The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Feb 17, 2012

The Philadelphia Orchestra goes mobile

Posted by Valerie Nahmad

By Philadelphia Orchestra staff

One of the greatest symbols (and pleasures) of an orchestral performance is the program book. Next to the music, the best part of the concert experience is picking up a program book and reading about the composers and the history of each work being performed. Imagine updating the program book into the 21st century—call it GPS for classical music beginners or aficionados that takes program notes to a whole new level of sophistication and interactivity. Intrigued? You should be.

In collaboration with the Music and Entertainment Technology Laboratory (MET-lab) at Drexel University, The Philadelphia Orchestra is in the testing phase of developing a mobile application to enhance the concert experience—an automated real-time guide that provides “time-relevant annotations in a manner similar to that of a personal museum guide.” As the Orchestra plays, future audience members will be able to choose from multiple streams of information on their iPhones, synced in real time to the actual musical performance. Scrolling pages of the score. Flagging up a specific motif in the woodwinds. Charting a 3-D road-map to find out where you are in the piece. All contained within a single app. Oh and, don’t worry—ringers will be turned off.

Youngmoo Kim, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Drexel University, is leading research on this project. A computer scientist with a background in classical music, he got the idea for these high-tech program notes after a group of his 20-something students attended an HD broadcast of a Philadelphia Orchestra concert. None were familiar with classical music and though they enjoyed the performance, Kim says they were curious to know more. “They didn’t have the context for a deeper understanding,” he says. He likens this desire to learn more to that of an intelligent museumgoer whose experience is enriched with the addition of an audio guide. Of course a viewer can still enjoy an exhibit, just as a listener can appreciate the sonic power of a symphony, but “a little more background” can really provide deeper appreciation.

To date the Orchestra has conducted three testing sessions using the mobile companion app, and each session has tested its potential in exciting ways. The first test, conducted in conjunction with the Orchestra’s 2011 eZseatU concert for college students, was an initial test of the app and the technological infrastructure designed to support it. The next session was open to Orchestra staff as well as the project team, and the app was set to track a recording of Brahms’s A German Requiem during an Orchestra performance of the work; staff and team members were able to interact with the app while watching a live feed of the performance at the same time. The most recent test session invited musicians to use the app during a performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra in Verizon Hall. Fun fact: The project team worked with Ms. Higdon to produce content for this session, who expressed her excitement about getting directly involved.

Lest anyone worry that audience members wielding iPhones in the concert hall sounds like a bad idea, the Orchestra and Drexel have taken pains to mitigate any distraction. At first users of the system will be limited to a certain section of seating in the hall. Of course the application will have no sound whatsoever, and the background light on the screen will be minimal, mostly a dark background with a discreet glow of text. As far as the Orchestra and the designers of this system are concerned, they’re confident that it can fit seamlessly into a concert experience and eventually become as commonplace as supertitles in the opera house, which were initially greeted with skepticism. “The march of technology is inevitable,” says Jeremy Rothman, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s vice president of artistic planning. “We want to thoughtfully integrate it into the concert hall and will be actively soliciting feedback from our audiences.”

Like any big undertaking, this one is chock full of moving parts and excitement. We’ll be sure to keep you updated along the way!

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