Monday, October 7, 2013

Beethoven IX : the App

by Andrew Dell'Antonio

There’s something about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that inspires complex engagement. Long before the current Beethoven’s 9th Symphony app (TouchPress/Deutsche Grammophon, iOS only, free to try—then $5.99 for iPhone, $13.99 for iPad), even (can we remember that far?) before the explosion of the Internet, musicologist Robert Winter collaborated with programmer/designer Peter Bogdanoff to publish The CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Voyager Company in 1989—the first commercial interactive electronic publication, a CD-ROM controlled by Apple’s HyperCard program on the then-newish Macintosh platform. The venture was a resounding success; Bill Gates is reputed to have said, “We've finally seen what CD-ROM was made for.”  Winter’s Hyperstack was the product of a master teacher, and this was evident throughout the program, not least in the final quiz/“game,” which anticipated the current trend toward pedagogical “gamifying” by more than two decades.

The new Ninth Symphony app is less didactic, but no less impressive. On the iPhone, if the user feels sufficiently tantalized by the free excerpt from the third movement to pay $5.99, this yields four significant recordings of the Ninth from the deep Deutsche Grammophon stable that are perfectly synchronized with a score (the recent Bärenreiter edition by Jonathan Del Mar, which boasts careful Urtext status, drawing on sources close to Beethoven to strip away “accretions” from almost two centuries of tradition) as well as a visual-map indication of what instruments are playing in the orchestral layout and a concise description of the musical action by pianist and broadcaster David Owen Norris.

$8.00 more, only on the iPad, will yield not just more “real estate” to view the above and the option to view more than one of the synchronized resources at once (which is certainly more satisfying) but also more viewing options: the user can choose between a full score, a reduced score highlighting instruments featured in the passage, a facsimile of the manuscript Beethoven prepared for the London premiere, or a graphic reduction. The iPad version also has two levels of  running commentary by Norris—one tersely evocative (in the brief version, which is interestingly the one feature of the app that cannot be toggled off) the other precise, detailed, nuanced (in the expanded version, which the user can choose to view instead of the stylized orchestra map). Handy buttons allow replay or skipping of “passages” (presumably as defined by Norris).

The iPad version also offers extended video commentary on the Ninth by a distinguished and fairly diverse group of musicians and critics, whose takes on the work are clearly designed to build on themes of universality (the teaser for the app makes this especially clear), but who provide interesting glimpses of the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in the global reception of an iconic work representing a specific dominant cultural aesthetic. The listener may need to “listen between the lines” to grasp this, but the variety of voices is a welcome factor.

Less satisfying is Norris’s background on Beethoven and the Ninth behind a link called “The Story.” Musical description—whether terse or florid—is clearly Norris’s forte; and as a music historian, I completely accept the absence of my own tribe in the “talking head” videos, which are designed to speak to the multiple meanings of the Ninth for musicians and audiences in the present (though I do think there are cultural historians of music who could have provided useful and lively counterpoint). But Norris's musical storytelling nuance does not extend to history: his account of Beethoven's life and compositional process is hamfisted, reiterating outdated truisms about the composer and his place within early nineteenth-century society—and the role of Mozart and Haydn in his life—that could easily have been made more subtle even by consulting a cutting edge reference source like Oxford Music Online ... or might have been delegated to a music historian, to reach the same level of expert knowledge that is evident elsewhere in the app. In this respect, Winter’s earlier take on the Ninth was clearly superior. (Winter’s bio on the UCLA web site suggests he is working on an updated version of his pioneering Hyperstack, and it will be most interesting to see what form that takes.)

The “Story” section, focused as it is on Beethoven as exceptional genius, does resonate with one troubling aspect of this otherwise superbly designed app: it is a closed system. While the user can listen and view the symphony in many combinations—thereby gaining both knowledge of and appreciation for the complexity, beauty, and even multivalence of the work—this is silent and reverential interaction, recreating in spirit if not in full the sacralized atmosphere of the concert hall. It might be too much to ask for the opportunity for the user to “remix” Beethoven—to copy and paste portions of different recordings in order to customize a new interpretation, to change instrumentation of passages so as to hear how that might modify the effect, to modify a cadence to dwell on the significance of harmonic choice. But it would likely have been feasible to add the capability for users to bookmark (and perhaps compare) favorite passages or even add comments/annotations (as folks can do with software such as SoundCloud) and share those comments with other users of the app. This kind of social networking around music is a feature of several apps (for example the various music-making/manipulating apps published by Smule) and would have given Deutsche Grammophon the opportunity to emphasize the relevance of the Ninth beyond its distinguished talking heads (plus the chance to build and market to a captive social network).

In an age when “interactivity” is almost a given, the designers of this app had their work cut out for them. The result is impressive, but the interaction a bit one-sided. Fans of Beethoven and the Ninth will welcome the wealth of resources for close exploration—but it is a lonely journey.

Andrew Dell’Antonio is Distinguished Teaching Professor and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.  His foremost research interest is the process of listening—how it has been characterized and fostered from the 1600s to the present. His edited collection Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing (2004) and his monograph Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy (2011) are both published by the University of California Press.

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