I live in constant fear of being that guy. The one whose phone goes off in the middle of a funeral to the chorus of “Talk Dirty To Me” and then, like a drunk octopus juggling a trio of frozen rib roasts, fumbles his way into a public shaming.
In that spirit, I often don’t even bring my phone to a concert or service of any kind.
That wasn’t the case on a recent Tuesday night when I flew to Philadelphia to experience the test run of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new LiveNote. It’s an app designed to let concertgoers follow the music on their mobile devices during a concert.
My story on LiveNote and other ways museums, theater companies and orchestras are using tech can be found here.
My personal experience with LiveNote? It started before I got to the Kimmel Center. It began when I got off the plane, hopped in a cab, and noticed my phone was down to 38 percent on the juice bar. I spent the 90 minutes before the concert plugging in, at Starbucks and then inside the hall.
Downloading the app was easy enough and then I took a seat in the hall.
What surprised me the most, as I craned my neck, is how few of the technologically savvy-slash-addicted kids here on this free, college night concert seemed to be on LiveNote. Sure, they were texting and posting on Facebook, Snapchat and whatever new, social media app existed. But many I spoke to were unaware of LiveNote.
My advice to the Philadelphia Orchestra: If I were testing an app, I’d do more than mention it, as composer Jennifer Higdon did at the start of the concert, or rely on video monitors in the lobby advertising LiveNote. These are kids. Sometimes, they need to be walked through, as if they’re learning a mathematical equation. I’d have had Higdon go schoolmarm and ask the students to take out their phones, locate the app, and download it. Perhaps I’m being too heavy-handed but if you’re going to try something out, try it.
So the concert starts. I click in via my iPhone and nothing. I check the wifi and I’m not connected to the LiveNote stream, which is designed only to be picked up in the Kimmel Center hall. It’s frustrating. The music has been playing for three minutes and I’m fumbling around on my phone, checking the settings instead of getting my first exposure to the Philadelphia Orchestra.
I text Youngmoo Kim, the Drexel engineering prof who helped develop LiveNote. He’s in the balcony – I’m on the floor – and our conversation goes like this.
Me: Is wifi down
Youngmoo: Not where I am (balcony)
Me: Maybe it is at & t but won’t connect
Youngmoo: Sorry, perhaps the app needs to be restarted?
Me: I’ll try
Me: Back in business
And I was back in business.
We were heading into Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” There were two streams – the story and the analysis. The story didn’t really capture my interest – I know about the Jets and the Sharks – though I understand the purpose when you’re trying to reach a generation that hasn’t heard of Huey Lewis. But I did like the analysis. Not being a musician, I appreciated LiveNote referencing tritones and open fifths and the definition of a tone row (“… when all 12 notes of the scale are played without repeating any …).
Too often, museums and symphonies treat us – the reasonably intelligent but untrained masses – like third-graders, dumbing down wall labels and booklet essays. That wasn’t the case here and I appreciated it.
A confession, though. During “West Side,” my mind wandered. I thought about my daughter and whether she had finished her homework. I texted her. I thought about an upcoming story that I was trying to pin down. I texted the publicist. I wanted to feel ashamed but it was hard. The girl next to me was tweeting furiously. A guy in front was filming a few minutes on his iPad.
That said, as the concert moved along, I developed a better sense of how to experience the performance with LiveNote. I could dip in and out. I didn’t need to read every line or keep my eyes pinned to my iPhone. I felt connected to what was going on in the hall musically but realized there was a crutch available if I got curious or confused. In a way, it wasn’t all that different from picking up that definitive box set of “Kind of Blue” and keeping the album notes in hand as you listened.
Will LiveNote stick? That remains to be seen. Many of these new ventures are driven by grants and LiveNote is no different. The Knight Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts helped on this.
But after using the app, I think it’s clear there’s a place for my phone in a concert hall – as long as I make sure the ringer is off.