Before the concert begins, please turn on your cellphones
CAMBRIDGE — You may not know Eran Egozy’s name, but if you either were between the ages of 10 and 24 in the mid-2000s or had children in that ballpark, you may be familiar with one of the wildly successful video games on his resumé. Harmonix Music Systems, the video game development company he founded with fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Alex Rigopulos, brought the “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” franchises to living rooms and dorm lounges everywhere, introducing immersive, interactive technology through which non-musicians could play music. Now Egozy is turning his attention from the video game console to the concert hall with the app NoteStream.
The app offers an alternative to the traditional program book, which delivers listeners a static wall of text that may be difficult to take in before the lights go down. NoteStream is designed to run on smartphones, displaying images and insights about a piece in real time as it is performed. “Our purpose is to engage with the audience more,” Egozy said at MIT, where he teaches. “We want people who are listening to music, especially if they’re listening for the first time, to be able to appreciate more of it as they’re listening to it.”
NoteStream’s prototype outing was during an MIT Wind Ensemble performance of Percy Grainger’s English folk tune-inspired “A Lincolnshire Posy” in December. On March 3, it will make a more high-profile debut at the Ambient Orchestra’s premiere of MIT professor Evan Ziporyn’s cello concerto arrangement of David Bowie’s final album, “Blackstar,” featuring soloist Maya Beiser.
As the orchestra plays, the app will run through a slideshow of stills from Bowie’s music videos, facts about his life and art, information about instrumentation and key points in the score, and lyrics. Egozy and his research assistant, MIT senior Nathan Gutierrez, have been load testing the app in preparation for Kresge Auditorium’s thousand-person capacity, to make sure the server doesn’t get overloaded mid-performance, and working with Ziporyn and MIT postdoctoral fellow (and Bowie aficionado) Lauren Flood on developing and refining the content listeners will see. The team carefully manages how much information the app shows the audience, so as not to be distracting.
At the Wind Ensemble performance, listeners were able to choose between “story” mode, a pedagogically oriented sequence of slides illustrating themes and symbolism, and “score” mode, which displayed snippets of the music, but this feature has been cut. “A lot of people were flopping back and forth,” Egozy explained, wanting the audience to be more engaged with the music than with their phones. Some things have not been tested, such as how much battery life the app consumes, but Egozy seemed optimistic: “It’s not Pokémon Go.” Gutierrez, who wrote the code for the app, will keep the slides in synch with the music by tapping along with it from a console in the back of the hall.
In addition to being a music technologist and accomplished clarinetist, Egozy is also a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Media and Technology Committee, a group made up mostly of board members as well as other tech experts under the leadership of former MIT president Susan Hockfield. “It is possible that eventually this technology becomes something that the BSO uses, for example, in the Casual Friday series,” Egozy said. These intermissionless concerts, which are an initiative of that committee, already incorporate immersive technology with their “Conductor Cam” seats in the rear of the hall behind a large screen, with a feed of the conductor from the orchestra’s perspective. The committee has considered that NoteStream may have a place in that area as well, where it can be used without imposing on listeners who desire to experience the concert without screens.
Even though the app’s dark background is designed to be unintrusive, cellphones and the concert hall may never mix well for some. “If you have a very specific, set idea of what the classical music concert scene should be like, and you think there should be no electronics at all, then you’re probably not going to like it,” Egozy said. However, for those who are open to it, NoteStream explores the possibility of personal technology becoming an enhancement to live performance rather than a nuisance. “As long as your phone doesn’t make any beeps . . . I think it should be fine.”
Ambient Orchestra with Maya Beiser
At Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, March 3, 7:30 p.m. arts.mit.edu
An earlier version mistated the time of the “Blackstar” concert.