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Look At This

Electronic Gadgetry

John Robert Brown

Watching the audience from the balcony of Alice Tully Hall recently, I was struck by the differences in the ways that concert goers behave in other countries. Sitting above and behind the Manhattan listeners I was astounded to see many cell phone screens glowing away pre-concert, to within seconds of the first notes. I wondered, would there be an outbreak of ringing cell phones during the opening bars?

Then the explanation came to me. My fellow Lincoln Center concert-goers were not making phone calls, or sending personal messages. No, they were reading programme notes which they’d received electronically. They had been sent to every ticket holder before the concert. Clearly, this was a popular service. Equally clearly, it’ll be coming soon to a concert hall near you. And, since you are wondering, I heard no phones ring during the performance.

In recent times I seem to have encountered almost daily some innovative use of electronic gadgetry. Visiting the workshops of the renowned double-bass makers Thomas and George Martin this spring, George - up to his ankles in sawdust, sandpaper and shavings - was fitting strings to a cracked and crinkly contrabass which dated from 1685. George pulled out his iPhone on which was loaded a tuning-fork application. His screen carried a picture of a metal tuning fork. An ‘A’ sounded with each shake of the phone. Clearly, George is quite at home using this most modern of applications (‘apps’) to tune a bass which is as old as JS Bach. The app has a choice of pitches, together with a built in metronome. To download it to your phone costs a mere couple of pounds. Incidentally, the Apple company is currently advertising the availability of no fewer than 350,000 apps for their iPhone!

And, only a few days ago, I was in the audience at a jazz performance in Cleethorpes and saw a guitarist use his iPhone to find and download the chord progression of a standard tune that the visiting soloist wanted to play. Taking that a stage further, I’ve heard of a function band which fielded the four constituents who played their set reading from four iPhone screens.

In turn, that’s only an informal version of the low-glare LCD screens, called MusicPad Pro, manufactured by Freehand Systems of California. At 13.3 by 9.9 by 1.8 inches, the screens are small, tidy, and weigh only five pounds. Orchestral musicians carefully ‘turn pages’ by using a foot pedal. Conductors can choose to have the lights down, and even have images projected on a screen behind the orchestra. The players don’t need light because the music is backlit, creating a very theatrical effect.

But back to Manhattan, where both the Metropolitan Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum now offer visitors the use of an iTablet with their special exhibitions. The exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt, of Van Cleef & Arpel’s jewellery, generously provides an electronic catalogue. I was surprised to be trusted with the delicate piece of electronic technology. At first glance the on-screen catalogue looks glittering and enticing. But in this case the tablet is unwieldy, the display tedious to read. Ironically, it’s all a matter of design, I suppose, but at the Design Museum I soon reverted to the use of a paper catalogue.

In contrast, the iPad was a wonderful asset at the Metropolitan, where the exhibition of twentieth-century guitar makers was impressively enhanced by the electronic gadget. As I looked at these beautiful archtop guitars, I had access to onscreen interviews with makers. On headphones one could hear recordings of guitar performances which used the very instruments on display in the exhibition.

Now comes news that Amazon is to release a rival to Apple’s iPad. Reports say that Taiwanese manufacturers are about to produce up to 800,000 of the new Kindle touch screen tablet devices per month during the second half of this year. The Kindle is Britain’s most popular e-reader. The Publishers Association has said that last year, sales of e-books rose 20 per cent to £180 million. JP Morgan estimates that the tablet computer market will be worth £21 billion by the end of next year.

Such a surge is bound to affect reed players in some way. Just how that will hit us, I have little idea. Observations welcomed.

First published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Summer 2011, volume 36, number 2.
Used by kind permission. Unauthorised reproduction forbidden.

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