Back to the future in Brussels | Technology | DW | 23.11.2012
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Back to the future in Brussels

There's a revolution underway in the Brussels Philharmonic, in the shape of tablet technology. The orchestra has become the first in the world to embrace tablet technology - and ditch paper scores.

The digital revolution may just have reached its final frontier, classical music. The genre that is more associated with candle light and predates the industrial revolution has decided to embrace cutting edge technology in the form of the tablet computer.

To rapturous applause, the Brussels Philharmonic recently celebrated swapping their paper music scores for tablets at a sold-out concert at the Flagey in the heart of Brussels. Musicians played Wagner and Ravel, all the while swiping their touch screens instead of turning pages to follow the music.

Innovative orchestra

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller in The Artist. (Photo: Delphi Filmverleih zu dpa)

The Brussels Philharmonic won an Oscar with the The Artist

Until recently, the orchestra was probably more famous for its 2012 Oscar winning performance, playing the soundtrack of the film The Artist, but a collaboration with Samsung might just add to their fame. The Brussels Philharmonic teamed up with technology giant Samsung and the software company "neoScores" for the project. And it's not just about one single concert - in the coming years the aim is to replace each music score with a digital version.

"It was only a few months ago that Samsung asked the Brussels Philharmonic to collaborate in order to perform some works using the digital format tablet," artistic director of the Brussels Philharmonic, Michel Tabachnik, told DW. "Whilst we're playing, we just have to touch the screen in order to turn the page; we can also write on the page - a down bow, a forte, or any musical notation - and that's of course something completely new."

Tabachnik is convinced this is the future, but admits there is still work to be done. "The project has to be developed and needs to be developed. We need at least a good year in order to achieve something a bit more ... playable. Now we are at the very beginning."

(The conductor conducts the Brussels Philharmonic using tablets to read their scores. (Photo: Anke Ramsar, Brüssel Copyright: Samsung BE Brussels Philharmonic)

No more fumbling around with pages in front of the maestro

They might be at the beginning, but the tablet project is not the Philharmonic's first step in the world of technology. Just last September, the orchestra launched their own series of ringtones for mobile phones, which can be downloaded for free on their website.

Tabachnik's personal credo is that the Brussels Philharmonic is not a museum, it's a platform for living music.

"We try all horizons to find new ways of making music, new ways of performing music, we have a huge panorama of research and we try to improve our way of being musicians."

A Beethoven score for a string quartet (1826). - String Quartet in F major, op.135 (1826). - Original manuscript. (Photo picture alliance/akg-images)

Will Beethoven's scores soon be available in online music stores?

Changing times

The phenomenon of digitalization could change the music score business, as it has changed the books business: Beethoven, Debussy or Brahms - available at the click of a mouse. There's also an environmental argument for embracing this technology. Digital scores are greener - and cheaper. The Brussels Philharmonic estimates its own printing costs at around 25,000 euros each year.

Jonas Cooman is half of the brain behind the new software. He plays contra bassoon in the orchestra and developed neoScores with his friend and programmer Bob Hamblok.

"Digital visualization will change the way that musicians treat their scores," Hamblock told DW. "Tablets offer features that are simply not possible with paper. I'm sure this will spread, because the up-and-coming generations are raised with technology, and technology is getting easier and easier to use," he added.

Physical relief

A musician plays from his score which is digitized on a tablet (Photo: Anke Ramsar, Brüssel, Copyright: Samsung BE Brussels Philharmonic)

This is the future - Hundreds of scores on one tablet

Gone are the days of carrying around heavy and cumbersome paper scores when travelling, say enthusiasts: with the tablet you can now have almost all of the world's musical scores stored in a device that weighs less than a kilogram.

One such enthusiast is Stephan Uelpenich, who plays viola with the Brussels Philharmonic. Although he'd prefer a bigger screen for concerts, there's no question that he's on board.

"I can take this thing along with me every morning in the train and go through all the pages I have. This does away with the mountains of paper stacked in my archive at home. All my study material: it's just incredible. From Ravel's La Valse alone, I think I have maybe ten different versions."

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