Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Joy of (looking at) Music

As my participation in the "Drawing as Encounter" exhibit might suggest, I'm fascinated by ways in which music can be seen as well as heard. We explored that in a couple of ways in the exhibit (which I promise to get around to blogging about soon [UPDATE: here & here]), but I'm most interested in ways that visuals can be used to help listeners listen more effectively. As much as I like the Fantasia films, I suspect that type of fully realized visual can be so compelling that the music becomes of secondary interest. (Although you can read here about how Michael Steinberg avoided that problem.) I mentioned this "Fantasia Problem" when praising the simplicity of the fabulous Ries Rollercoaster ad.

I have all sorts of great ideas running around in my head about various video/animation possibilities, but more and more I'm convinced that we tend to underestimate the best visual of all: the score itself. Not just in the sense that a score can be a beautiful thing to look at, although it can. Rather, following a score can be a wonderfully engaging way of hearing more deeply and insightfully, without generally becoming an end in itself. Since I'm a sightreader by nature, it makes sense that I might feel this way, but I've come to find that even the untrained eye/ear can get a kick out of watching as little black specks come to life.

I had an unexpectedly big success with this simple concept last month when our Piano Hero team was invited to participate in a campus-wide Homecoming faculty/staff/student talent show. For an audience of a thousand or so (I'm guessing at the number), three pianist colleagues and I played this arrangement of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. As we had done back in May for a modest Piano Hero audience, we asked the audience to be the cannon-firers - everyone was given paper bags suitable for inflating/exploding. Although we'd had fun using a student armed with pop-gun to signal the cannons back in May, in this case I decided to go with a PowerPoint slide show.

Part of the idea was that the PowerPoint could be used not only to cue the cannons, but also to provide all sorts of information about the themes as the music went along. I thought through several different ways to present the information, but it finally dawned on me that the score could be used as the basic visual backbone. This had the practical advantage that all I needed from the PowerPoint operator was someone who could read music, clicking at the end of each page. It turned out to be impractical to display the 8-hand piano arrangement because the parts don't line up with each other nicely, but since Piano Hero is all about sightreading AND recreating orchestral works via the piano, it seemed appropriate simply to use the orchestral score. [Part of the idea here is that, as with watching gamers play Guitar Hero or Rock Band, the audience gets to see what it is we're gunning for.]

Of course, following such a score takes some training and experience, but I used the old "highlight the leading instrument" approach to help with that; and, most importantly, since we had someone to take care of changing the slides at the right time, the viewer could always easily get back on track if lost. (By the way, I have a lot of affection for the "highlighted" score system; I've written before about an old Norton anthology that was big inspiration for me once upon a time, and I'm not sure I could have navigated it without the highlighted lines.)

The upshot of all this is that the performance was a HUGE success. I think we played fine, and it was certainly exciting to be up on stage (and hear a tremendous rustling of paper bags throughout), but I also think the success had a lot to do with 1) letting the audience participate in the performance, and 2) giving them something engaging to follow leading up to those cannons. I had so many people tell me how satisfying it felt to be able to "follow" a score, and the information about themes and the like that would usually get lost in program notes was presented in a way that people could hear immediately. I honestly think orchestras could have a lot of success with this kind of experiment.

And, in the interest of promoting my own last-minute laziness, I'd also suggest that the somewhat rough and improvised look of the slides (inconsistently sized staves, below-average resolution, hand-scrawled highlights, etc.) helps them to function more as catalysts for listening rather than as captivating visuals in their own right. I wish I hadn't misspelled cannon a couple of times (fixed in the video below), but even that might not have been such a bad thing. The bottom line is that the audience, not at all composed of classical music types, loved the whole experience in ways that surprised me and them.

So, here is what the PowerPoint looked like, more or less. The screen capture software I used to make this video doesn't do a great job with motion, so there are a few fade-in, fade-out moments when the video quality is much worse than what our audience saw. Also, there's one spot [3:26] where the score zooms up and in that looked much smoother in real life. Oh yeah, and in this case you don't get to hear our 8-handed piano sound - just a boring orchestra. (Thanks to the invaluable René Köhler and his National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra.) Be sure to go full-screen to get the best effect.

Also, we did take a cut [at 9:27], so it's not quite the whole Tchaikovsky. As for the cannon countdowns, they do require a little more specific timing on the part of the slideshow operator, but there's certainly nothing very complicated about running it. If you're interested in using the PowerPoint file, let me know.

P.S. If you want to skip ahead to the cannons, the countdowns start soon after the cut at 9:27.

Also, you can see samples of a couple of earlier Piano Hero score projections here and here.

UPDATE: Thanks to the first commenter, I now realize that the video above does not contain the spelling corrections I made to the PowerPoint, post-performance. Oh well, that makes the video more accurate historically, since that's the spelling our audience saw. And, as regular visitors here should know, I like canons.


Jonathan said...

Brilliant! I particularly like the instructions at 12.00, which recall Count Kaiserling's memo to JS Bach...


Oh man, I just realized I didn't fix the cannons after all. Well, I did fix the PowerPoint file and tried to make a new screen capture video from that, but I forgot that I ended up just re-editing the first video capture I'd made last month. (The problem had been that the countdowns were out of synch; they still are slightly.)

Well, this is more accurate historically - since "canons" is what our audience saw on Oct. 10.


...perhaps this explains why all the cannons didn't go off at once. The audience members were doing their best to enact a canon.