Turning and turning in the widening gyre
Those of you who were at the first Sequenza21 concert two years ago may remember that pianist Hugh Sung played my piece Systems of Preference or Restraint. What you may not have noticed was the technology he used to do it. That technology is now considerably more accessible to the average performer, and I encourage you to keep reading after the cut.
My piece was originally for two pianos, but we were doing it with one of the piano parts prerecorded (That second part was actually a MIDI realization using the excellent piano in Garritan Personal Orchestra, truth be told.), and Hugh showed up with two tablet PCs which he set up side by side on the music stand. One computer was used to play back the audio so that he could actually follow the waveform and have markers in the file to make sure he didn’t lose his place–this strategy was much safer than the usual practice of simply having somebody in a sound booth cue a CD. The second tablet PC had a PDF copy of the score, and attached to that computer was a footswitch. He was able to use the footswitch to advance to the next page of the score, which gave him complete control over the pageturns without the need to take his hands away from the keyboard. The system worked like a charm. My piece had dozens of pageturns and no good places for them, and the repetitions would have made it difficult for a page turner to follow and get the turns right, but with the footswitched page turns these difficulties essentially went away.
So why doesn’t everybody use this sort of system (aside from the fact that tablet PCs are considerably more expensive than paper)? There are three problems. First, Hugh explains, most of the footswitches he was able to use “make an audible click when you press the pedal down.” Bad enough in concert; even worse in recording sessions, as he points out. Second, “they all need to connect to the computer using unsightly wires – not the most elegant presentation when I have to walk out on stage and uncoil my page-turning pedal!” Third, Hugh is pretty tech savvy and was able to figure out how to set this system up himself, but many musicians might find the prospect daunting.
So Hugh has started a new company called AirTurn, which sells a wireless system which he says works so simply that you don’t even need to install software. According to the publicity materials, all you have to do is plug the AirTurn receiver into a USB port on your computer (a tablet PC isn’t required, but it has the advantage that you can put it on a sturdy music stand) and plug another device into any of the five supported footswitches.
I haven’t seen the AirTurn product in action, so I’m not in a position to review it specifically, but any musician who deals with a lot of page turns should be seriously considering this kind of technololgy.