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Robotic Head ‘Ted’ Upgrades Composer’s Virtual Collaboration With Dallas Symphony 13

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra will debut a new work at this weekend’s concert. In rehearsals, the composer offered suggestions and even made changes while listening from a seat in the audience – all while she was 1,600 miles away. 

Composer Anna Clyne’s work for strings may sound familiar because she borrowed themes from Beethoven’s 8th piano sonata.

The piece called “Stride” premiered in 2020 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Like other newborn pieces, Clyne says this one is not done.

“It’s still evolving. I made a few edits, like the very last notes of the piece are going to come down in dynamics and get very loud toward the end which is the new addition to the piece,” she said. 

In non-COVID times, Clyne might’ve flown to Dallas from her home in New Paltz, New York to give and take feedback in rehearsals. But times haven’t been normal for a year.

So she used the alternative, a mannequin head she Ted – because it rhymes. As the orchestra rehearses, Ted catches the performance from an audience seat in the empty hall. He hears with stereo microphones where his ears are, sees with a 360 degree camera and  livestreams it back to Clyne. Her audio-engineer and Grammy-winning husband, Jody Elff, built an early variation a few years ago.

“I picked up with the work that I had done previously and put together the system that is now Ted, partially with the idea of helping Anna and her ability to attend a rehearsal of an acoustic ensemble in a way that’s an accurate representation of the sound,” he said.

“But also, you know like I thought about years ago, for somebody who maybe lives a thousand miles away from the concert hall but would still love to see the show.”

Clyne said Ted delivers sound with extreme accuracy, head and shoulders above alternatives like Zoom or Skype.

“It’s an amazing tool, obviously, with the pandemic, it’s impossible to be present. So the technology allows me to still have that interaction,” Clyne said. “It’s of such a high fidelity to the audio that I’m able to make quite nuanced feedback with the conductor.”

In this case, the Dallas Symphony’s assistant conductor, Katharina Wincor, welcomed the feedback, though she always prefers it in-person. 

“As much as I can judge it, everything worked really smooth,” Wincor said. “The internet connection must have been really, really great because I think she could hear and see everything she wanted and she could answer the questions. There are some questions about the piece, how to play it from the musician’s side and she gave us some feedback. So it was brilliant.”

Brilliant, just as critics have praised Clyne’s past decade of compositions.

Clyne’s change to her piece – the volume rise at the very end – was made possible thanks to Ted, which allowed her close collaboration with Wincor and the orchestra. [Click on the audio of Bill Zeeble’s story to hear that change.]