San Jose Mercury News: How digital technology is impacting classical music: three voices

March 28, 2012

Slowly but surely, digital technology is leaving its mark on the world of classical music. In opera, theaters across the nation are filled with live-streamed performances from the Metropolitan Opera, in New York. In the world of orchestras, Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, increasingly finds himself Skyping with out-of-town soloists, preparing for performances at Davies Symphony Hall. And, of course, on stages everywhere, more and more performers are reading scores from iPads and laptops. We spoke with two well-known musicians and a production specialist about this digital sea change. Here, some artists discuss the digital evolution:

Kirill Gerstein

Concert pianist Gerstein, who often performs chamber music and modern pieces from the iPad score, says:

I used it for the first time in the summer, I’d say August. And I have been using it quite a bit ever since, for most of my chamber music performances and some solo work, especially when it’s a modern piece. In December, I played the Schoenberg Piano Concerto using the iPad, and what was especially nice for me was that I could play it from the full score. You’re not limited by the awkwardness and difficulty of having a page turner there — turning 140 pages in the space of 19 minutes!

Well, how do I turn the pages? There’s a little cordless pedal that works with the iPad. I put it next to the left pedal at a slight angle, and tap it with my left foot. Learning to do this goes really quickly. Lately, I’ve noticed that when I play something without the iPad, with printed music, I still sometimes find myself tapping on the floor.

There’s another convenience with the iPad: You can create jump-points for repeats. For example, at the end of the third movement of the Brahms Piano Quintet, there’s a repeat where you have to jump back 20 pages. Instead of frantically flipping back through the pages of a print edition, I have established the jump-point. Very convenient.

Of course, people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid it’s going to crash or it’s going to run out of battery?” I think when you get into an airplane, you’re taking much more of a risk. Or on any given night, you get on stage, and the lights could go out, or your music stand can fall down. There’s always risk, but it’s been trouble-free thus far.

One thing I find to be a bit of a hassle with the iPad is adding my markings to the score. You can do it, but it’s a bit awkward. So I usually practice the piece from the paper (using the printed score), and as I get closer to the performance, I get it scanned as a PDF and upload it to the iPad — and it has all my markings in it.

Using the iPad adds a certain curiosity. But the nice thing is there have already been concerts where nobody said anything, which I think is a sign of acceptance.

The only down side with the iPad is I don’t get to meet as many beautiful page turners! On the other hand, I don’t miss the page turners who wear five very clanky, noisy necklaces. And I don’t miss the page turners that miss the turns!

Matt Haimovitz

The cellist says he would enjoy performing more often from scores on his laptop — and his new iPad. Here’s more:

I just bought my first iPad. I’m dying to use the new technology, but there’s an issue for me. It is that I really like to notate my scores. I’m so used to working with pencil and paper, putting my bow markings and other notes in my printed scores; I need that speed.

I know people say you can do this with the laptop, using the Adobe Acrobat programs. But for me, it would slow down the creative process. I make changes all the time. I would need weekly updates or daily updates on what I’m doing!

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For the iPad, they’re supposed to have fantastic drawing programs. I’m sure they have software or an app that would let you pull up a score and draw all over it with a pencil and eraser, in different colors, I bet. What I wish is that I could somehow move that over to the laptop — connect it up. That would clinch it for me, having the bigger screen.

I’m literally thinking about this over the next couple of weeks. I’m premiering a concerto of Philip Glass, and I was hoping to have something by then. But I hear the technology is two years away.

In some ways, I’m old school. A couple of years ago, I was on a solo tour. I do a lot with amplification, with distortion and reverb and resonance — but the software that I was using kept crashing. I couldn’t rely on it in live situations. I played Le Poisson Rouge in New York; I was on stage with a laptop, had a couple of mixing boards for doing the reverb — and it just kept crashing. I can’t rely on it the way I can rely on my cello, where a string breaks, and that’s about it.

When (pianist) Christopher O’Riley and I are on tour, half our show is acoustic, traditional repertory. And half of it is pop stuff: arrangements of Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, Mahavishnu Orchestra. We might want to add a variety of reverbs for the pop half; the other effects I control acoustically. But these days, to accomplish that, I’d rather work with a good sound engineer at whatever the club or theater we’re in.

Larry Neff

Neff, production designer for the Kronos Quartet, speaks about that technology-savvy group — which doesn’t use laptops on stage: His comments:

Kronos never actually has read its scores off laptops, though we looked eight or ten years ago at a proprietary LCD screen that someone had developed. It was kind of like a stone-age iPad; everyone had a screen for their music and a foot pedal to make the pages advance. But the developers hadn’t made any considerations for the musicians to make their bow markings or notations in the score. That kind of put the kibosh on it.

Today, because the group has so many thousands of scores that are marked up by their personal pencils — if they were to shift at this late point in their career to screens, and if they wanted to go back to earlier pieces, they’d have to do a huge amount of scanning to keep things all digital. It isn’t practical. It’s easier for a young start-up group to say, “We’re going to be digital.”

Still, we’ve always been looking for the next great idea, as (first violinist) David Harrington likes to say. Just recently we did a piece with the K-Bow system, invented by Keith McMillen, of Berkeley. Basically, it’s a bow that’s wired with Bluetooth to a receiver; this receiver can generate data to the audio engineer at the front of the house about the angle of the bow, the speed of the bow, various factors to shape the sound.

You can think about it like this: The bow is loaded with sensors — it has an accelerometer to know how fast the bow is moving; also, a little mercury switch to discern the angle of the bow; sensory attachments to measure the pressure applied. This data is fed to the audio engineer/sound designer, who’s got a laptop loaded with samples. If you have samples of different environmental sounds, you can have them triggered by a certain attitude of the bow, say. It’s kind of a wide-open, mapping thing. Pressing the bow on the string will let it change the pitch; whatever you want it to do.

The composer was Doug Quin, who’s done a lot of recording and composing in the Far North: sounds of seals, fascinating sounds. And the idea was to have Kronos play “seal voice” music or the sound that’s made by ice crackling — to create these fascinating environmental soundscapes that David Harrington, in particular, heard and was inspired by. If a member of Kronos were to make a very fast movement across a string, that might send a signal to a computer to play a particular seal sound!

We did this last year in Syracuse. The piece felt like it was a bit overwhelmed by the technical difficulties in performance and the amount of expense and time we spent to get the system up. But you never really know where these very delicate, leading edge technologies are going to lead you.

by: Richard Scheinin

view article at: San Jose Mercury News

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