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October 9, 2018 2:00 AM   Subscribe

When Classical Musicians Go Digital - How the switching from physical printed scores on paper to digital ones on tablets is changing the performance of classical music.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (22 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
No pictures of a digital equivalent score conveying all or most of the info that Menuhin had put into his copy? Oh, this is an old article.

How about some practical details? I have been hearing about this for a while but are they just marking up PDF's now?

I assume most of these compositions are now in the public domain and the main benefit is getting access to free music. So rather than spending $10 for a printed part, you spend $1,000 on an ipad and $0 on the music, thereby imperiling the music publishing business.

This involvement with the manuscript may bring some advantages for top scholar/ performers but the learning curve in reading centuries old script is high.
posted by notmtwain at 4:02 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


This involvement with the manuscript may bring some advantages for top scholar/ performers but the learning curve in reading centuries old script is high.

That's who the article is about, though--people who would otherwise be travelling with large amounts of sheet music, or who need multiple sets of notations for one piece. The guy I saw on the subway composing on his laptop with two different saxophones at his feet? Perhaps gets use from an iPad. My neighbor who plays in a community orchestra (with a high standard) that rehearses once a week and performs four times a year? Probably not.
posted by hoyland at 4:56 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


The guy I saw on the subway composing on his laptop with two different saxophones at his feet? Perhaps gets use from an iPad

Raymond Smullyan has a story about a composer friend of his, who dropped in to visit a colleague. The man was at the piano, surrounded by piles of scores, and feverishly scribbling on staff paper. "Oh," said the first composer. "I thought you usually composed from memory!"
posted by thelonius at 5:05 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


That's interesting, thelonius, that anecdote could mean two different things — either "from memory" as in "without writing anything down", or as in "without trying things out on the piano". Or both, actually.
posted by lokta at 5:34 AM on October 9


I loved the bit in the article about how pencils changed how we engage with printed music, btw.
posted by lokta at 5:36 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


I'm always relieved when pianists bring tablets, being now thoroughly traumatised from various page turning experiences. There's often no rehearsal as a page turner (often they ask you a few hours before, then you rock up to the gig, they say which repeats they're doing (or not), and you're on, seeing the score for the first time on stage), and I can be either pretty good ("I completely forgot you were there!") to awful (that time I accidentally flipped two pages instead of one in the coda of a fast piece (Khachaturian?) and there was a heart-stopping silence when the pianist froze on seeing unexpected notes, then swiped the book one page back and kept playing. I still cringe. He's inexplicably still asked me to page-turn a few times after that, but soon switched to tablet).

I don't prefer to use them myself though, partly because I'm clumsy of the trip-on-air variety and I already have an instrument to look after, but mainly for the same reason that I find paper books easier to remember things in- with digital scores you don't get the same spatial mind mapping, which I find useful for helping in memorisation, or bookmarking mentally in a spatial way where to write things in rehearsal at the next stop while still currently playing ('need to mark a piu p in this bar, which is around the middle-top third to the left on this page, then a comma over here, slightly right of middle'), and trying to remember a list of specific bars engages and interferes with the same part of my brain that's reading. The silent page turn aspect sways me though. So many people don't bother to turn pages quietly. I'm an anal weirdo about this, which is why I like sitting on the inside.

If anyone ever invents a tiny page turn button that you can tap on with a finger (bow thumb maybe) instead of pedals that would be ideal for gigs. Sure beats lugging a suitcase full of folders containing dead trees around everywhere (paper is HEAVY).

I assume most of these compositions are now in the public domain and the main benefit is getting access to free music. So rather than spending $10 for a printed part, you spend $1,000 on an ipad and $0 on the music, thereby imperiling the music publishing business. This involvement with the manuscript may bring some advantages for top scholar/ performers but the learning curve in reading centuries old script is high.

More like $40 for a printed part. The learning curve depends entirely on the composer's/their copyists handwriting. Anyway, it's not like everyone's suddenly reading off urtext; in my circles today, 95% of people still work off professionally printed and edited scores. Most instances of going to the urtext is to check discrepancies between editions and in cases of aurally dubious harmonies. The bigger competitors with the industry may be more the amateurs who put out free self-edited versions of public domain scores; often they're just as (if not more) accurate than professionally printed scores (hi Kalmus), even if the typsetting is a bit dodge. They might be less of a threat if big publishing companies aren't still shipping scores with missing parts, wrong notes, pencil markings printed in; this isn't even just Kalmus, we're talking establishments like Baerenreiter and B&H here.

In the cool clarity of the new medium, some things may be lost... “If you have the neat printed score, you don’t see the struggle,” she said. “You can detect how brilliant Mozart was writing individual parts instead of vertically. Mendelssohn’s ‘Songs Without Words’ have those beautiful paintings in them. Today, we don’t know if a composer is messy or meticulous.”

Surely this is exactly backwards? The article had in the previous paragraphs been talking about how scans of the urtext is now digitally available to anyone, so anyone is able to see for free what the composers had intended, where they used to have to go to a library to view it. Today, anyone with a computer and internet can know if a composer is messy or meticulous. What has digitisation got to do with neat printed scores?
posted by womb of things to be and tomb of things that were at 5:53 AM on October 9 [11 favorites]


Funny, I sit down at the piano, in part, to get the hell away from all the screens. It's one of the few places left that doesn't have a tablet shoved into the middle of the activity.
posted by gyusan at 6:31 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


I think the article talks about too much at the same time.
Internet access to autographs is good for research in the broadest sense. It helps musicians make better informed choices when interpreting music from bygone times.
Internet access to free-domain scores is good for one's purse.
The use of tablets (and apps like ForScore) in the practice room, at rehearsals and in concert can be liberating because one can to some degree simplify or eliminate the problem of page turning.

The potential hazards of page turning are funny to watch but pretty agonizing for the involved musician. Whoever ever had her/his meticulously prepared score (as in: clipped/glued/taped bunch of music; turn-here, extend-little-flap-with-three-extra-bars-there, look-at-the-right-for-extra-page-taped-to-the-rest-etc.) unfold itself, slide down the music desk, slither over her/his lap and unto the floor in the middle of the most difficult passage of the piece, knows of what I speak here.

Now on the other hand, if you're in the midst of it and your screen gets dark, or if you electronically flip pages and get lost, or if your app freezes mid-movement or whatnot, the visuals for the audience may be less hilarious, but the end result is the same. I don't take that risk.

I have another problem with digitizing my musical work process: a musician's existence is marked by time irretrievably and largely undocumented-ly spent in the practice room. The time we spend on stage is very limited in comparison. What's left of what, then, could be called our main occupation is a mere residue, such as Menuhin's heavily penciled page of a Bach sonata. If we go fully digital with our annotations, (assuming that it will become more and more difficult to retrieve some of the information as technology advances and changes, plus that long-term storage of older file formats might become a problem), we risk losing even this residue-of-what-we-did and the tactile experience that goes along with it. The annotation on the page of the score is turned into a purely utilitarian on-screen thing-of-the-moment, and stops being a record-of-our-lives-spent-working-with-music.
posted by Namlit at 6:34 AM on October 9 [6 favorites]


Now can we get a way to listen to classical music that's not crazy making? None of the major streaming services or programs like iTunes allow you to organize classical in any reasonable way.

Very frustrating.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:24 AM on October 9 [6 favorites]


I agree that this article covers a bit too much ground, and makes some links and inferences that I'm not sure are really there.

In the classical tradition there has always been an element of scholarship. This is for a number of reasons, but an important one is the fact that the composers didn't own their IP until somewhat late in the 19th century. This means that they had no incentive to create, edit and promulgate definitive scores of their works. Rather, what we have mostly had are largely scores that came from copyists and that involve all kinds of inaccuracies and compromises. At some point efforts began to research and produce "critical editions" of a composer's oeuvre. These, too, involved any number of decisions and compromises, but they also contain lots of notes explaining these decisions and compromises, and present copious extra information. But, of course, playing the score from a facsimile of the composer's manuscript will provide a different, although not necessarily "more correct" experience, and the musician performing from that score will make his or her own decisions and compromises which he or she may or may not be particularly qualified to make. Nevertheless, more information is better than less information. The point is that there really has never been a "one correct score that contains everything you might want to know about performing the composition." Complicating this further, of course, are things such as the fact that the compositions are most often played with modern instruments by much larger people in much larger spaces and usually tuned to a different pitch than was originally the case. The so-called "period performance practice" movement has addressed some of these things, but even the most historically informed rendition of a Mozart composition can't erase the fact that the audience's ears have not only heard Debussy and Shostakovitch, but also Led Zeppelin and Drake. All of which is to say that this aspect of performance practice in the classical tradition is nothing new, except that ready access to digital media may make it easier for performers to access and potentially prepare performances from a wider variety of source materials.

As for digital scores in and of themselves, it is certainly easier to carry an iPad than a big bag full of heavy scores. And a nice thing about using digital scores is that you can create and display/hide different layers of markings. So, for example, a violinist might mark up the score heavily with fingering and bow indications at a certain point in the preparation process, and then chose to hide those markings once they become internalized in favor of some other markings. Similarly, for singers who may perform the same role in different productions with different conductors, directors and colleagues, it's handy to be able to create a layer of markings that reflects choices made in each production.
posted by slkinsey at 7:31 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


Leotrotsky - you might want to check out Idagio. I really like it there for nuances in interpretation and fairly reasonable organization.
posted by mathiu at 8:41 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


If anyone ever invents a tiny page turn button that you can tap on with a finger (bow thumb maybe) instead of pedals that would be ideal for gigs. Sure beats lugging a suitcase full of folders containing dead trees around everywhere (paper is HEAVY).

Wait, what?

Why can't the pad listen, and change in the correct time itself? Or listen and hear the overall bpm and scroll accordingly? If it is on a screen, why the need for discrete pages? Karaoke style scrolling seems much more useful?
posted by Meatbomb at 8:43 AM on October 9


> None of the major streaming services or programs like iTunes allow you to organize classical in any reasonable way.

That's a product of a few problems.

One: ID3 is the defacto consensus metadata format for audio files, but there's no formal standards body that enforces its use. Which means that every audio file format that uses ID3 can mandate a different subset of attributes, and every audio player can selectively recognize (or not) attributes. So after "Title", "Artist" and "Album", there are very few fields you can assume will be available in any arbitrary music player. (Music players these days are generally much better about metadata handling, but, uh, see point three...)

Two: ID3 is piece-oriented, meaning that, in a sense, there's no such thing as an album or a suite; instead the onus is on the music player to handle the 'album' metadata field appropriately by grouping similarly-tagged files. So for example, a Beatles fan technically can't have an "Abbey Road" album of MP3 files, but rather ten files that have "Abbey Road" in their 'album' metadata field. If one of the files has "Abby Road" instead, well, now there are two albums.

The confluence of problems one and two mean that even though ID3 provides three title fields that should provide a means to subgroup and sort the movements in a symphony, the lack of uniform general support for those fields has lead to problem three.

Three: The major online music metadata archives (FreeDB and MusicBrainz) are polluted with two decades' worth of the efforts of individuals attempting to tag classical music within an overly-restricted range of metadata, leading to a general consensus effort of simply cramming everything into the title field, putting the composer in the 'Artist' field, and treating everything else as spurious. It's common for a single file to have a title of "Aaron Copeland -- Music for Theater -- 2 Dance -- New York Philharmonic -- Leonard Bernstein", an unrelated album title like "The Americans CD 3 Copeland", and an artist field of "Aaron Copeland".

"Put Composer In All Fields" is horrible and requires a hell of a lot of cleanup and it's nigh-ubiquitous in the FreeDB/MusicBrainz classical music databases, but it's far from the worst example of metadata pollution I've found there.

The other problem is that, even with improved metadata support the UIs for tagging files obfuscate the purposes of the fields, provide inadequate documentation, or repurpose them. iTunes, which I still think takes the best advantage of ID3, is particularly guilty of bad documentation and obfuscation. And it still doesn't support standard fields like "Conductor" and "Band/Orchestra/Accompaniment".

Streaming services tend to lean heavily on existing metadata archives, which brings us back to problem three. The CDs you've ripped at home will have glarked their data from MusicBrainz, unless you'd entered the info yourself. Which, if you have, my hat's off to you, that's a hell of a lot of editing.
posted by ardgedee at 8:45 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


As a total amateur, it's fun that when I'm visiting friends or family with a piano I can bring basically my entire sheet music collection (shelves worth) instead of having to pick and choose a few things. (Whether *they* think this is a good thing, I can't say....)
posted by bfields at 8:49 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


"Put Composer In All Fields" is horrible and requires a hell of a lot of cleanup and it's nigh-ubiquitous in the FreeDB/MusicBrainz classical music databases, but it's far from the worst example of metadata pollution I've found there.

Oh don't get me started. Song Title: "Crunk Kitty (feat. DJ Hernia) (live version)"
posted by thelonius at 8:50 AM on October 9


That's interesting, thelonius, that anecdote could mean two different things — either "from memory" as in "without writing anything down", or as in "without trying things out on the piano". Or both, actually.

No the joke is the sick burn. "I thought when you wrote derivative crap you were stealing things you remembered rather than literally copying from other people's scores."
posted by straight at 9:29 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


One place tablets seem to have a huge advantage over paper is at outdoor performances. No need to worry about wind!
posted by asperity at 10:59 AM on October 9


Why can't the pad listen, and change in the correct time itself? Or listen and hear the overall bpm and scroll accordingly? If it is on a screen, why the need for discrete pages? Karaoke style scrolling seems much more useful?

I'm not sure that pads can listen at this stage, although that would be ideal. Working off BPM in classical music can be unreliable because things like time signatures and tempo indications aren't necessarily static (a single piece can and often does have multiple marked tempo changes), and also the rhythm often follows the whims/interpretation of the person playing the melodic line in smaller ensembles (Adam Neely talks about it briefly here), or the conductor and the solo line in bigger ensembles. Silences (between notes/sections) can go on for an um, interpreted duration as well (in general think more metered verse as would be spoken in a play than strict metronomic timekeeping). In rehearsals, which are stop-start/here-there, I imagine it might have a hard time navigating.

Structure can be another stumbling block; classical music has a lot of marking indications for go-here-now-go-here-which-is-over-there. If in a piece a repeat's simply marked with a the repeat notation, the scrolling would either have to know not to keep scrolling onto the next section or jump backwards to the start of the repeat section if it's on a previous page. If the repeated section is written out instead of marked (rare, usu is just a weird editing choice in one instrument's part), and the players decide not to do the repeat (this is as often as not decided right before the performance), the score would have to know where to jump to to go to the next section. Now bring in the spatial weirdness of the various permutations of dal segnos, and there just ends up being too many variables to not control yourself.

This is probably a bigger deal in gigs (by which here I mean small performances in service of another event, rather than a concert performance), where we often don't work linearly, as the music is underlining aspects of the event; and often there's no rehearsal- you just rock up and play (dw, gig musos train specifically for this). I'll speak specifically for string quartets since that's what I most often play in, but I'm sure we overlap with other musos: often gig groups will just work things out when we arrive at the venue. Say a string quartet at a wedding, this is how the pre-playing discussion often pans out: "Ok I just spoke to the celebrant, the walk-in starts at that arch and there are six attendants + three flowerkids, so we can probably play through the song up til they finish walking, then when the marrier starts walking we can probably start again at bar five then skip to the chorus at bar 20 so we get to the chorus when they's starting to pass through the guests. We'll aim to stop either bar 32 or 40, but if it looks like we need more time we'll skip to the coda when we hit 35 and repeat the last fours bars as needed, then end on a D chord." Assuming two pages (depends on the piece and the typesetting), this would be fine on a paper or digital double spread where the eye can just jump to the necessary part, but if the device can only comfortably show one page at a time or it's a continuous scroll, things could get hairy.
posted by womb of things to be and tomb of things that were at 9:58 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]


GVIDO dual screen 13.3 inch displays look pretty good but at $1600, I can wait.

Another device out now is the PADMU, which is an Amazon Onyx Boox Max.
posted by notmtwain at 9:28 AM on October 10


Do it yourself Hands free sheet music display. Connects a big 24" display to a Raspberry Pi and scans his whole library of sheet music into PDF files Hands-free sheet music, the actual build instructions.
posted by notmtwain at 10:42 AM on October 10


As a community orchestra type, I was amazed at how quickly this transition started. Five years ago the only variation between players was that some liked to make photocopies, or maybe mark using Post-Its instead of pencils, but that was it. No change, effectively, in decades. Now all of a sudden there are several players using digital scores. If I had to guess, in another decade we'll see heads up displays some of the time, to make it easier to see the conductor and score.

I'm not sure that the benefits are as dramatic as stated, though. Everyone has a home printer and could, in theory, print out their own version of the score. I've certainly been tempted, as a percussionist, to re-do some of the worse scores that lack cues, have impossible page turns, and otherwise show signs that the editor has never, in fact, performed on stage or touched an instrument. But what's stopping me is the labor of typing everything in, not the medium in which it's displayed. I think womb and I are on the same page here, so to speak (and I hope you can forgive yourself, if there was no drama in live music we would just all get really nice sound systems and stick in a CD).

As far as the music publishing industry, I feel like they have already gotten too big of a windfall with century-long copyright terms. Aaron Copland's work from 1940 won't fall into the public domain until 2060! But again, this is content, not format.
posted by wnissen at 1:07 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I love ForScore and am happy that iPads exist. However, one of my immutable rules is now: Always Bring A Paper Copy To The Actual Gig. (That is, if it's a score-in-hand gig and not from memory).

Printed scores can get wet, sat on, stepped on, or dropped and they're still usable. No ordinary thief has any incentive to steal one. You do not have to remember their charger, or fight your colleagues for a socket. Their batteries do not suddenly nosedive 15 minutes before downbeat because the church is cold.

Colleagues have borrowed my scores gratefully on many occasions. I will never stop bringing them.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:47 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


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