Author, Publisher, Developer, Stitchcoder


Our creative director waxes lyrical about The Orchestra

This was originally posted on the Touchpress blog:

A delight to behold – a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the heart. The Orchestra is quite simply the most beautiful thing my company has ever made. Beautiful in every sense of the word. It’s filled with beautiful music. It’s filled with beautiful images. And it communicates its subject more beautifully than anything I’ve ever seen before.

Anything? Yes, anything.

Sure, there may be more beautiful paintings, more beautiful poems, or more beautiful sunsets. But I’m talking about things whose purpose is to communicate a sizable body of knowledge, to teach me something interesting about the world, to expand my horizons and deepen my understanding. I cannot think of anything, anywhere, in any medium, ever, that has done this as beautifully as the interactive experience we call The Orchestra.

No, seriously, I really mean that. I even mean that it’s more beautiful than my own interactive book, The Elements, which I used to think was pretty hot stuff.

You should be skeptical. After all, I have an interest in convincing you to get a copy of The Orchestra. So let me elaborate (unless you’re sold already, in which case, please, be my guest, get it now and start enjoying).

The first beautiful thing about The Orchestra is the music. For that we thank Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, and a certain Mr. Berlioz. (Music by these great composers and others was performed for this app by the Philharmonia orchestra, one of the world’s great musical institutions, and also one of its most innovative under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, a big name in such circles.)

This is music that stirs the heart and lifts the soul like an orphan’s new smile or a really profound piece of chocolate. You might think the best thing you can do with a piece of Beethoven is just listen to it and be glad you are alive. But it gets better. Unlike sausage, you really do want to know how this stuff is made.

In The Orchestra, we play you the music, but we also show it to you in ways that let you see its inner structure and hear it with greater understanding.

First, a traveling score runs across the screen as the music plays. This can be either standard musical notation, or a diagrammatic representation designed to highlight the pure form of the music. You may have seen this kind of thing before, but we’ve tried to do it better. The standard score is exactly the same as the one the musicians and conductor worked from, lovingly typeset by the experts at The Music Sales Group (our other partner in this work). The simplified diagrammatic score is beautifully designed for maximum communication in minimum space.

But the fun really starts with what I call the Blinking Lights Panel. (Others around Touchpress refer to it as the Laser Display Board for obscure British reasons, and officially we’re calling it the BeatMap, but I’m going to stick with calling it the Blinking Lights Panel, because it’s a panel, it’s full of lights, and they blink.)

The BLP is very simple in concept, but tricky in execution and profound in effect. It consists of one dot for each instrument in the orchestra, laid out roughly the way the actual orchestra is, though somewhat stylized and regularized. Any time any instrument group plays a note, the corresponding dots flash, a little or a lot depending on how loudly the note is played, and for how long. Every instrument, every note, perfectly in sync with the sound of the performance.

This is tricky because, even if you have the complete score of the piece, as we do, there’s this annoying fellow called the conductor whose job is to vary the tempo in ways that mean no mechanical interpretation of the score will exactly match the actual performance. But we figured out a clever, scalable way to do precise, beat-by-beat synchronization of the score to the performance.

Precise being the operative word. The human brain has hardware used to coordinate perceptions coming through the eyes with those coming through the ears. Consider for example the ability to pick out and listen to a single conversation in a crowded room. This skill relies critically on watching the face of the speaker: The act of seeing their lips move actually pulls their words out from the background, making them sound louder and clearer than they truly are.

This brain mechanism only works if the synchronization between sight and sound is perfect. And because we have achieved such perfection in The Orchestra, the Blinking Lights Panel allows you to experience this clarifying effect. By watching a particular set of lights when a given instrument is in action, that instrument comes out from the thick of the orchestra and makes itself heard more plainly.

It’s quite a remarkable thing, and if nothing else it’s a fantastic way to learn what each of these different instruments sounds like in the context of the whole orchestra. Even at a live performance it’s often hard to tell exactly which note is coming from which instrument, but in The Orchestra, it’s crystal clear to both your eyes and your ears.

Watching individual dots teaches you about instrument sounds, but watching the whole panel during certain passages puts you in the mind of the composer, almost literally. When I see the different sections firing off in rapid sequence, the sound flashing from side to side, front to back, now here, now there, I am reminded of those remarkable scans of the human brain in action, showing how thoughts flit from region to region as fleetingly as, well, thoughts. I wonder if that’s how Beethoven saw it in his own mind. It’s hard to imagine composing music of such exquisite complexity, with so many moving parts, without having some kind of mental picture of the orchestra laid out with different parts lighting up as their sound is called into action.

Our attempts at visualizing music, at elucidating, tracking, or reflecting its structure in visual patterns, are far from the first such attempts. This kind of thing has been done hundreds of times. We’ve just done it better, that’s all.

Beyond symbolic representations of music, The Orchestra includes very concrete ones in the form of complete video tracks for each of the eight pieces: One camera always on Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting, and two cameras on key performers, moving from instrument to instrument as the melody shifts around the orchestra. And the app contains a full book’s worth of text by Mark Swed (classical music critic for the LA Times) describing the music, the composers, the instruments, and the orchestra. And running commentary from both the conductor and the musicians during every piece. And separate audio tracks that let you listen to each section of the orchestra individually, as if you were walking around the performers while they play. Normally each of these would be headline features, but there’s just so much in this product that they rate only a sentence each.

If The Orchestra contained just the eight performance sections I’ve described, with all their richly layered content, it would be a fantastic product. But we didn’t just create a fantastic product, we created The Most Beautiful Educational Experience Ever. There’s more.

Right off the home page is a gloriously lush jewel box of a page that shows off the major instruments of the orchestra lovingly photographed and marvelously rotating all at once. (Those of you who have seen our previous products will recognize this look from many of our titles. But it’s never been as beautiful as in The Orchestra.)

And when I say lovingly photographed, I mean we photographed over thirty of the Philharmonia’s own instruments, nearly always under the nervous and watchful eye of their musician-owner. Yes, we hung a million dollar violin on a loop of fishing line suspended from a rotating motor, and we did not drop it. We put an 8-foot wide marimba and a full-sized harp on my custom-built large-object turntable. We did absolutely everything except a concert grand piano. I draw the line at pianos, not because we couldn’t do one, but because you have to draw the line somewhere, and I rather it be at pianos than Blue Whales.

Many of these instruments are gorgeous works of art in their own right, but of course they are meant to be played, so for each instrument we have both the rotating image (which you can control with your own finger) and a video showing one of the Philharmonia’s musicians putting it through its paces.

It’s quite a remarkable thing to listen to, say, the viola being bowed and plucked and knocked in various ways, and realize that this is one of the best viola players in the world giving you a fun and very personal introduction to the instrument he’s spent a lifetime mastering.

And if that weren’t enough under the description of each instrument you will find a virtual piano keyboard spanning the full range that instrument is capable of. Touch any key and you will hear that instrument paying that note. Not some kind of synthesizer, an actual individual recording of a world-class musician playing that specific note on an instrument that may be three hundred years old.

I don’t know if The Orchestra will be around in three hundred years, but I do know that this year, it’s the most beautiful tribute to the art and craft of the orchestra there is, bar none and by a wide margin. I invite you to take a look.