Saturday, December 15, 2012

App Review: The Orchestra, by TouchPress

by Touch Press. 2012.

Christmas comes early this year with another iOS app from Touch Press, who earlier this year brought us Shakespeare's Sonnets. Their latest offering, The Orchestra, brings Touch Press' characteristic polish to an app of musical exploration and appreciation. The Orchestra takes selections from eight orchestral works, from symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven to Stravinsky's Firebird and Salonen's Violin Concerto, and presents them supplemented by a host of tools.

The first of these tools is the video itself. At first this claim might seem an exaggeration, but we don't simply get a video of the performance, nor do we even get a superbly filmed concert performance. We get a performance during which cameras were able to float free and close to the performers, capturing close ups of all the sections, and which is expertly edited together to show sections and details at the appropriate time. Moreover, you can view up to three preselected angles at the same time, capturing, say, the conductor and two sections. Simply tap, pinch, and drag to cycle, expand, and arrange the videos as you please. You can also array the videos in miniature above the score. This is simply a blast. It's a treat to get such good camerawork but it is downright exciting to see so much going on in one view.

click to enlarge
The next of The Orchestra's features is the score, which scrolls along as the piece plays. A red line marks your current position and you can swipe back and forth to rewind or skip ahead. The scrolling is all perfectly smooth and if you have the videos playing at the same time there's nary a jitter out of them either. Even if you jump back or ahead several dozen bars the app picks up where you stop without a pause. Slick.

You can choose either a full score or one showing only the staves of currently playing instruments. This  feature, in conjunction with the auto-scrolling and the ease with which you can rewind, makes The Orchestra a tremendous aid to anyone learning to read a score. Beyond the score, though, are two visualizations of the musical selection. The first is a bar-graph style version of the score in which the parts are color coded and note values are represented not by different symbols but by lines of varying length. This increasingly popular visualization of the score helps emphasize the note lengths and shapes of the rhythms and it's gratifying to see it more formally welcomed into musical learning.

The second visualization, however, I had never seen before and makes clever use of the tablet's touch interface. Touch Press calls it a, "mesmeric synchronized BeatMap," and it consists of an overhead view of the orchestra, color-coded by section, with each instrument replaced by a dot. As the piece plays, the dots flash whenever the particular instrument hits a note. This is a splendid way to get a better sense of the orchestration of a piece, but one additional feature puts this tool over the top. If you tap the section, the app lowers the volume on the others. What a great way to study both rhythm and harmony, being able to isolate the sections and see which instruments play which rhythms and hear the timbres both by themselves and then in concert with the others. Due to space limitations this feature is only available for the Beethoven symphony, although you can enable and download it for the other apps with an in-app purchase.

Lastly, The Orchestra includes textual commentaries by Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and LA Times music critic Mark Swed. You can overlay both either as text or audio over the videos or score, which makes for a great follow up to the performance. Also, presenting these commentaries as overlays is much preferable to simply tucking them away as text files. Also included are descriptions of the instruments, accompanied with brief video descriptions from the principal players, a 3D model of the instrument, a MIDI keyboard letting you tap out notes on the instrument and see its range, and shortcuts to selections showcasing the instrument. These are nice touches, as smoothly implemented as the rest of the app, to material which could simply have been thrown in to fill out a features list.

These materials do, however, make me yearn for more scholarly information. I hope Touch Press considers following up The Orchestra with similar apps dedicated to specific pieces, with full performances, scholarly articles, and scores annotated with observations on harmony, structure, and so forth.

Still, this is a brilliant app. The Orchestra is exciting to use and takes a big and welcome step in app design. It doesn't simply put a lot of useful information at your fingertips, but it takes one topic and gives you many paths to and through it. The score and visualizations and videos aren't left as discrete bundles but are stitched together into the experience of hearing the music. The result is a dynamic app which feels less like a reference book and instead disappears into what becomes an enhanced experience of the music. Bravo and Encore.

N.B. The Orchestra weighs in at a hefty 1.8 GB, but that's to be expected with so much video.

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