About five clicks in from the main page of the vast PBS Web site is a little drag-and-click feature called "Match the Music. " It is a guilty pleasure that allows you to pair short snatches of famous works of classical music with images from equally famous paintings. Click on Bela Bartok, then click on Edvard Munch, and you can, for about half a minute, listen to the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta while watching a slow pan over "The Scream."
It is remarkably addictive, even for those suspicious of the old "What does this painting sound like?" approach to art. There are 12 paintings and 12 musical selections on PBS.org, and the immediate impulse is to approach it like an SAT question: Look for basic "cat is to meow as dog is to bark" analogies. Stuart Davis's "Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors -- 7th Avenue Style, 1940" is a busy abstraction of blues and reds and jagged shapes that suggests something urban. Natural pairing? Copland's "Music for the Theater," in which the clarinet seems analogous to the blue tones, the percussion to the red ones, and the whole thing feels cut from the same jazz-cool aesthetic. That's an obvious, and perfectly dull, pairing.
Far more interesting, though who knows what they say about music and art, are more perverse pairings that make no sense chronologically, stylistically or historically. Munch's "Scream" should probably be paired with Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night." But try putting it with Brahms's Violin Concerto, and the "meaning" or apparent mood of the painting changes entirely. The simple descending chord that gives Brahms's melody all its dignified sadness suppresses the violence of the painting; the scream of "The Scream" goes silent, and the horrifying warp and sway of the anguished, cartoonlike figure shouting madness into the void is rendered lyrical. Brahms's music overwhelms the first impression and suggests a reflective reading of the figure: This isn't madness, or the fear of madness, but the acceptance of madness and dreams and despair as simple and necessary elements of the emotional periodic table. It makes Munch seem knowing, and wise, about pain.
Does this teach anyone anything about music? It probably says more about how the eyes and ears function, when employed together, than it does about art. The mind must reconcile meanings, even starkly different or opposed ones, and the reconciliation is often at the expense of one idea or the other.
If nothing else, the game should teach all of us a certain impatience with the obvious, with all those tedious adjectives that cling to the names of artists and artistic styles -- the elegance of Mozart, the profundity of Bach -- that tend to shut down new or individual associations. And unlike many (perhaps most) efforts at introducing new audiences to music, this little game allows the newcomer freedom to subvert the expected answers.
"Match the Music," which debuted on the Web earlier this month, was designed by California-based Rolling Orange Inc. as part of "Keeping Score," a multimedia educational collaboration between the San Francisco Symphony and PBS's "Great Performances" series. Although the classical music business has been ridiculously slow exploiting new technology to save its skin from cultural death, this is a small and mostly promising sign of motion in the right direction. Other signs are more ambiguous.
At the National Performing Arts Convention this month in Pittsburgh, the buzz among symphony types was about something called the Concert Companion, a hand-held device that will display running commentary, video images and program notes during symphony orchestra concerts. It has been tested, so far, at several major symphony orchestras. If it's as successful as its supporters hope, it may be as ubiquitous in the concert hall as supertitles in the opera house. But symphony-goers are notoriously conservative.
Jack McAuliffe, vice president and chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, says this kind of gizmo is "an application of technology to a very sticky problem: How do you provide context for one individual without imposing it on the rest of the audience?" Museums have developed one approach, the personal audio tour, which lets viewers decide whether they want to be yakked at by a professional or wander through on their own (dodging the audio-tour folks who move around in a sound bubble, oblivious to other traffic).
Melding technology with music is generally a sign of desperation, aimed at people who know nothing about music and who (it is assumed) need distraction from getting bored during a full-length concert. But not all technology is created equal, and technology that zeroes in on one essential facet of music -- that it happens in time -- is generally more interesting than technology that is all buttons and touch-screens and interactivity for interactivity's sake.
The difficulty with teaching people about music is that you can't point to the thing that's interesting (unless you both know enough about music to throw around terms like "exposition" and "recapitulation"). If the Concert Companion is subtle enough to allow the observations of old-style written program notes to be read at the moment the event they describe is actually being heard, that's an advance.
"Match the Music," which seems designed to appeal to musical newcomers, is paired with another feature -- a scrolling musical score -- on PBS's "Keeping Score" pages. The latter feature is designed for a more musically knowledgeable audience and uses technology to highlight written musical features as the music is playing. This too is a significant advance, though not all the bugs are worked out.
Even with a high-speed connection, things sometimes get out of sync or stall. And it isn't easy to move the score around on the screen so you can watch the cellos and basses at the bottom of the page, and then flip up to the woodwinds at the top.
Still, watching the music go by as a symphony is playing hints at the enormous promise of the Web as a musical teaching tool. Only hints at, because there is something sadly unfulfilled here that speaks volumes about the way the orchestra business works today. Just as the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony gets moving, as the composer begins telling what promises, given the stern blasts from the French horns, to be a very serious story, the score and the music stop. Is this the limit of technology?
"It wasn't technical," says Jake McGowan, of Rolling Orange, who says one of the biggest challenges in putting "Keeping Score" together was gathering the rights and clearance to use images and music. But according to John Kieser of the San Francisco Symphony, only a few minutes of music were used because the relatively sophisticated appeal of seeing the score was thought to be limited to a small audience. Perhaps. But why shouldn't that audience be served as well? Especially given how well this technology could serve it.
Technology is not a panacea for classical music. No matter how sophisticated the interactivity, it's the quality of the message it delivers that matters. Much of the spoken commentary on "Keeping Score," even the commentary from San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (whose face appears an astonishing number of times), is pedestrian, more about biography than music, and loaded with the sacred verbiage of old-style Musical Appreciation.
But it is the features that focus directly on the experience of music, whether it's a scrolling score for the musically literate, or the revelation of mostly unconscious preconceptions of music revealed by the mix-and-match game, that work best. Both eliminate the middleman, and both seem well calculated to open up curiosity about music, rather than satisfy it with the usual non-answers and circular reasoning (great music moves us because great composers write moving music) that pass for wisdom among commentators.
For years orchestras have used any means possible, including technology, to interest people in the product they sell -- music. These technological experiments suggest, however, that what works best is transparency. Get solitary people back in touch, directly, with music itself.
To view the "Keeping Score" and "Match the Music" Web pages, visit www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/multimedia/multimedia.html and click on "Keeping Score."