On August 4th, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, performed a concert entitled "Fantastic Planet" which combined classical music (of course) and more modern elements, such as video projections and....iPods? Prior to the show, NSO conductor Emil de Cou had recorded a commentary track that offered insights into the music of the evening. Pieces of history, trivia, and background that concert-goers eager to experiment could download to their iPods (or other MP3 players) and listen to during the live performance.
"I thought it would be neat to have the conductor being your seatmate, whispering into your ear at key moments," Emil de Cou said before the performance.
Reading the review on the Washington Post, it's obvious that the experiment achieved mixed results. Some folks had trouble syncing their iPods to the live music. Others found the commentary track distracting. With music, spoken words and video, all swirling around the brain at the same time, it's no wonder. According the Stephen Brookes, "Two minutes into the opening piece I quietly slid off my headphones, and by intermission it was impossible to spot anyone still plugged in."
But the idea of commentary tracks for classical music is not a bad one. DVDs almost always have commentary tracks. But usually those tracks are switched on during a movie you have seen countless times and know the plot, characters and dialogue stone-cold; so, it becomes quite easy to concentrate on the commentary and the movie at the same time. I doubt if many in the audience on August 4th knew Vaughan Williams's "Serenade to Music" as well as I know every line in the "Princess Bride."
Also, in commentary tracks, syncing is vital. Especially if the track refers to something occurring at a specific moment. With live music, it is probably hard, if not impossible, to truly craft a commentary track that will sync up, because the beauty of live performance is the fact that it is live, and thus different every time.
Regardless of the evening's perceived success, kudos to the NSO for trying something new! If I lived in Washington, DC, I would have been there with my iPod in one ear, the music in the other, a smile on my face, and a big thumbs up to their creative experiment combining arts with technology.