would have been ineffective. You need peaks and valleys. It makes the pianos whisper, and the fortissimos roar. I just wanted to keep it simple, powerful, and sounding natural. I felt in an orchestral setting that volume automation or compression would have killed the realism of the instruments. Acoustically, there's certain information being created when an attack is strengthened or weakened - anyone will tell you that dynamics make the piece come alive."

Ribeiro isn't sure whether or not his CD is actually classical music or something entirely different, but he does know who its primarily audience is and that's younger people. He thinks that with the fact that he's in his early twenties and the technology behind the work it makes sense to target a younger audience. He's also very aware that classical music purists might have a difficult time categorizing his CD as classical music.

His ultimate goal is to have a full orchestra perform his scores someday, but finding an orchestra that takes on new work is an extremely difficult task. In the meantime, he's putting together his own band to take a stab at performing the score live in a very raw, different way. He plans on having a band that consists of each section of the orchestra. It might consist of Ribeiro on guitar playing the rhythm stuff and a drummer, string player, flutist, and a trumpet player. Ribeiro would just hand over the parts and they'd run through them. He really wants this music to not only be heard but experienced and that means seeing it performed live.

"I think when orchestras go out of business or complain that they're not selling tickets, I think the answer is that we need new music," said Ribeiro.

He brings up an interesting point when he compares the way modern music is marketed versus the classical music field. Rock bands have to play an active role in bringing people to their shows while orchestras are traditionally performing the work of artists long since passed away. The introduction of new works by living artists might bring new audiences to the venues.

"The most rewarding thing would not necessarily be for my CD to be successful, but to somehow show orchestras that this is what needs to be done," he adds. "That we need new music. If somehow I can affect someone who has the power to get new music performed and get them to realize that we need new music and that it could work - that would be the biggest reward to me."

You can purchase a copy of I.I at iTunes, CD Baby, Awarestore.com, and Rhapsody.com.

Even if you're not a fan of classical music you should take a listen to Ribeiro's album. You can hear the entire disc on his website. This is a vibrant piece of new music, it's not something better suited in a museum; It wasn't written by someone who died hundreds of years ago, it's the music of today and it's from a guy from Jersey. What better reason to listen?

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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