Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Articles

High-Tech Hand-Held Concert Companion for Symphony Audiences

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for February 25, 2005, under headline,

Oakland East Bay Symphony tries latest in PDAs for concerts

Can high-tech and fine art coexist?

Evidently, yes. But just to make sure, check out the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra's performance tonight at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Michael Morgan will conduct -- and high-tech CoCo will be circulated throughout the audience to help out.

So just what IS CoCo? No, it is not an exceedingly smart gorilla, but rather, a sort of personal digital assistant (PDA), a concert companion -- nicknamed "CoCo" for short. Looking like a hand-held computer or calculator, it has a small screen that can deliver to the person holding it, pre-written program notes, real time commentary on the music being performed, and video images of the conductor or various instruments featured in particular musical passages.

A wireless network, staffed by an operator, will be set up in the Paramount to keep the device in synch with the live music. There will also be cameras at various locations within the Paramount to enable CoCo's video portions. Moreover, the device has a "menu" from which its holders may choose among its various functions.

There are indeed a couple of successful high-tech precedents to CoCo. One is the audio guide -- the little phone-like device with stop, go, and repeat buttons -- distributed by art galleries and museums to enhance patrons' viewing experiences. Once turned on, the little device guides its individual user to significant paintings or items and then explains that particular item's history and relevant details in lay terms. One of these little gizmos in hand is like having one's own private, personal guide to the gallery or museum.

Opera has been another recipient of high-tech resuscitation with its use of supertitles. Now employed by most of the world's opera houses, supertitles are simultaneous translations of whatever language is being sung, into the primary language of the audience. These are projected either over or on the sides of the stage, in a concise, easy-to-read format (in the case of the Metropolitan Opera, onto a video screen the back of the seat in front of the user).

Up until the use of supertitles, many people simply wouldn't consider sitting through several hours of goings-on in languages they didn't understand. Supertitles have drawn vast numbers of new, young audiences to the art form, while enhancing the experiences for the already converted.

But, what about that far more abstract artistic endeavor -- the instrumental concert?

A few years ago, a savvy chap named Rolland Valliere, watching the successes of opera companies and museums with their high-tech helpers, hit upon a solution. During a telephone chat last week, he explained the details to me. After his own ruminations on the subject, he sought out some help. He succeeded in teaming up with Opera Glass Networks, a multimedia information technology company, Professor Robert Winter of UCLA, Antenna Audio in San Francisco, and others, who combined their efforts to develop what has become known as "CoCo."

"If there could be an auditory enhancement of a visual experience," Valliere said, "why not flip things over and have a visual enhancement of an aural experience? Why not give some real time help to new concert audiences so that they too can have deeper experiences of what is happening on the stage?" Upon completion, CoCo was tested by the Kansas City Symphony in March of 2003; the Aspen Festival in July, 2003; the Philadelphia Orchestra during its performances at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in August, 2003; and finally, with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in May, 2004. It was a hit with its audience users.

Valliere described some of the subsequent survey responses, noting that 94% of the respondents said they would use CoCo again and 93% reported that they would recommend it to a friend. A whopping 60% said they would attend concerts more often if CoCo were available and 91% rated its ease of use as "good" or "excellent." As a result, the endeavor has attracted funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The David and Lucille Packard Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, DST Systems, Inc. and Hall Family Foundation.

Valliere brings both advanced musical knowledge and keen business acumen to his mission of making concert music more understandable and appealing to its audiences, especially to the new or infrequent concert-goer. Born in Rhode Island, he received a bachelor's degree in percussion performance from the New England Conservatory of Music and a master's degree in fine arts from Brandeis University. He has performed as a professional percussionist in the Boston area and has served as an instructor of music theory and music history at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. On the music business side of the coin, his accomplishments include serving as executive director of the Kansas City, Omaha, and New Hampshire Symphonies as well as the Hudson Valley Philharmonic.

Although the majority of audiences seem to like CoCo, not all the people on the production side of the music world do. One highly respected musicologist and program annotator compared "CoCo" to the "Anti-Christ" so far as classical music is concerned. And indeed, the head of the Metropolitan Opera once said of the use of supertitles, "Not over my dead body."

As usual, Maestro Michael Morgan, OEBS' conductor and music director, takes the enlightened view: "As a professional musician I am, of course, somewhat ambivalent about such devices. But I am also smart enough to know that if using this brings people, particularly new and infrequent concert-goers, closer to the music and provides a more enjoyable experience, then it could be a wonderful tool. We are happy to be a part of this international experiment."

Interestingly, concurrent with CoCo's Bay Area debut, the Rand Corporation has released its latest report on arts funding entitled "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts." One of Rand's key findings, according to Mike Boehm of the Los Angeles Times, "is that the arts won't flourish unless more arts lovers are minted through sustained exposure during childhood."

And, I would add, that this "sustained exposure" should be sustained throughout one's lifetime. Of course, the old adage applies: "You can bring a horse to the water, but you can't force him to drink." So, it takes more than just sitting someone down in a concert hall and barring all the doors until the concert is finished. While exposure can help, it is not enough. The concert experience must include some way to inform and explain what is going on, in an easy, appealing manner. CoCo just might be able to do this.

And a little afterthought -- bring your teenagers to the concert. They can certainly help us older folk operate CoCo.

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