Published by TouchPress, in collaboration with the Esa-Pekka Salonen and philharmonia orchestra
Reviewed by Guy Dayen
Music of many varied kinds plays in my house almost constantly, sometimes as background noise, but most often because I'm actively listening. I love great songs and great artists. Most likely, this habit stems from the fact that my parents and grandparents loved music too, and it was always present in their homes in one form or another. My father loved jazz music, whether from his own stack of wax or from the radio, and he gave me one of my very first records: "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck. The Peanuts specials introduced me to Vince Guaraldi and his brand of jazz. My mother loved operetta and the pop music. I can still picture her sitting in front of the TV, watching "Like Young", our local variation of "American Bandstand". My grandmother whistled constantly; it could be the latest Maurice Chevalier ditty or traditional airs from her native Switzerland. My other set of grandparents had a player piano in the parlor. Music was everywhere!
Yet, there is one type of music that I wasn't exposed to very much and that I'm decidedly not familiar with to this day, despite decades of listening to tons of music: classical music! For me it remains mysterious and not a little bit daunting. Besides the most commonplace names like Beethoven or Debussy, I know next to nothing about the composers and the music. In fact, I will confess that most of my exposure to classical came from Walt Disney's "Fantasia"... I suspect I'm not alone in this; I have many friends who really love music. How many of them even bring up classical? No one except my wife, and she does so rarely, because she understands that I know very little. The modern audience for classical is certainly not what it was a hundred year, or even fifty years ago. People don't go to the symphony nearly as much anymore and orchestras in many cities are struggling to attract attendees to their concerts. If most people feel the way I do, a big reason for the exodus might be a feeling of intimidation and even a bit of an inferiority complex. The people that go to classical concerts on a regular basis just seem to be so much more cultured than me! They can spout off names of symphonies, composers, musicians and conductors as easily as I can name the TV shows that were on last night! They use words and expressions that leave me a bit bewildered and feeling about as smart as Homer Simpson at a Mensa Mixer. What's a regular Joe like me to do if he'd like to get a bit of culture without resorting to something like "Everything you always wanted to know about classical music, but were afraid to ask"?
The answer is to whip out my trusty iPad and delve into "The Orchestra", a new interactive book by the wonderful TouchPress people. They always do a terrific job of taking a core topic and making it interesting, lively and accessible to anyone who cares to learn something new.
"The Orchestra" presents eight masterworks of music by various composers, played by the philharmonia orchestra under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. The first three works cover the period from 1761 to 1830: Haydn is represented by his Symphony No. 6; Beethoven by his Symphony No. 5 and next comes Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Three more pieces come from the turn of the 20th century: Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, followed by Mahler's Symphony No. 6 and Stravinsky's The Firebird. The last two works are more modern. There is Concerto for Orchestra by Lutoslawski from the mid-fifties, and finally a recent piece by Salonen himself: Violin Concerto from 2009. Giving the reader a taste of these different periods is a great way to demonstrate the evolution of classical music and to effectively showcase the various forms that type of music can take.
For each work presented in "The Orchestra", the reader can watch a video in which the philharmonia performs an excerpt on stage while also seeing the score scroll along as the musicians play. And let me say that these musicians are good! Even to my untrained ear, they sound absolutely wonderful. The reader can choose to listen to the music as the musicians play, or choose to listen to one of two commentary tracks as the music plays softly in the background. The first track is the conductor's commentary, done by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and it gives fascinating insights into how a conductor approaches the music and why he or she does what she does when on stage. Salonen explains, for example, how he might decide to use a baton or not, or how he communicates with his musicians. The second track is done by the musicians themselves. It's incredibly illuminating to hear them have a conversation about the music, and make comments about what feelings are evoked in them by each piece of music, or about how they work together to make the music come alive on stage. All of these commentaries give extremely useful information about the music, about the images it was meant to evoke, about the composers who wrote these beautiful pieces and about how they actually play their instruments when they sit on stage. It felt like I was eavesdropping on a most knowledgeable group of aficionados, having a spirited and fun discussion amongst themselves, but who still sounded down to earth and who were comprehensible to me. I must say that I learned a great deal while listening to these commentaries, and I was never bored while doing so. That is a testament to how well-done these commentary tracks were. By the way, readers should note that these commentaries can also be seen as subtitles only, so as not to interfere with the joy of listening to the glorious music itself.
The scrolling score is divided by instrument, so it's incredibly easy to see which individual instrument is active at any particular moment. I really like this, because I'm sometimes unsure as to which instrument is playing what. Being able to see it in this way makes everything crystal clear and I don't have to tap my seat neighbour on the shoulder to ask what instrument is making which sound. Another potentially embarrassing situation narrowly avoided!
The score can be customized by the reader. The musical notes can be toggled between a larger or smaller size, and you can switch between a full or curated score, depending on how much detail the reader wants to see. For those people who can't read music, or who want a simplified view, there is a choice to see the music being played represented as a series of lines of differing lengths. This option is especially great for younger kids because they can easily see what instrument is playing without being overwhelmed by the musical notation found on regular music scores.
For each piece of music in the book, the reader also has the option of clicking a little book icon which will present the music and give information about the composer. The conductor, Salonen, also gives a short video introduction to each work. I greatly like this way of introducing classical music to the casual listener because it's short and to the point. There is an unfortunate tendency in many works of popular vulgarization to pile on information, and this can be truly off-putting to readers who are simply seeking a general introduction to something, or who are approaching a new subject for the first time. The amount of information given here seems just right to me. If I want more, I'll seek it out, but as a first glance, I don't want to spend hours reading. I'd rather experience a new subject, and this is exactly what "The Orchestra" lets me do.
Each instrument in the score has a link to a page where the reader can learn more about each particular instrument. Clicking this link takes you right to the part of the interactive book that presents all the instruments of the orchestra. There is a short written introduction to each instrument, a short section called "Did you know?" that presents quick factoids, and a Showcase section that brings the reader back to the works in the book that highlight the instrument you are reading about. This section of the book can also be accessed directly from the Home Page of the book if the reader wishes.
Also, for each of the orchestra's instrument, there is a video hosted by one of philharmonia's musicians that plays that particular instrument. The musician gives a short talk about his instrument and demonstrates how it sounds and how it's played. There is also an interactive picture that can be spun around so the reader can see what each instrument looks like from any angle. At the bottom of the screen, there is a small keyboard that shows the piano range for each instrument and lets you play with its sound. In no time, you can be "playing" the oboe or the flute and exploring the beautiful sounds they make. It's a really fun way to discover all these instruments, which may well be unfamiliar to many. Kids especially will have a ball discovering what each of the instruments can sound like.
Once again, TouchPress hits a home run. I enjoyed "The Orchestra" very, very much and I recommend it highly indeed. Anyone with any interest in learning about classical music will be well served by loading this fantastic book on their iPad and spending some time immersed in the beautiful music contained therein. After a few happy hours reading it, I think I'm going to surprise my wife and take her to a classical concert. Who knows? I might even teach her a thing or two!