Friday, March 13, 2009

When dull things happen to good ideas...

[Update: I originally titled this post "Fraudcast News," because I can't resist a play on words, but that seemed overly harsh; I don't think there's anything fraudulent about these podcasts, although the idea that the video "enhances" them might be considered fraudulent.]

Let me begin by saying the following: I admire the Boston Symphony Orchestra tremdendously. My wife and I subscribed to a 7-concert package for the first time this year, and we've loved every concert we've been to. Unlike the kinds of things one often reads about symphony audiences over at Greg Sandow's blog, we've found the audiences to be lively, enthusiastic, not all dressed up, etc. The orchestra is terrific and we've heard many inspiring performances.

Now, where I finding myself agreeing with Sandow over and over again is in his oft-repeated suggestion that arts organizations have no idea how to use the internet or multimedia in general. This morning I stumbled upon the "enhanced video podcast" for this weekend's BSO concerts. As it happens, I'm not attending this weekend, but I can't imagine what about these video "enhancements," or the podcast in general, would make me want to do anything but run in the opposite direction of Symphony Hall.

Let's break this down a bit, OK? I'm not gonna say too much about the audio narration by WGBH's Brian Bell, although I think it could be more animated, but let's go right to the videotape. How has the BSO enhanced Bell's narration about Brahms' 4? First of all, there's no true animation or video, just a bunch of stupifyingly dull, slow zooms and pans in and out of images. Actually, no; first of all, I should mention that the video begins with an ad for the sponsor (fine, no argument with that) that features music notes dancing across the screen and... no audio at all! So, whereas this could be a good time for the listener to adjust the volume, instead the listener is frantically trying to figure out why there's no sound. Even the commercial is dull in this podcast!

Just as you've probably turned your speakers all the way up, an image of the score for Brahms' first symphony starts scrolling along. Finally, Bell's voice chimes in (hopefully not at ear-busting levels) and you're thinking, "Cool; we're going to get to see excerpts from the score to help understand what's being said." As recently as the very end of my last post, I was saying what a wonderful thing it is to encourage listeners to follow a score as a means of engagement. On cue, at [0:38] the top of the score for Brahms 4 shows up just as Bell mentions it by name. Fine, so far, if still rather dull. As it happens, that's about as good as it gets. There follows some discussion of initial reactions to Brahms' work, with PBS-documentary style zooms to "animate" these faces of the nineneenth century. Fine. Dull, but fine. Here are some highlights from what follows:

2:48 As Bell describes the opening thematic motifs, we do see the correct notes on screen, scrolling listlessly by, while in the background some music from a bit later fades in. So, no, we're not hearing what we're seeing. Bad omen.

3:07 The orchestra is finally heard playing the opening theme, but the opening notes have already scrolled by. Soon, for a brief tantalizing moment, we do see the right notes, but the zoom is so tight and the scrolling so slow, that the audio quickly gets ahead of what we're seeing.

Bell then quickly jumps to making a few brief comments about the 2nd and 3rd movements. My only complaint here is that he mentions that Vaughan Williams made up "tavern" words to go along with the lively theme of the 3rd movement, but we don't get to hear those words. On the other hand, I haven't been able to Google anything about this, so maybe the words aren't readily available. Anyway, it slowly becomes clear that we're going to focus on the wonderful 4th movement passacaglia, an excellent strategy for a brief talk such as this. Here we go:

4:07 Bell starts talking about mvt. 4, while we see...the non-melodic wind parts for the opening of mvt. 1.

4:22 We hear the stirring 8-bar theme of mvt. 4 while the wind parts for mvt. 1 scroll aimlessly by. Is there a hidden message here about intermovement connections?

4:52 Bell play examples of various versions of the bass line - using the most lifeless synth piano sound imaginable. Couldn't the folks at WGBH have come up with a real piano to record these sounds? Hearing them played this way, they don't even sound like music.

6:14 We hear (and see!) the music that leads into the slow "flute solo" variation, except when the audio fades up nicely to focus on the flute, the "page turn" takes us back to the bottom of the page we just heard.(!?!) Bell tells us we're now in 3/2, but the music is clearly still in 3/4. Then, unexpectedly, the notes for the flute solo show up at 6:32, but we quickly zoom down to some generic accompanying material. I see: it would be too easy just to follow a melody.

6:50 Bell tells us the bass line settles on a pedal E as we move into the next variation in major. Actually, the pedal has been there throughout the previous flute solo variation. They do try to show us the pedal pitches in the horns (let's hope the viewer knows how to transpose horn parts), although the zoom is again much too tight to make this clear visually. Seeing two measures of scattered E's doesn't scream out pedal point.

7:30 At the point of the trombone chorale, we actually see...the trombone parts! The scrolling is a little too slow, so the notes finally fall behind, but still, this is very gratifying.

Now, what follows in the symphony is some of the most thrilling music that Brahms wrote, as the final third of the passacaglia rushes to the coda. Bell chooses instead to focus on the fact that the piece ends in minor and that Brahms eventually died (unlike other 19th century composers?) - never mind that he died some twelve years after writing this. It's apparently one of the last works the composer heard live, which is interesting, but not a reason to ignore that the symphony ends with a blaze of defiant energy. (I might also add that nowhere in Bell's talk does he actually demonstrate how the variations work by, oh I don't know, playing the theme and a variation back to back.)

Look, I know this a bit mean-spirited, and that some poor soul at the BSO was probably told to toss some nice visuals onto this in about 30 minutes. The point is that a world-class organization such as the BSO should know better. Either don't do multimedia, or do it right. The idea of using a score as mostly just slow-paced window dressing for what's intended as an audio talk is - well, it's a bad idea. And did I mention it's really dull?

Now, just to be a bit more obnonxious and condescending (and self-serving), allow me to show a visual listening guide I created for the last movement. If I'm not mistaken, I did most of this in the 2-3 hours before a class once. It consists simply of captions that go along with the music, but that reveals one of the great advantages of multimedia - it makes it possible to hear the music and let the descriptions not interfere aurally. To get the most out of this, you need to have QuickTime installed. Although I believe RealPlayer and other software will play the audio and captions, if you play this in the QuickTime Player, you should be able to use the arrow keys to jump from caption to caption, which can be a pretty cool way to follow the structure. (Try it! If the QuickTime plug-in isn't working automatically for you, you can download the file here.)

[UPDATE: Read more about this Brahms' guide here. I've moved some descriptive info that was originally posted here to the new post.]

Now I understand that there's potentially a problem here in terms of audio rights. (I'm crossing my fingers that René Köhler doesn't come after me for using his recording with the National-Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.) Even if the folks at the BSO wanted to use a BSO recording of Brahms 4 for this podcast, they might not be able to. (See this story. Thanks, Patty, for the link.) By the way, when I've used the above in my class, I've attached it to a recording the students already had to buy on CD, so I feel no guilt about using it that way.

Still, aside from the very poorly planned visuals of this little audio talk, they're missing an even more important potential value of multi-media guides: music generally speaks for itself better than words. Organizations such as the BSO need to learn that the more we can hear them playing (or, at least, actual music) on the website, the more likely we are to want to go hear them live. (All the major sports learned decades ago that televising sports for free makes people more likely to want to go to the game.) So, if you're going to do an "enhanced" audio podcast, how 'bout more music and less words? (Ironic, I know, given the ridiculous length of this post.)

I know this would cost money, but here's what I'd really love to see. Get James Levine (yeah, he's not conducting this program, but he's the music director for goodness sakes) to play Brahms 4 on the piano. Obviously, this would appeal to my Piano Hero-loving side; in fact, I was thinking the other day that if I saw a program advertised of Levine and Barenboim playing something like Schubert Fantasy, a Mozart sonata, the Poulenc duo sonata, and the Brahms Haydn Variations, I might be intrigued - but if they were going to play two Beethoven symphonies, I'd kill myself to get there, especially if I had the idea that they'd be mostly sightreading, playing from the seats of their pants. So if you can't get rights to use BSO audio for a listening guide like I've created above, then bring in a piano hero.

The internet offers unbelievably rich options for promoting music. It would be great to see an organization like the BSO figure that out.

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