Before the start of a typical orchestra concert these days, you can count on an announcement reminding everyone to turn off all electronic devices. Such announcements might soon include exceptions for concert-goers who download a developed-in-Baltimore app to their hand-held devices.
The app, called Octava, is aimed at enhancing the musical experience for listeners by delivering information via Wifi, synced with the music being played in the concert hall.
"We're trying to find ways to help contemporary audiences engage with words that match the elegance of the orchestral performance," said Octava co-founder Linda Dusman, a professor of music at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"I think everyone understands music on a cellular level, but that's often not enough to carry one through a four-movement symphony. Octava serves as a kind of translator, to help with the nuances of the language of music," Dusman said.
The app is being tested this month during concerts presented by the National Orchestral Institute in College Park.
Audience members with Apple or Android tablets can purchase tickets in the Octava seating section, located in the back of the hall at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and download the app. (Smart phone users are welcome, too, but limited testing has been done on phones.)
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been following the development of Octava.
"It's definitely interesting to us," said Matthew Spivey, the BSO's vice president of artistic operations. "But we need to invest in our Wifi [at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall]. This really relies on the ability to provide a robust Wifi network. Once we have that, we would likely do some experimenting with Octava on a trial basis and get audience feedback."
Dusman and her colleagues started on the project four years ago. A $150,000 grant from the Tedco Maryland Innovation Program, shared by UMBC and the University of Maryland in College Park, helped fund the latest version being tested.
"We want to honor the performance and the moment, not be a distraction," said Octava co-founder Eric Smallwood, assistant professor of animation/interactive media at UMBC.
Added Dusman: "We don't want people's noses buried in the device."
Before the music begins, app users can read background information about the piece. When the music starts, a sequence of brief annotations begins, cued by an operator in the hall who follows the musical score. The annotations alert listeners to when an important theme in the work is coming up, for example, or describe important subtexts to the music.
"People sometimes lose track of which movement they're in," Dusman said. "Octava lets you know where you are in the performance."
Each new annotation lights up the screen modestly to alert the user. It is possible to scroll back to re-read texts, using a bar at the bottom of the screen.
"After 45 seconds, the screen goes dark," Smallwood said. "You can re-engage if you choose to."
Dusman and Smallwood have created Octava program notes for 30 compositions so far, choosing them from a list compiled by the League of American Orchestras of the most-performed orchestral works in this country. The notes are not aimed at professional musicians or know-it-all subscribers.
"Our target audience is someone who has a basic working vocabulary of music," Dusman said.
Jeff Magill, a 27-year-old NASA Goddard employee and self-described amateur musician, gave Octava high marks after trying it at the National Festival Orchestra concert June 13 in College Park.
"At first, I was skeptical," Magill said. "It seemed like it might be imposing on a very old tradition. But it's really subtle. And it gives a context for the musical ideas you're hearing."
The concept of program notes appearing on screens of hand-held devices is not new. Twelve years ago, the Concert Companion was invented and championed by Roland Valliere, then CEO of the Kansas City Symphony.
In those pre-iPhone, pre-tablet days, Concert Companion's wireless transmission of program notes was delivered to "personal digital assistants" — PalmPilots, for example.
"It was very expensive, and the technology wasn't nearly where it is today," says Valliere, now CEO of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
Concert Companion, launched with $1.5 million in funding provided by foundations, was tested out by several orchestras around the country.
"There was an amazing amount of interest in it, which blew me away," Valliere says. "We got a lot of national publicity. But all that interest didn't come with corresponding money. Orchestras don't tend to have a lot of money to invest in research and development."
Without funding sources, Concert Companion faded away. But the concept behind it remained.
While efforts to design a new real-time program-note device were going on at UMBC, similar efforts were made at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The result there, unveiled last fall, is called LiveNote and was devised principally for smart phones. The Philadelphia Orchestra has offered several programs featuring the use of LiveNote.
"People are bringing their devices into the hall anyway," said Philadelphia Orchestra vice president for artistic planning Jeremy Rothman. "If you can't beat 'em, why not find a way to use the tools? With black background and gray lettering, LiveNote is less intrusive than a program book printed on white pages that people are thumbing through or shining lights on."
Rothman, who previously worked for the BSO, said that the Philadelphia Orchestra "tried to establish a level of etiquette" at concerts with LiveNote in use.
"People are very protective of their experience in the concert hall," he said. "But as they saw this being used, their nervousness about it relaxed."
Allowing tablets and cell phones to be used in concerts, even for music-enhancement purposes, is likely to generate a variety of reactions among concert-goers. But with audiences for most orchestras dwindling and aging, any venture with the potential to engage is just as likely to be taken seriously.
Building audiences was the impetus behind Valliere's Concert Companion in 2003.
"When we started out, some people said, 'This is a sanctuary; keep the gizmos out,'" Valliere said. "You're not going to last long with that attitude. The use of audio guides at museums and supertitles at the opera seems to have had an impact on attracting and retaining new and younger audiences. I wondered if technology might do the same for concerts."
Dusman sees Octava as the answer to that question.