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It is the Very Model of a Modern Concert-Hall Platform

I've worked in and around computers since I was a student in the 1960s (and before you ask, NO, I never did 'wear flowers in my hair' - or anywhere else for that matter). I've seen, from close quarters, computers develop from vast leviathans with the brains of microbes into cute little booklets with brains the size of peas. Once upon a time I composed program code in binary, and entered it bit by bit directly into the machine's memory, while now I can nonchalantly toss around complex graphics - and sounds - with the flick of a mouse: this article was composed using a word-processing package, sent to the editor via the Internet, argued over by e-mail, edited and prepared for publication using desk-top publishing software, and so on. Progress has been stupefying, such that I sometimes wonder, 'Is it really just us who're doing all this, or is it some covert take-over bid perpetrated by pan-galactic mega-beings (a.k.a. 'mice')?'

Setting aside for now the possibility of the imminent extinction of mankind, let's instead ask a really important question: what can information technology do for orchestral musicians as they strive to make grown men weep, for one reason or another, in the concert hall? Well, a little bird, who works in the relevant corner of a major IT company, has been singing very sweetly in my ear. From the words of the song, I gather that IT is about to arrive on the concert platform in a big way. It doesnít take a brain the size of a planet (or even a pea) to put the necessary 10 and 10 together and come up with 100 (in binary, of course). For obvious reasons I canít disclose the companyís name, and as I donít fancy being taken to court for spilling company confidentiality all over the Internet, Iíll talk you through the obvious reasoning and you can do the binary arithmetic for yourself:

What's the obvious starting point? Every so often, the idea of the 'paperless office' crops up. It's not 'taken' yet, but it gets closer all the time. Maybe we could have a 'paperless concert platform'? Imagine, built into the conductor's podium a PC, its display - LCD, flat screen, and touch-sensitive of course - replacing the familiar pages of the open score. The score itself, and hundreds of others for that matter (removing all that hazardous clutter from around the conductor's feet), resides on a hard disk, onto which it has been downloaded directly from the publisher's web-site, and from where it is accessible at the touch of a button via the PC's super-fast main memory. Pages, or the images of pages, can be turned either way simply by tapping the required side of the touch-sensitive screen. You scroll through the score in swadges by sliding your finger across the bottom (or top, if you want), or you use the keypad or touch-mouse to directly access particular pages, movements, bar numbers or letters. An absolute doddle for todayís information technology, and eminently user-friendly.

Ah, but what about making annotations? Equally doddle-some - there's an annotation layer in the graphics, so you just touch the display where you want to annotate, key it in, and click-and-drag to move it around. If you prefer old-fashioned scribble, simply scribble on the display with the razor-sharp tip of the baton (what else?) and 'hey, presto!' the desired scrawl appears - and you can move that around in the same way. Moreover, the annotations don't mess up the score as they do with old-fashioned paper - and each conductor maintains his own personal annotation layers, and can even have different sets of annotations for different circumstances.

'That's fine,' you grumble, 'For the Management, lots of perks. But what's for the 'erks?' Don't fret, we've hardly started. The Internet has spawned babies, called (with that consummate lack of imagination that seems to be the lot of IT management) 'intranets'. These are based on Local Area Network (LAN) principles, allowing a bunch of computers to chat happily to one another without getting under the feet of the rest of the world. Using infra-red connective technology, not unlike the ubiquitous 'remote control' for the telly, hi-fi, VCR, satellite box, and dog (this last coming soon from a cyber-vet near you), we avoid the problem of cable spaghetti, and each player's music-stand becomes a device similar to and in constant communication with the conductor's Virtual Podium.

Taking his place, the player merely double-taps his instrumental part on the Virtual Music-Stand's display of the score (or 'front screen' display), and the display switches to show only that part, although by touching an option button he can see a parallel 'piano reduction' of the score to help with finding and keeping his place (why count interminable numbers of bars when you could just follow the action? You can even have a 'bouncing ball', if you really want one).

From then on, of course, the display of each player's part is automatically updated: every time the conductor turns a page, or goes to a different section of his score, the new 'place' is broadcast to the Virtual Music Stands, which change the page of the part as necessary. If the conductor wants to indicate the precise point of interest, he double-taps the required bar (on any stave he fancies), and that same bar winks for a couple of seconds on all the players' displays. So, there's no more scrambling round after the incoherently-mumbled 'Letter S' (or was that 'F'?).

Players can of course, by touching an icon, switch to 'continuous sideways scroll' mode, whereby the part smoothly adjusts to keep the area of interest in the middle. Players, like the conductor, can make annotations without the distraction of the dog-eared pencil falling off the stand and rolling out of sight. The conductor can opt to make any of his annotations (keyed-in only, not scrawled mode - though no doubt thatíll come along in Release 2.0) 'public', so that everybody can see them, lodged over the corresponding point in their parts. Players can then, if so desired, drag them to where they donít obscure the black dotty things.

Similarly, with properly-constituted access group controls (these need a bit of setting up by the System Administrator, formerly Music Librarian), section principals can make annotations which automatically appear on the Virtual Music-Stands of the players in their sections only. Naturally, options are available to advanced conductors, whereby annotations can be directed at (say) 'brass only', or 'trumpets and oboes', thus reducing the clutter of annotations that you simply don't need to see. An 'auto-distribute' option would broadcast the conductor's annotations only to the players against whose part the annotation has been made. These access control options will make it possible for players to send messages directly to one another without the conductor's knowledge. On the Modern Concert-Hall Platform conductors, if they arenít already, will have to get used to seemingly spontaneous outbursts of mirth without having the slightest idea of what's so funny.

The antediluvian 'rubber' is of course redundant, but its function remains: just 'make like a rubber' on an annotation - the system senses that you're trying to remove it, and does the job all neat and tidy with no crinkles or frayed margins (and need I mention the elimination of all those intrusive page-turning noises?). If the annotation is the conductor's, everybody else's copy automatically vanishes as well. If the annotation is a section principal's, the whole section's copies also vanish. In fact, the conductor, section principals, and rank-and-file players form a hierarchy, so the access group controls mean that all sorts of combinations are possible (but not necessarily useful or even desirable, depending on who you are). A player, for example, may make a suggestion as a result of a private annotation. He can push this up the hierarchy as a 'message' which may be either rejected, or accepted and 'published' accordingly.

The infra-red communications network, with the juice turned up, also has the advantage of doubling as a space-heating system in a freezing cold rehearsal room, although the technology offers far more exciting possibilities. For instance, because the Virtual Podium and the Virtual Music-Stands are as portable as laptops, conductor and players alike can take them home. Players can thus practise in private, and having downloaded a copy of the score and the conductor's annotations can easily call up the full score or selections of different parts to become better acquainted with what's going on around their own parts. It goes without saying that conductors can pre-prepare as many annotations (and sets of annotations) as they wish.

There's still more: the gizmos can come with built-in sound-cards and speakers (though the sound, as ever, will be better via your hi-fi), so that the option of private practise in 'karaoke' mode is available, with the rest of the orchestra reproduced (with adequate fidelity) by the music synthesis module. This would be especially useful to young people and other learners. Infants in particular will of course benefit enormously from the 'bouncing ball' option.

These features can also be used in Real Rehearsals. Consider: in the Bad Old Days (i.e. right now) the conductor could, when the occasion demanded it, have the leader conduct whilst he went off to check the finer points of balance. The new technology will allow the conductor to synthesise the sound of a passage, optionally for full orchestra or selected instruments. As the passage plays, each note of each involved player's part will light up as it is 'played'. It is thus not only possible for each player to sit, watch, listen and learn, but also for all the players to go out into the auditorium to get an idea of how it's going to sound.

Add to that the built-in modem, web-cam and web-mike, and (in a development of the Internet 'meeting room' or Ďconferencingí facility) you have the Remote Rehearsal hook-up, for whatever grouping of players you require (e.g. strings only), with or without the conductor, or even his knowledge of the event.

We still haven't finished! What about the audience? With all this technology on-stage, do we leave them with their programme booklets and induction-loop hearing aids? Not likely! Each seat has a 'palm-top' Virtual Programme Booklet with a built-in hearing aid. Unfortunately, these will have to be hard-wired in, at least until audiences can be trusted not to nick them.

Basically, these work like the Score Presentation facility, only they allow listeners to thumb through the programme. Where a memento is required, simple hard-copy can be obtained or a personal e-mail generated on insertion of the requisite coinage or card details. But it starts to get interesting when you get to the programme notes! Textual descriptions of the music will be cued to the score, and the relevant sentences highlighted as the music progresses. The 'auto-track' option will keep the highlight in the middle of the display. Parts of the general discussion will be cross-referenced to the music, so that when a pertinent bit is playing, the listener will find that paragraph highlighted. The 'synchro-reference' option will bring up these paragraphs automatically. Score followers will be able to switch the display to follow the conductor's. Nobody need get lost any more.

Stanley Kubrick, in his film '2001 - A Space Odyssey', was careful to feature only existing or developing (human) technology, so that from the purely technical viewpoint his film was not 'Science Fiction'. The situation is the same here. Much as the above might sound like science-fiction, as my little bird would tell you - if you knew who he or she was! - is that all this is already technically possible, and will become an actuality when this product hits the market place in the very near future.

There is, of course, a very worrying implication. The synthesis of musical sound, using only the notations of a score as input, has been with us for some time, and a number of composers routinely use systems with this capability as compositional tools. Just now, it's only a pretty crude approximation for the complex waveforms generated by an symphony orchestra, but it will only get better and one day soon it will be very convincing. Add that consideration to the bit I mentioned about the players going into the auditorium, and we can only conclude that soon we will be able to do away with the players altogether. Conductors needn't feel smug - they'll be the next to go.

This is not as daft as it sounds - already, many so-called live 'pop' performances are largely synthetic, and some would argue that the sooner we get rid of the biological element altogether, the better! But, whatever sort of music it is, once we have eliminated the biological, what have we left? We will have turned the Concert Platform into nothing more than a hugely over-complicated Hi-fi system, at which juncture we may as well stay at home and listen to a record.

You won't be surprised to hear me declare that we cannot - must not - let things go that far. Technophiles will say, 'Why not? It'll be even better than the 'original', because there won't be any mistakes.' In reply, I can only point to that dictum of Malcolm Arnold, 'Music is a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is'. However, looking on the bright side, our salvation will be in our own hands. If you have replaced the performers by machines, you can carry on and go the whole hog. Replace the listeners by machines, let them all get on with it, and we mere mortals will go and make some real music elsewhere. Of course, we'd have to have the score and parts written out on bits of paper, and . . .

© Paul Serotsky, 1 April 2004

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