Concert Companion

Last night (Thursday, 5/27) was the first test of this device that I’ve been part of, a test we did with the New York Philharmonic. The Concert Companion is the heldheld PDA that audiences may, in the future, be able to rent from orchestras, or might get free with special ticket deals. It gives real-time program notes, that change with the music — ongoing descriptions of whatever you’re hearing at a given moment.

I wrote the text for this test, which involved Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and Ives’s Three Places in New England. After the concert, I had a chance to hear comments from a good number of people in the audience who’d used the device, and one thing was really notable. Everybody, absolutely everybody, said that it made them listen harder. In fact, they often used expressions like “analytical listening,” to describe what the device made them do, contrasting that with the more relaxed, less directed listening they’d normally do without it.

Audiences in previous tests have said more or less the same thing, though not as forcefully. Their comments, of course, fly right in the face of fears that the device will encourage people not to listen, or else will distract them from listening. There was a third piece on the program, the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand, for which we didn’t have real-time commentary. One member of the audience said that having the commentary earlier in the concert, for Petrushka, made him listen harder to the Ravel. In other words, it got him doing careful, “analytical” listening, and did this so effectively that he kept on doing it even when he didn’t have the commentary.

Creating this text, I have to say, is about the hardest writing I’ve ever done. I had to be very succinct, of course (which is hard enough by itself). But I also had to balance descriptions of the music, comments on the music’s structure, along with omments on its history (the innovations, for instance, in 20th century composition that Ives and Stravinsky pioneered), and also a narrative of the stories all these pieces tell. All of it synchronized with the music, which means that sometimes when you’d like to say a lot of things, you discover that the music passes by so quickly that people will only have time to read one short sentence.

Everything had to be aimed at people who don’t know much about classical music, without being so elementary that they’d insult more experienced listeners. I found myself going to rehearsals, and then going home to rewrite everything I’d done. The Concert Companion is an independent operation, separate from any orchestras (essentially it’s a startup company, looking for both venture capital and foundation funding). We’re testing it again with the Pittsburgh Symphony on June 10, as part of the big Pittsburgh arts gathering that includes the annual conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League. This time, the program includes a piece by a living composer, Joan Tower’s Tambor. Joan and I will jointly write the commentary, which ought to be both informative, and a lot of fun.

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