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Explanations accompanying classical music and other live performances

The most lasting memories from my undergraduate days in the classroom come from Leonard Ratner's courses at Stanford on an introduction to music and on the concerto. To this day I remember and enjoy the explanations of Eroica, Don Giovanni, Mozart's String Quintet K. 614, the quartet singing in the last movement of the Ninth, and Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. It was so interesting to go to the class to hear the music explained (with pauses introduced by lifting the needle from the record). The essential feature here was dynamic explanation, right in parallel with the music. That form of explanation was much better than reading about the music in advance, which provokes uncertainties about linking the program notes to the appropriate part of the performance. Ever since at opera and ballet I have yearned for such dynamic parallel explanation.

In opera, a translation of the words in parallel with the performance is one good step.

Here is a recent possibility.

Of course the parallel explanatory channel must be done with care, unobtrusiveness, and quiet precision. It will be tempting for some explainers to place themselves above the music, to create a personality presence, to celebrate a technology, to look like television. But done with an appropriately self-effacing quality, such parallel explanations can be helpful, greatly increasing the intensity of listening. Probably a visual channel (written words, musical score) should be used to explain a sound channel in order to avoid interference. The Music Animation Machine (elsewhere on this board) uses the visual to diagram the music.

Indeed, for 35 years now at a half-dozen disastrous Dylan concerts (broke my heart every last one of them), it would have been helpful to know what the words were instead of asking at the end of the song: Was that "Tangled Up in Blue" or "Every Grain of Sand"?

-- Edward Tufte

A couple of comments on this.

Firstly, a good way of giving your parallel explanations the 'self-effacing quality' that ET mentions is to do them in a foreign accent. I vividly remember a recital by the Hagen Quartet in Edinburgh 15 years ago where Rainer Schmidt, the second violinist, introduced their performance of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet. This coup de theatre was definitely enhanced by his incomplete command of English; also, the very 'unorthodox-ness' of it made it engaging to the audience.

Secondly, we don't always need parallel explanations, even with really complicated stuff. I was reminded of T S Eliot's comment about his own poetry: 'Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood'. This is definitely true of classical music. Even with Grade VIII Piano and O-level Music I haven't got a clue why I love most of the classical music pieces that I do.

-- Neil Pettinger (email)

I think this is more appropriate for recordings than for live performances. I observe that audiences for the arts have a weakness for explanations that, even when intended to be unobtrusive, tends to eclipse the possibility that the work might speak for itself. Witness those in museums who stroll from index card to index card rather than from painting to painting - even when the painting is a wall-sized, gilt-framed, full-color canvas with spotlights on it and the index card is a tiny paragraph of dark gray text transfered onto a light gray wall with the shadow of the frame obscuring it.

As more live performances are made available on high-capacity media like DVD, there will certainly be a place for parallel commentary. Perhaps with music, this commentary could be graphical rather than verbal. Helping to bolster the listener's impressions with visual displays of the musical structure and providing opportunities for explanatory or anecdotal asides which would "lift the needle"

-- John Morse (email)

From the San Jose Mercury News:

Posted on Fri, Aug. 22, 2003 Handheld gadget enhances experience of classical concerts

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - In an age when the Internet provides lightning-fast answers and life can be a blur of accelerated events, the symphony remains a sanctuary. Audiences are expected to sit down at concerts, calmly flip through the program notes, then hush.

Trouble is, only a third of the audience really understands what's going on. The rest stay ashamedly mum, and try to make whatever sense they can of the intricate layers of music.

All that may change with a new handheld electronic music guide that tracks a concert in real time.

The Concert Companion is still being tested but is already generating buzz in the classical music world. It may ring a sour note with traditionalists. But it could also boost music appreciation for concertgoers who can't tell adagio from a mezzo-soprano.

Conceived by former Kansas City Symphony executive Roland Valliere, the Concert Companion displays a sort of musical road map during a performance, cuing users' ears for, say, the oboes, muted cellos, or double basses. Users can also switch to more detailed content, reading, for example, that Igor Stravinsky was 26 when he wrote ``The Firebird,'' a Russian fairy tale of good versus evil.

Consider it Haydn in your hand, Mozart for the masses.

A musician at the back of the hall wirelessly turns the devices' digital pages from a laptop. Users can turn off the backlit devices at any time.

The gadget has been tested by small groups at four performances, including a concert Wednesday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. So far, Valliere is using off-the-shelf Sony Clie handheld computers for prototypes, but the idea is to develop dedicated Concert Companion devices -- something concertgoers could rent for $7 or $10.

``The three words I hear most about symphonies is that they're elitist, irrelevant and boring,'' Valliere said. ``This device attacks all of those things. It makes the music accessible and relevant ... It'll heighten and deepen the emotional experience.''

Elizabeth Usovicz found herself listening for the beats of the timpani and the tension between the oboes, thanks to the Concert Companion she used at a Kansas City Symphony performance this year.

For the first time, ``I was listening to the full range of the symphony, and not just the violins, which is the way my ear is tuned,'' said Usovicz, a 47-year-old business consultant.

That kind of feedback is music to Valliere's ears.

He and the product's other creators -- two Silicon Valley software companies, Tribeworks Inc. and Kinoma Inc., and UCLA music professor Robert Winter -- hope the Concert Companion will bring to symphonies what supertitles did for operas and audio tours did for museums: an enhanced experience, and higher attendance.

Many symphonies are struggling as donations thin and concert ticket sales wane or remain flat. Meanwhile, arts education is suffering under tight budgets that have curtailed school programs.

The most attention Beethoven and his classical cohorts get nowadays are in cars, according to a Knight Foundation 2002 study. Though up to 30 percent of Americans have some kind of relationship with classical music, only one in four would consider going to a classical concert, the study found.

``In a society where people are less exposed to classical music,'' said Don Roth, chief of the Aspen Music Festival and School, ``we need to be open to ways of bringing new people to it.''

So, for example, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra plays a short video on the composer before a performance, and the Vancouver Symphony uses onstage screens to show close-ups of the players. And New York's Metropolitan Opera offers real-time translations of lyrics on seat backs.

It will be a while -- Valliere thinks as early as next summer -- before the Concert Companion is truly ready, but many are anxious to see how it materializes, said Jack McAuliffe, chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, which represents most of the nation's 1,800 orchestras.

McAuliffe likes that the Concert Companion is unobtrusive, not forced on those who want to let the music wash over them, sans gadgetry.

``This is really an innovative approach to a solution that has been eluding people for a long time,'' he said.

-- Brad Hurley (email)

The TV/DVD approach to musical explanation has been undertaken by the San Francisco Symphony in a series entitled "Keeping Score -- MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) on Music". The first in this series, on Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, consisted on two 1-hour shows on PBS followed by the DVD. The first hour covered the background of Tchaikovsky and the symphony along with interviews of MTT and various SF Symphony performers. The second hour was the symphony itself. This seemed to be a good way of handling information which made the listening experience more meaningful, without distracting from the performance itself.

-- Gary Harmon (email)

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