Stories Five examples of tech in classical music performances

By Ricky O’Bannon

With an eye to both its past and future, many in the classical world are experimenting with the new artistic possibilities that come with new technology.

Despite the usual debates surrounding claims of its demise, opera in particular has made multiple recent efforts to bring tech into the concert hall. The Sardinia-based opera company Teatro Lirico di Cagliari recently tried to incorporate Google Glass into a production of Puccini’s Turandot. Singer, musicians and stagehands wearing the device sent videos and pictures in real time to the company’s social media accounts during the show in an effort organizers hoped would draw new and young audiences.

Whether flirtations with new technology lead to a more engaged audience or just temporary publicity remains to be seen. However, there is no shortage of interesting high tech ideas for what the future of classical music performance could look like.

 

1. An opera for headphones

The Industry, a Los Angeles-based experimental opera company, produced Invisible Cities in 2013. Based on the book by Italo Calvino of the same name, the opera scattered musicians, singers and dancers around the public spaces in Los Angeles’ Union Station, which remained in operation during performances. Audience members received a pair of headphones that allowed them to hear the complete music while freely walking around the station to find performers, dancers and confused travelers waiting on their train.

Documentary on Invisible Cities from KCET

 

2. Holograms

Holograms aren’t just for Tupac and CNN anymore. Yoshiki Hayashi is a classically trained Japanese pianist with a visual aesthetic somewhere between Liberace and KISS. While once a heavy metal musician, Hayashi has turned to classical compositions in recent years and performed a duet with himself (or a hologram of himself) at the 2014 South by Southwest festival in Austin.

 

3. Google Glass for everything from opera subtitles to sheet music

The virtual performance of Turnadot was one of many classical projects that try to make use Google Glass. Several efforts are underway to bring translations of foreign language operas to concertgoers’ Google Glass or smartphones. Wolf Trap Opera Company announced it would make use of software from Figaro Systems — a company that got its start in the ’90s installing screens in opera houses that displayed translations — to allow audiences to view translations on multiple platforms while watching Carmen.

Cynthia Johnston Turner was one of the first to test Google Glass and has experimented with displaying sheet music on the technology or displaying a conductor’s view for audiences to see. Turner’s hope is that musicians who are no longer tethered to their music stands might better interact with each other, the conductor and the audience.

Interview with Turner of Performance Today

Concept video showing a conductor’s view

 

4. Operabots

Operabots probably won’t become a regular staple in opera houses any time soon, but Tod Machover’s 2010 Death and Powers did show that robotics have a place in modern opera. Death and Powers was a collaboration between the composer and the MIT Media Lab that used large electronic display panels and semi-autonomous operabots that act as Greek chorus.

 

5. Bring your iPad to the concert

Television executives have spent considerable effort trying to figure out the second screen experience. The idea is that viewers who are watching AMC’s Walking Dead live can get added content by simultaneously logging onto a Walking Dead app. For television, this means viewers are more likely to watch a show live and watch those lucrative advertisements instead of time-shifting by saving the show to DVR where they are likely to fast forward through those ads.

Time-shifting isn’t a concern for classical concerts, but composer Stephen Goss saw the second screen experience and its added content as an opportunity to enhance the audience experience for the premiere of his piano concerto in 2013. The videos offer images of city and natural landscapes to set an emotional tone for each movement.

Read more about Goss’ concerto