Saturday, June 11, 2016

Visual Guides

One has to admire, I suppose, the tireless efforts of symphony administrators to find new ways to lure audiences to their concerts. Because if they don't, the orchestra won't survive. But some of the efforts seem to me to go a bit astray. Here is a typical example--and I see something similar come along every few months:

This is a sample of the new "listening guide" that the Toronto Symphony is going to be using for "developing audience appreciation". I discussed this with my orchestral violist friend and we both are of the opinion that this doesn't offer very much at all in terms of actual knowledge, but just sort of a weak illusion of knowledge. In other words, you see these colored sections with the little musical instruments and you have a visual map, but one that doesn't actually tell you anything. It is like a very primitive cartoon of a performance.

Here is my criteria for "is there real information or not?" I ask myself, can I identify the piece in question by looking at the visual aid? Take the one above. What piece is it? Is it a violin concerto? Maybe, maybe not. It has some counterpoint, ok and it is in C major, ok, but that describes hundreds if not thousands of pieces. Actual music notation, though it certainly takes some training to read, does actually tell you something--everything, actually. If I see this, for example, it precisely describes the piece:

That is the opening of the Haydn Violin Concerto No. 1 in C major.

So that's the situation: a virtually meaningless cartoon, that doesn't seem to have any real content, or very rich content that takes training to read. I suppose we have to look at the actual purpose of the visual aid. If it gets more people out to the concert then it is a success, if not, not. But will it? I somehow doubt that, but I suppose I could be wrong. What does concern me is the worry that people might think that there is no need to have a look at the actual score if you have one of these cartoony visual aids handy.

Here is the visual aid for the first movement of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4:

This tells you the tempo, Allegro, that the piano is answered by the strings, the winds play some stuff, and so on. The odd thing is that most of the information is simply text ("Allegro"), most of which uses standard technical terms in music like "bridge" and "transition" and "exposition". If you don't know those terms, then this won't be of much help. If you do know what those terms mean, then it is likely that you can also read music.

Honestly, this kind of thing is like a bastardized analysis with little pictures of the instruments and pretty colors. Actually learning to read music a bit would be ever so much more useful, if, that is, you were curious about how music works. And why wouldn't you be?

Here is the opening of the score of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4:

Click to enlarge
It's not that hard to read. There's the piano solo and the string response. Each note played is a little dot. In order to know the names of the notes you have to learn what the clef signs stand for. How hard is that? Should take a couple of minutes. There are three clefs on this page. From top to bottom they are the treble clef, which indicates, with a stylized letter "G" where the note G falls, the alto clef, which indicates with a bracket where the note middle C falls and the bass clef, which indicates with a stylized letter "F", where the note F falls. Here they are:

All the other notes are just alphabetical from A to G. For example, the note above the G on the treble clef is A, then there is B, C, D and so on. It's not that hard. I'll save telling you about how rhythm is notated for another day!

The truth is that visual guides like the one used by the Toronto Symphony are a regression to an early primitive form of musical notation.

Now let's listen to the first movement of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4. This is Mitsuko Uchida with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra:


Marc Puckett said...

While I see what you mean about these being, comparatively, 'weak illusions', they may be a damn sight more useful than the generality of text that makes it into the program booklets here, I think-- if I lived in a country where those are bought rather than distributed gratis I doubt I'd very often buy one.

That sort of basic information is something I usually know before I go to the concert hall but 'usually' isn't 'always', after all. (How many-- not me!-- of the twelve hundred people in the audience for Ginastera's Piano Concerto no 1 last autumn, e.g., will have consulted the score?)

Bryan Townsend said...

The first time I was in England, many years ago, I noticed that when I attended concerts at Wigmore Hall and the South Bank, the publishers had tables set up where you could purchase the scores for the pieces on the program. I was most impressed. Even more to see some music students in the audience huddled around a string quartet study score. I don't know if this is still the case. Certainly not in most of the world.