Blog/not blog

Many reasons for not blogging lately. One of them is an enterprising idea called the Concert Companion, which has gotten lots of intermittent press. The Companion is a handheld device — a Palm PDA, or a Pocket PC — that displays program notes cued to music. (They’re broadcast to the device via a simple WiFi network, the kind of wireless hookup many of us, me included, have in our homes.)

The Companion been tested at a couple of orchestra concerts, in Aspen and at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer season at Saratoga; it’ll soon be tested twice more with two other major orchestras, though I’ll let them announce the news themselves. I’m writing the text for these two tests.

And the reaction, when I tell people that I’m doing this, just fascinates me. Many people think the Companion has to be a terrible mistake. Now, the notes I’m writing are innocent enough. They’re mainly aimed at people who haven’t gone to many concerts, and simply call attention to what the music’s doing at any given time. (Though of course there’s room for subtlety — I can cite the evolution of themes, or structural and textural niceties, as long as these are clearly audible.) But some people fear these notes will stop an audience from listening.

Now, first of all, that’s wrong. Focus groups done with people who took part in the first two tests show them saying that they listened more attentively, not less. But why, I wonder, would anybody jump to the conclusion that this wouldn’t be true?

I wonder if the reason isn’t fear of change. And, more specifically, fear of damaging something precious about classical music, something that’s presumed to be under siege.

For what it’s worth, I think about it very differently. First, we don’t know what the device will do until we try it. Rather than fear the worst about innovations, we should give them a chance, and see what happens. Our speculations — on either side of these disputes — could easily be wrong.

Second, who says people listen when concerts are given normally? Who knows what people in the audience are really doing? My mind wanders, and I’m a professional. New concertgoers, who don’t know what to listen for, might drift off quite a lot. In any case, some people just sit there reading the program book. They’re not listening (or, anyway, not listening very hard). If, instead, they were reading brief descriptions cued to things that happen in the music, wouldn’t that be better?

And what about the opera audience, which happily reads supertitles? I’d bet they’re paying more attention than they would without the titles. What about serious musical scholars, who sit there reading scores? Now, I — speaking now as a musician, though not all musicians would agree with me — think that’s one of the worst ways to listen to music. You notice the trees, not the forest. You police the composition (and, above all, the performance), but you don’t truly hear it. You notice details, but you miss both the flow of the composition, and the sheer taste and impact of the sound.

But the same people who worry about the Concert Companion respect — at least in my experience — people who listen with the score. So isn’t that a contradiction? Wouldn’t the Concert Companion function, almost, as a score for people who can’t read music? With one extra virtue, I think (though of course I might be wrong) — a few brief words might not straitjacket your attention as strongly as I think a score does. So your mind can still be free to hear.

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