Writing Real-Time Commentary for Live Performances

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Since 2014, The Philadelphia Orchestra has used LiveNote® to engage audiences with commentary delivered to mobile devices during live performances. How do you write content that enhances the live-performance experience without distracting from it?

Jeremy Rothman, Vice President of Artistic Planning for The Philadelphia Orchestra, has written and edited LiveNote content with this goal in mind for the past four seasons. We sat down with him to find out what he has learned about writing real-time commentary for live performances.

How does writing notes for delivery in real-time differ from writing notes for a printed program?

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Your writing must complement the live musical experience in that content should be delivered at carefully timed moments to accentuate the listening experience rather than distract from it. Think of yourself as a seatmate who is able to whisper in the ear of a fellow listener right before something is about to happen.

Don’t be too technical or didactic. Be conversational and familiar. Be efficient, timely and not too chatty. 

Your text can definitely influence the mood and perception of a listener, so be conscious of where you place certain facts or editorial comments. For instance, if you are sharing that a composer had a particular personal hardship when they wrote the piece, you may want to place this at a point in the music that matches that emotion. Humor can also be effective at the right moments. And don’t overwhelm the listener with information at moments when they’re going to want to be listening intently. 

Try to put what is being heard into a contemporary context. If there are familiar elements to a work, or elements that pertain to current events, incorporate those. 

Also, it is best to keep each slide to “Twitter length” and keep it conversational. This way, it’s quickly comprehended and allows the listener to stay more engaged with the live experience. 

What are the steps in your process for writing real-time notes for a work? 

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1.  Start with the big picture of what you want to convey about the work in the narrative track (“The Story”) and the technical track (“The Roadmap”).

(Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Orchestra often provides two content tracks - one focusing on the work’s creation and cultural significance; and one highlighting what is going on in the music at specific moments.)

2.  Block out the large structures of the work. Make note of the musical highlights you want to explain, and which key moments you want to prepare the listener to hear on their own. 

3.  After a research period about the work and the composer, find contemporary and historical ties that will further enhance the context for the listener. 

4.  Outline the narrative. Then, identify the moments in the work where you want to have content appear (and where you want to steer clear and let the music speak.) 

5.  Add in images after the fact to support the text, although sometimes there are images you know you want to incorporate from the beginning.

6.  Then edit! With LiveNote, very often, less is more.  

What’s your favorite part of writing real-time notes? 

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The best part of writing these is the ability to place a context around work, to give the listener some grounding that relates to their world and experiences. What are the anecdotes and facts that would surprise both an experienced music-lover and a first-time listener? 

The ability to cue the listener to hear something just before it happens is the best part! It may be pointing out a particular solo that is coming up; a musical quotation or a famous/recognizable theme; an unusual instrument playing or a pairing of instruments that may not be easily seen from the audience; or pointing out techniques being used in the orchestra that may not be visually obvious. 

What’s the biggest challenge when writing real-time notes? 

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The biggest challenge always feels like the pacing of the notes. Sometimes, there is a lot you want to say during a particularly active part of the piece. Other times, it feels like long stretches when there is nothing new to say. Err on the side of “less is more.” Don’t feel the need to fill time in slower passages of music. And don’t overwhelm listeners during more active highlights. 

Slides every 30 seconds or so is about the maximum without feeling too distracted. But sometimes it’s okay to go a couple minutes if you’ve given a strong cue to listen for or have created a particular mood. Don’t let a slide sit that describes something musically that ended two minutes ago - i.e. “listen to this beautiful oboe solo” that remains on the screen long after the solo has ended.  

Which work was your favorite LiveNote writing experience? Why? 

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Writing for Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was fun because there is an amazing history behind the piece and a strong, familiar story to the work itself. So on the contextual side, you’re able to not only keep the listener up to speed on what excerpts from the show are being performed, but also provide all of the background on how the work came to be and its influence on popular culture. At the same time, the work is highly technical. So in “The Roadmap” track, you can call out the 12-tone rows in “Cool,” the use of tritones throughout, the places where Bernstein quotes Beethoven and Bach, etc. 

What tips do you have for people who are writing real-time notes for the first time? 

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  • Don’t get too technical. Write for a general audience without dumbing down.

  • Be conversational. 

  • Be brief. 

  • Be funny and personable. (Think VH1’s Pop-up Video.

  • Put the music first. Your writing is accentuating the music, not taking center stage.