Electronic screens for orchestral music

John Robert Brown

We've all heard of the paperless office. Now comes the paperless concert stage, which promises to change the lives of all orchestral musicians.

When the Uralsk Philharmonic toured Britain in mid-April they played from electronic screens. The fifteen Kazakh string players used ten 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. Musicians discretely ‘turn pages’ by using a foot pedal.

John Anderson works regularly with the Uralsk Philharmonic, now as Principal Guest Conductor. "Samsung is sponsoring the orchestra," says Anderson, speaking after a successful concert in Leeds during the orchestra's recent tour of Britain. "Samsung and Air Astana have sponsored the orchestra. Samsung provided the screens. Marat Bisengaliev, the founder and artistic director of the orchestra, gave a solo violin recital in Carnegie Hall recently. He brought some screens back with him. He's been using a similar sort of thing for the past couple of years."

Anderson thinks that this was the first complete use of electronic screens for orchestral music in Britain. He is enthusiastic about the MusicPad screens, though he has difficulty using one when conducting.

"The big advantage for us is that the musicians don't have to turn pages. They can keep playing. With a small string section that's a huge advantage. In any orchestra, you're losing half the sound when the strings are turning pages. And there always seems to be an awkward page turn right at the end of a quiet section – which ruins the atmosphere in a concert."

Because of difficulties with reading a screen from an angle, or when making body movements, Anderson is the only person on stage without a MusicPad. Nevertheless, he is an enthusiastic advocate of the technology.

"If you are recording, it's completely silent. And if you want to have something atmospheric in the concert, you can 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 all backlit."

Does Anderson have concerns about reliability?

"There's a battery backup. The stands can run on the battery for about three hours. In one concert the power for one of the desks failed. It only happened to one of them, once - because we hadn't powered it up properly. We try not to use the mains. My only concern is if the power goes. We only started to use the screens during the week of March 16th, in Kazakhstan, so they are virtually brand new to the orchestra. The players are still discovering how to use them properly. There are many things one can do with them. You can highlight passages, increase the size of the image, or display half a page at a time. Or you could turn the stand on its side and have a landscape rather than a portrait view. I think they can make the image virtually any size they like. You could make the notes quite big, so that it would be good for the visually impaired."

MusicPad Pro is Mac and PC compatible. Music can be annotated for phrasings, bowings, accents and even silent messages (!), using an on-screen stylus. Digital music can be directly imported to the MusicPad Pro in popular graphics file formats such as PDF or JPEG, or users can scan their music into a PC and download it to the device.

What do the musicians think of the stands?

"The Uralsk Philharmonic is a young orchestra, the players quite enjoy it," says Anderson. "It's something new. They are into that sort of thing. They're computer-mad anyway. For them it's been great. There haven't been any complaints."

Sold in hand-carry bags, padded, there are two screens and stands to a case. "They travel well," is Anderson's view.

Cost depends on the specification and whether a rechargeable battery is included. A foot pedal is an extra. There are two models of MusicPad: the basic one runs on AC power, with 32 MB flash memory and 64 MB RAM, for US$999. The MusicPad Pro Plus adds extra flash memory (for a total of 64 MB) and a rechargeable battery, for a total of $1,199. The optional foot pedal adds an extra $69 to the bill. An alternative, rival, system, called eStand, was described in CM in November 2003.

An enlarged version of the orchestra – called the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra - will perform the first live performance of Karl Jenkins’ Requiem in St. Paul's Cathedral on June 2nd, playing from MusicPad screens. When the screens were used in Leeds John Anderson drew attention to them. At the end of the concert he gave a brief description, inviting anyone interested onstage for a view behind the screens.

Most of the audience crowded forward! Comments from the curious ranged from debate about reliability - citing the safety of fly-by-wire aircraft - to the idea that musicians who knew the score could have things other than music displayed on their screens. Where did they get that notion?

The high level of interest, and the neatness and efficiency of the MusicPad screens, are signs that for performing musicians the age of paper may be about to end.

First published in Classical Music magazine, 2005

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