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*LOrk Digression #4 — Staring at the screen
One might argue that staring at a computer monitor on stage is not much different than looking at a musical score, but sometimes it does feel odd to watch a laptop musician constantly staring at the screen. Why is this? Reading from a musical score in a traditional musical performance is not generally seen as a problem; sometimes it is even the norm. A solo pianist is usually expected to play by heart, but a string quartet player usually reads from scores. Playing from memory versus playing from a score both have advantages and disadvantages, and I believe the same general model applies to the laptop performer. The main problem of the computer screen as opposed to the musical score on paper is the “staring” effect. Acoustic musicians playing from a score clearly use it as an accessory—a reminder of something they have, in the best cases, already learned through practicing. Good musicians do not look at the score all the time.
“Score” not always is a good word to describe what a laptop musician sees on screen. The type of information being looked at can vary wildly from piece to piece: often these are numbers, graphs, buttons, lines of code, input and output levels, and even text messages. The player may react to any bit of information displayed on screen in a passive or active manner: certain things may just need to be monitored as they progress, with no further action required; others may demand the player to be actively doing something to achieve a particular result. Depending on the specifics of the performance environment created for a given piece, “playing” may be precisely the act of dealing with an overwhelming flurry of visual information (in which case the screen staring might be justified). Any number of instrument designs can be imagined in regard to degree of screen staring (screen attention) required. But perhaps what bothers people when laptop musicians are constantly staring at their screen is not the staring itself, but the lack of other clues about what is going on. In short, just how much a laptop performer will need to look at the screen, and for what functions, has become an important element that needs to be literally composed from scratch.1
1Another difference (minor but worth noting) between traditional musical score and laptop screen is the distance to the performer's eyes: laptop screens can take to the extreme the obtrusive “hide-my-face” tendency that scores already have to some extent. Bad performers tend to look like as if the are hiding behind their scores.
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