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Analog to digital: Cornell conductor tries to modernize the orchestra with Google Glass

Analog to digital: Cornell conductor tries to modernize the orchestra with Google Glass

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Google Glass (STOCK)
Google Glass (STOCK)

Classical music doesn’t have a need for modern technology. Instruments have been built for centuries, scores print just fine on paper, and concert seating gives patrons a good enough perspective on the orchestra as it is. But while classical music may not need technology, Cynthia Turner, a conductor and a professor at Cornell, is trying to turn many of those assumptions on their head using Google Glass. "It could be a game changer for anyone who needs two hands to do something," Turner told reporters on Friday.

Glass could replace stands and sheet music

Turner is energetic about her job, even calling out "forte" — the musical term for playing loudly — when she needs someone to speak up. It’s a liveliness that makes her vision of the orchestra’s future come off as fairly compelling. She paints an image of musicians all wearing Google’s headsets, no stands or scores cluttering their chamber, the composer’s point of view broadcast on a screen above them, and intermittent notes of text appearing on screen to explain to patrons what’s happening in a given musical movement.

And she’s already started to do some of it. Turner has replaced program guides with digital projections, and recently she’s begun trying to livestream her point of view as a conductor onto a screen above the orchestra as well. "They’ll occasionally see my baton, or my hands, or my music," Turner said. "But more importantly, they would see the musicians who are making all the sounds."

There have been a few problems so far. Because conductors are physically expressive by necessity, a lot of jerky movement can easily show up in the video and cause motion sickness for viewers. "When I’m making a video, I have to curb my enthusiasm," Turner said. The other issue is latency: a half-second lag on a video chat may not mean much, but in a concert, that’s an entire bar of music. It ends up looking, Turner said, "like a poorly dubbed Japanese dinosaur film."

Broadcasting a conductor’s point of view isn’t exactly enabled by Glass, though — it would have been possible years ago with much cheaper technology — now it’s just a bit simpler. But Turner’s real vision for Glass begins with apps.

Building a new style of music notation around Glass

Working with Tyler Ehrlich, an undergraduate student at the university, Turner has been developing apps that could replace music stands and sheet music altogether. "The whole idea of a music stand that is black and thick ... to get rid of that is very exciting," Turner said. "It’s just you and the musician." A basic version of their app might just scroll notes by for the musician as they’re meant to be played, but Turner and Ehrlich have a far bigger vision: to create an entirely new method of music notation for the 21st century.

Since the display on Glass is landscape, rather than portrait like most sheet music, Turner imagines that notes could be shaped differently or use different colors to give different instructions. They’re calling the new notation a "salient score," as it’s meant to augment musicians’ existing knowledge of a piece, rather than tell them every single detail about it.

A salient score app is only a dream for now though: Turner readily admits that creating the perfect app, one that could intelligently adjust the tempo or instructions based on what an orchestra was actually doing, is beyond their abilities and immediate purview. And what they are creating — effectively a PDF reader that scrolls a score across the screen of Glass — hasn’t gone very far either.

"Bottom line: I think it’s an amazing technology," Turner said. Even so, she’d like to take advantage of Glass sooner rather than later to help build audiences for classical music. "I wonder if in a few years people will look [at Glass] and say, ‘Oh, how quaint.’"