is the Very Model of a Modern Concert-Hall
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
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 doesn’t 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 can’t disclose
the company’s name, and as I don’t fancy
being taken to court for spilling company
confidentiality all over the Internet,
I’ll talk you through the obvious reasoning
and you can do the binary arithmetic
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 today’s 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 that’ll 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
don’t 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 aren’t 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
Add to that the built-in
modem, web-cam and web-mike, and (in
a development of the Internet 'meeting
room' or ‘conferencing’ 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
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