It is hard to escape technology these days, even when you spend your waking hours striving to perfect an art form whose many masterpieces were conceived hundreds of years ago. For me, technology in the practice room can be very distracting, especially when a successful freelancing career depends on answering your texts and emails almost as soon as they arrive. I, like many, am living proof of the Pavlovian conditioning that leaves one unable to retain focus at the sound of a bell (or “Note” for those of you with iProducts). Steven Winn, in the American Orchestra Forum’s third podcast, says “No conversation about music – about any art form, for that matter – gets very far these days without addressing the impact, potential and pitfalls of technology. From high- definition broadcasts of live performances, to an audience tuned in to Facebook, Twitter and other social media, classical music must find its place in an increasingly digital community.” Starting with a metronome app that replaces your beloved, though bulky, timekeeper, our cell phones become a part of what defines us, what entertains us, and what might also be keeping us from experiencing our own lives to the fullest.
Technology isn’t all bad, and to petition its exclusion from the arts would be detrimental in many ways. My experience with live performance was limited to Suzuki recitals and the occasional field trip to see the Hudson Valley Philharmonic at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie, and had I not watched Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street, listened to WMHT-FM in the car, or watched Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on Sunday mornings, I might not have heard much classical music at all. In high school, I loved sitting on the grass at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center late in the summer listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra and watching the cameraman zoom in on principal players during the performance so I could see them on the big screens, and listening to the great violinists of the 20th century perform masterworks through my home speaker system is a luxury I couldn’t soon live without.
Modern recording technology and live broadcasts aside, YouTube may play the single most important role in introducing people all over the world to music. Whether you’re a student preparing for your lesson, a teacher offering guided listening, a professional performer studying orchestral excerpts, a conductor observing your colleagues’ techniques, or a parent sharing their child’s performance with family and friends, YouTube offers an unparalleled wealth of audio-visual resources. In 2009, YouTube and several worldwide partners broke ground by offering the performing arts a new approach to the orchestral audition experience with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Young musicians around the world uploaded audition videos, and an orchestra was selected from applicants after a popular vote. Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras described his experience to the American Orchestra Forum:
“One of the things that I loved about the YouTube concert was not the concert itself, but all of the run-up to it. And I used to be a bass trombone player, and so I watched all the bass trombone auditions, and I voted on my favorite bass trombone players. And so you had a sense of having a stake in the outcome of this event. It was a very active one, and for me, as a former player, it was very exciting. I don’t know whether my vote was determinative, but I felt like I had some stake in the game. So I think that piece, where you get to participate beforehand in some meaningful kind of way, makes the concert itself a more important, more significant, event. And I think that’s the challenge, or one of the challenges, around technology in our field, is to figure out how to make these connections.”
The “run-up” to a classical music performance, be it orchestral, chamber, or operatic, is slowly being overlooked and even lost despite the age of information we live in. Rarely does one make dinner reservations without consulting Yelp or plan a night at a movie that was squashed on Rotten Tomatoes, but they arrive at a concert hall completely uneducated about repertoire and expect to enjoy a fulfilling experience. The YouTube Symphony put the musicians and music up front allowing individuality to inadvertently advertise what might have otherwise been just another live broadcast.
The other point that Rosen emphasizes is the importance of experiencing a sense purpose through the YouTube Symphony process — “stake in the game.” Musical theater patrons probably understand their role in the successful performance better than other audiences today because there is a noticeable connection between an audience’s engagement — their laughter and applause — and the ease of the actors onstage. Orchestral and opera performers value audience engagement also, but — due to the nature of the art — can’t be so candid in expressing appreciation while onstage as other performing artists.
Not only is it ideal to have a stimulated audience, but the audience itself is important for a successful performance. Concert halls are built with an audience in mind: their sound absorption, the small sounds that every audience makes, but especially the energy they bring when they are actually listening. I will always remember one of the first concerts Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted after being named music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra during which he challenged the audience to find how Mahler was influenced by Haydn while composing his Fifth Symphony. It sounded like 2,500 people quietly gasped as the 2nd movement of Haydn’s symphony played. That audience was using what it knew of Mahler to understand and enjoy Haydn. It was exactly what a concert experience should be.
Consider the feeling you’ve had when attending a company party as someone’s guest and you’ll understand how difficult it is to be fully engaged in something you barely understand, something that may only vaguely interest you, and something in unfamiliar surroundings. Many classical audiences today experience the same sense of unease during performances and don’t realize how short and simple the background preparation to avoid these feelings entirely. Some classical works have stories, others were composed under unique circumstances. Some use familiar melodies, and others combine sounds in unusual ways.
Program notes, quick internet searches, and pre-concert talks can educate listeners of all levels, but modern orchestras are looking to go beyond those usual choices. I got the opportunity to test out LiveNote™ with The Philadelphia Orchestra on Tuesday at the Orchestra’s annual Free College Night Concert. Developed in partnership with Drexel University’s Music, Entertainment, and Technology Lab in Fall 2014, LiveNote™ is a mobile app for iPhone and Android which seems to be inspired by the VH1 Pop-Up Video from the mid-’90s in that the program provides trivia, analysis, and play-by-play information for a piece of music in real time as the orchestra performs.
When I first heard about this initiative, I was immediately skeptical. I love program notes, especially the ones written for The Philadelphia Orchestra (which typically include references to other visual and performing arts from the same time period as the pieces, brief information about the Orchestra’s history of performing the programmed works, glossaries, and sometimes even some brief connection to a musician in the orchestra), and the thought of this wonderful resource being replaced by my iPhone was troubling. More practically, I didn’t want to have to use my data to access this information, and I worried about how distracting the illuminated phone screens would be.
One of the first performances that used the LiveNote technology featured works from the standard repertoire and also Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral, and though I can see the benefit in a real-time description of music that can be hard to comprehend on first listen, the Washington Post reported that only about 20% of the audience used this new concert feature. Use at the college night concert wasn’t much better. The program featured Johannes Moser performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in e minor, Op. 85 and Beethoven Symphony No. 8, conducted by Donald Runnicles. LiveNote was used for the Elgar. My husband and I used our smartphones (my iPhone and his Android), and our friend, a conducting assistant to Yannick Nézet-Séguin, followed LiveNote on his iPhone as well.
The interface is very user-friendly and easy to navigate, and I found that my earlier concern about data use was unwarranted. The Kimmel Center offers free wifi for LiveNote concerts for easy streaming and use on the iPod touch, iPad, and other devices limited to wifi-only internet. Audiences have the choice of selecting “The Story” or “The Roadmap” — and switching between the two whenever they like. In this case, “The Story” consisted of primarily biographical information about Elgar, his compositional style, and anecdotes from his life.
“The Roadmap” was more closely tied to the live music, a sort of play-by-play of what was happening onstage.
Also included on the app was a glossary, which could be viewed all at once or by selecting musical terms highlighted in yellow text. Text could be made smaller or larger with another button, and there was a brightness adjustment supposedly to reduce distraction.
Holding the device throughout the performance was distraction enough for me, and I couldn’t help but notice that the two other LiveNote apps next to me changed screens at different times. The iPhones received new slides at almost the same time, but there was often a significant (2 or more second) delay between when the iPhones updated and when the Android screen received new information. It was hard to ignore this difference and took my mind away from what I was actually reading and hearing. Occasionally, there would be a frozen slide in transition, some grammatical errors and more than a few slides seemed more like chatter than pertinent information. I felt immensely cheated at the conclusion of the cello concerto and instantly regretted my decision to allow technology to invade a performance of such a wonderful work by a cellist of such high regard.
Students in grade school often hear from their classroom teachers that they can’t be listening if they are talking. Similarly, you can’t be truly listening if you are reading. I could’ve sooner put on a YouTube video of the Elgar Cello Concerto while cleaning my room to achieve the same level of engagement as I did while following LiveNote at the Kimmel Center. I missed hearing some sections because I was reading about how the melody was traveling between instrument groupings. I had a harder time connecting the beginning themes to their conclusion having read clips from reviews and critics during the development section. I couldn’t hear the return of a theme — as one slide instructed me to do — because I had been reading the first time it was played.
The lasting regret I feel for missing out on that performance despite being physically present and emotionally prepared causes me to question the type of audience that the developers and supporters of LiveNote wish to cultivate. It is hardly enough to get prospective subscribers into seats having been lured by free concerts and gimicky technology, and the barrier to an emotional and exciting performance that an app such as LiveNote creates almost guarantees that these listeners were not engaged. Certainly, the creators of LiveNote must have thought that this type of platform could explore uncharted territory and make music more accessible, but I would argue that it makes classical music even more esoteric. Only the select few people who were both familiar with the music before the concert and able to split their focus between the slides on their devices and the performance on stage may have received an enhanced experience. Those first-time listeners who might have been moved by Moser’s artistry and Elgar’s exceptionally beautiful composition were, instead, encouraged to access a CliffNotes version. In conclusion, LiveNote is a well-developed app for a poorly-developed concept, and I do not see the world of classical music benefiting from this initiative.