By Rory Williams
Don't be frightened by the unearthly glow on the stage-that's just the Borromeo String Quartet. Trading paper for plastic, the Borromeos are using laptops to read music during performances. This development has enabled them to view full four-part scores, resolve stage lighting issues, and solve an age-old dilemma: turning pages by hand.
Here's how it works: Each player's setup consists of a Mac PowerBook, a "plug-and-play" USB foot pedal called Footime, and a specially designed laptop stand, both made by Bili Inc. The music, which is viewed in the Adobe PDF format, is purchased, scanned, or otherwise found free online. The PDF format is great for easy reading across multiple platforms, and the foot pedal serves to flip each page with ease. Because players can zoom in and out while viewing the music, they are able to play from full four-part scores, and can mark pages using a trackpad.
"It's nice to avoid the panic of page turns, but the significant thing is that we read off of a complete score," says Nicholas Kitchen, the Borromeo first violinist. "The structure of working off the entire score is a profound change. Sometimes I've gotten access to the composer's original manuscript and kept both the edited and original versions open at the same time.
"This is a pretty revolutionary change in the experience of learning a new piece."
Kitchen has been working this way for the past two years, and it took some time for him to talk the others into going the all-digital route. "Each person had his own learning curve, but we're using it more and more in rehearsal," he says.
To help with aesthetics, a little oriental rug covers the power source and cables. "As we experiment with this, we also pay attention to the appearance. The Mac PowerBooks are elegant and sleek, and without all the big page turns, what happens on the stand is quite compact.
"We want it to be a harmonious part of the stage."
Another perk: storage.
Not only does Kitchen save the music scores on his computer, but he also does so online. Should his laptop fail, he can borrow another one, download his scores, strap it on the stand, plug in the footswitch, and he's good to go.
Kitchen says the amount of sheet music he's stored is significant-and liberating. "That aspect is overwhelming," he says. "You can have hundreds and hundreds of pounds of scores saved to your computer. There's not much feeling of restraint."
This article also appears in Strings, Issue #177