Or maybe more like a forced tour? Or maybe it’s just me, getting old and cranky and too easily startled by innovation. But surely I can’t be the only one who was taken aback on hearing about the Concert Companion®, the latest in handheld gizmos hell-bent on transforming our lives. This time it’s the experience of listening to live classical music that gets the business. It happened during a heavyweight bout in which Beethoven and Mahler duked it out, with an assist from the Oakland East Bay Symphony. I wasn’t there, but got to read about it in the Feb. 28, 2005 LA Times.
The CoCo is made in the size and semblance of a PDA and does its wireless work by relaying real-time words and images of a edifying character to concertgoers in the intimacy of the uppermost stalls. According to the newspaper, enlightenment comes in the form of a text message on the backlit screen notifying the operator that “the bass builds in intensity” when the bass starts building in intensity, and ditto for "the strings sing seductively" later on.
You can also beam down color images to reinforce whatever critical consensus has established as the effect or mood the poor devil of a multimedia-challenged composer was trying to create with mere music. Perhaps a Pixar puppet show for Petrushka or a Beardsley faun for Debussy? You have to be cautious, though, about attaching visual referents to music. Who can hear Ponchielli without flashing on a bunch of leering crocodiles trying to either eat or rape all those prancing ostriches and hippos in tutus?
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for a full frontal podium camcast that gives the audience something more than the conductor’s flapping elbows and coattails. Anyone who’s ever ended up in the bleachers at the Hollywood Bowl must be grateful the big screens (and skillful camera work) that allow you to see the performers whose music is coming at you from a full city block away.
Opera buffs by now have gotten used to large or small-format subtitle screens, and these are generally seen as a helpful, non-intrusive convergence between technology and the arts. But performance mediated by experts goes back a way. Ever since the first transistor radios came out, fans have been taking them to the stadium so as not to miss out on the play-by play, enhancing the spectator’s experience with the expertise of a Mel Allen or Jimmy Dudley.
Taken together, these amenities constitute what CoCo inventor Roland Valliere terms “experience enhancement." And if you’re still bored out of your skull while the fat lady keeps on belting them out, you can – well, maybe not quite yet, but I can see it coming — get in a couple rounds of Donkey Kong before the clapping starts.
One way of looking at it is just as a digital delivery system for the same product traditionally packaged in the form of program notes. Who could object to retailing biographical anecdote bites, contextualizing a work in its period and bringing up a few musicological talking points to give a rough idea of what the composer was up to and exactly how he made the sounds come out the way they do?
What I find interesting, though, is that the product’s purveyors emphasize it “should be seen primarily as a means of broadening the audience for orchestra concerts, and secondarily as a means of deepening the experience for conventional concertgoers.” In other words, they’re pitching orchestra managers a security blanket for potential ticket buyers who feel themselves to be too obtuse to experience classical music without a crutch, or who sort of like what they’re hearing but feel they might miss out on something unless they know – unless they have been told — what they should listen for.
In times of dwindling public interest and permanent financial crisis, you can’t blame orchestras for grasping at anything that promises to renew and replenish their faltering audiences. CoCo inventor Roland Valliere says his device “provides a value-added experience akin to museum audio tours - except Concert Companion is a visual enhancement of an aural experience, instead of the other way around - making the music accessible to a greater number of listeners."
The analogy seemed not unreasonable, but made me wonder if music lovers would succumb to the same extent that canned guided spiels seem to have become de rigeur as an accessory on museum visits. Accordingly, I headed back to California determined to end my long-standing boycott of audio-enhanced museum going when I went for a look at the much-touted King Tut show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It cost me six bucks to find out what I have been missing, and it turned out to be Omar Sharif, his disembodied voice indistinguishable to me from that of Ricardo Montalban’s way back when he was bossing the dwarf around.
Sharif slides down the vocal register to a hammy hissed whisper as he evokes the mysterious Egyptian past, but his narrative merely paraphrases the labels on the display cases, though less than a third of the treasures on exhibit get audio coverage. I should have thought the earphone option would be to allow you to opt in for extra content, instead of a few E-minor chords to embellish Omar’s anecdotes of pharaonic peculiarities. By the same token, the soundtrack from a National Geographic special would have been a welcome curtain-raiser and time killer while waiting an hour in line to get in.
So I had just about decided I would stick to my Luddite rejection of the CoCo and all its intelligent iPod brethren when it suddenly hit me: a memory rush of undergraduate reading and the constant bobbing up and down the page to retrieve the inevitable and indispensable Shakespearian footnote. Wouldn’t the Concert Companion be wonderful as a footnote-on-demand system during a live stage performance?
It might work like this: Hamlet, Act II, Scene II: “Then are our beggar bodies our monarchs, and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows.” Beg pardon, prince? We need only consult the console in our lap, and up pops Steven Greenblatt to lend us a hand: “Then beggars, being without ambition, are not shadows but have substance: if monarchs and heroes (who ambitiously ‘stretch’ too far) are shadows and only substantial bodies can cast shadows, they must be the beggars’ shadows.”
Er, right. But I have to agree with the melancholy Dane that “it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”