The future of listening is … reading?

Posted by Rob Walker on February 19, 2009
Posted Under: "Social" studies,Listening,Music

Here’s a randomly encountered post on the subject of how orchestras can use Twitter:

An orchestra gives a concert. Someone sends commentary tweets, in real time while the music plays, describing what’s going on. I don’t know how pinpoint the time accuracy might be, so maybe you can’t time something precisely to a downbeat. But you could certainly indicate major sections of a piece.

But it gets better. You could have a dozen Twitter streams. What does the conductor think about, while she’s conducting the piece? What’s the hardest part for the principal flute? What passage in the horns makes the principal trumpet player’s hair stand on end? All kinds of people in the orchestra could send tweets during the performance, or rather could write them in advance, and have them sent out at the proper time by others. Someone in the audience could decide which Twitter streams to follow, or could follow them all.

Knowing full well that I’ll be slammed as a dinosaur etc. if I say anything at all to question the mightiness of social media and like that: I find this a little odd. In-concert tweets “describing what’s going on”? Um, there’s an orchestra performing; check it out. (I’m remembering an old David Mamet interview where he talks about disliking it when reporters use a tape recorder: “Why don’t you try listening?” ) OrĀ  maybe you’d get a tweet that says, “This is the good part, starting now.” Or just: “Applaud.”

And what’s this about what the conductor is thinking about while conducting — is the idea that s/he is waving the baton with one hand and texting with the other?

Having said all that, the problem here may just be that the example is throwing me off, and there’s some more interesting/useful application of the idea. But my immediate reaction is that this implies that an orchestra, by itself, simply playing music, isn’t worth your time. Like maybe what the audience really wants is a Twitter feed for their favorite baseball team, so they can pay attention to the game during the boring parts of the musical program.

What do you think?

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I think the idea of supplemental information could enhance the experience of listening to a live performance–but not quite in the way the original article imagines. I’m thinking more of an original work that was composed with this kind of metadata channel in mind. The way the author describes seems tacked-on to keep the interest of a listless audience. What if it was a part of the story being told?
In addition, the audience may be doing such enhancements already (or soon): e.g. the ‘Twitter backchannel’ that forms at some tech conferences, where audience members add to (or distract from, as the case may be) presentations and discussions with their own commentary. Knowing about and owning (by focusing rather than controlling) these discussions might be a first step.

Written By Jeffrey Meltion on February 19th, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

This kinda sounds like the “commentary track” so common on DVDs now (some TV shows). You get to hear the directors/actors/writers/stagehands take on the scene. Usually you watch this after you’ve watched the movie once, as the commentary in away distracts you from the movie while telling you more about it, so you might not pay attention to the tweets this first time you go to the orchestra, but it could be an incentive to go again to develop a further appreciation of what goes into making a wonderful performance from the fingers of those who do it. Won’t be for everyone, but definitely a value add for orchestra fans.

Written By Sam on February 19th, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

I don’t see how in-concert (classical concert — or jazz for that matter … heck, most concerts) tweeting can’t do a disservice to everyone around the tweeter, whether or not they’re dinosaurs.

I like to tweet (, and check email remotely, and so forth, but when I attended the San Francisco Symphony a year or so ago, the guy checking his email next to me was downright obnoxious for doing so. The light his phone displayed, not to mention the tapping, were annoying. He knew it, too, maybe even felt guilty. After a few minutes, all I did was turn toward him slightly, and he immediately got the point and stuffed the thing into his suit jacket. (Then he took a nap.)

Now, at intermission, it’s totally cool, I think. I tweet’d midway through a recent concert by eighth blackbird and some musicians from Oberlin a month back (during the break). And later (mid-way through the second half, if I’m not mistaken — my phone was on mute), I learned someone had commented back on one of the pieces I’d mentioned. Neat. (Behind me, someone who’s associated with the performers checked a Blackberry several times during the performance, which blew me away.)

It’s all about social context. At a gallery exhibit recently, I didn’t feel I was disturbing anyone, so via Twitter I mentioned a bunch of sheet music on display as art, and shortly thereafter someone sent me a link to an image of an insanely beautiful Xenakis score I’d never seen before. How cool is that?

On a related note, I was at a rave in Tokyo in December, and I came to think that cellphones may have ruined raves. You can’t get lost (in the Frank Loesser/Chet Baker sense of the phrase) in them when you’re just a cellphone message (or a tweet) away from locating a friend. People were constantly looking at their phones. If tweeting is distracting in a show where the music is so loud it rattles your chest cavity, how could it not ruin the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony?

Written By Marc Weidenbaum on February 19th, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

I actually really like the idea; it’s the same as the director’s commentary on a DVD. It’s always interesting to get inside the artist’s mind, see which parts they like or dread or are inspired by. Which, by the way, already exists in a form – the liner notes in the program, which frequently contain thoughts from the conductor and others about the night’s performance. This is more like the guided audio tours at a museum; there’s a layer of extra meaning and value added by the just-in-time delivery rather than a static piece that you read before or read after.

Other thoughts:

-In musicals, I frequently strain my eyes and annoy neighbors by using lights to read the name of the current song and see which characters are in it; that information could be sent to my phone instead.

-I feel like you’re thinking about this as someone experienced in attending and listening to orchestras; my mom’s a music teacher, and frequently takes classes of children on their first trip to the orchestra. How valuable would this be as a learning tool? Even very basic items, like: “This part is the overture; it’s a preview of the music you are going to hear during the rest of the show.”

Written By Jollyblue on February 19th, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

It’s an interesting idea – but I don’t know why it’d be more useful to have the conductor or violinist’s thoughts in real-er time than usual. Would that make my appreciation of the music deeper? I doubt it, in fact, as a listener, I might get annoyed that their full concentration isn’t on performance but on commenting on the performance while performing. In that way it become some kind of meta-performance art-happening, rather than a true concert. An entirely different undertaking.

I like knowing what artists and writers and performers think about the work they’re engaged in, but it’s when they step away from it momentarily that they can take a breath and think a little more solidly on the topic. I can see the counterpoint – that folks are interested in knowing what’s going on in their head in the moment, but I wonder if sometimes it’s entirely mundane, like, “Did I turn off the coffee maker before I got in my car to do this concert?”

Written By Sara Ivry on February 20th, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

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