NEW TECHNOLOGY PROFILE: “Tido” – a new digital platform for learning, appreciating, and experiencing music; and
INTERVIEW: with Tido originator Brad Cohen.
It happened on a frigid evening back in January – a midwinter aesthetic epiphany prompted by first encounter with a new digital technology called “Tido.”
The email invitation from the New York Public Library had been tantalizing, yet oblique. The Bruno Walter Auditorium, at the library’s Lincoln Center branch, was hosting an event featuring music by John Cage, plus some kind of demonstration of a new music-appreciation app.
Well, that app proved to be Tido – and (be warned) one’s introduction to it comes like a concussive awakening. Remember Plato’s story of people shackled in a cave, mistaking shadows on the wall for reality, until turning to see the fire for the first time?
Meeting Tido might be a lot like that first glimpse.
In fact, for the serious music enthusiast, it might also provoke an eerie sense of familiarity: yes, this is the way you knew musical scores were supposed to behave, though you had never quite seen them do it before, outside of imagination.
Out of the Cave, On with the Cage
One couldn’t really fault the library’s elliptical p.r. – it’s likely the curators of the John Cage collection didn’t quite know what was in store either. The performance portion of the evening, starring pianist and eminent John Cage interpreter Adam Tendler, was riveting. Among other pieces, he played Cage’s “In a Landscape” with delicate insight. Yet that proved only prelude – and, in a sense, pretext – for the Tido part of the evening.
Brad Cohen – the visionary who conceived Tido (it’s pronounced “TEE-doe,” by the way; you’ll see why) – took the floor, inviting those of us toward the rear of the auditorium to coalesce in the front rows so as to view more easily what would occur on Cohen’s iPad.
And with that the revolution was underway.
On that iPad, Cohen exhibited an elegant page of piano music, rendered in bright and beautiful resolution – the opening of the score of “In a Landscape.” Cohen then invited Tendler to play the piece again and, as its gently heartbreaking first measures sounded, we watched as a soft aureole of violet light moved across the iPad screen, highlighting the corresponding notes.
Then, reaching the end of that first page, the systems changed, and page two of Cage’s score appeared, in ideally timed anticipation of what would typically be a human-facilitated hard-copy page turn. And, again, there was that strangely comforting purple nimbus, continuing its transit across the screen, illuminating the notes as they were executed.
But what was driving what? It might have seemed Tendler was merely following an animated rendering of Cage’s score.
Nope. And here’s where the Tido epiphany began.
With a touch of a tempo icon in the sheet music reader, the speed of the purple cloud moving over the score could be increased or decreased at will; and, when Cohen asked Tendler to play random portions of the score at varying tempi of his own choosing, the iPad screen responded by identifying the correct passage each time, with that reassuring bloom of soft purple enveloping and moving across it.
Tido was actually listening, and cooperating with the performer’s manipulations of the score at every turn.
A very neat feat. But it was still only the beginning.
With a few swipes of a finger over the iPad, Cohen was now able to substitute for the full-page depiction of the score a high-resolution pre-recorded video of Tendler actually performing the piece in a studio. Tendler and numerous other top classical artists have been engaged for such demonstration performances of all the featured masterworks, in a full complement of exclusive content commissioned by the house of Edition Peters – one of the oldest and most renowned classical music publishing firms in the world, and a major partner in the Tido venture (more on that shortly).
The video’s visual perspective was a bird’s-eye view of Tendler’s finger work, the camera evidently perched squarely above the keyboard. But with another touch of the screen, the video perspective switched to an angled left-side view of Tendler’s hands at the keyboard. Another touch and the view was from the right. Tendler’s technique could thus be observed and analyzed at will from every pertinent vantage.
And, whatever view was selected, the notated music accompanied it, scrolling along the bottom of the iPad screen. And as the notes were executed, they now passed through a stationary, centrally-positioned version of that pretty purple cloud.
The obvious potency of such technology as a teaching tool exploded like a mental nova.
As Cohen would later explain, the breakthrough power of Tido lies not only in its responsiveness to the live choices of its users, but in its ability to connect the user to many different representations of any given piece of music.
In a phrase: “Tido is all the music that you love connected intelligently in one platform.”
And what connections they are.
The Tido design is utter elegance – its user interface both beautiful and ingeniously intuitive. It’s easy to forget that there is massively impressive – and costly – programming and coding behind the functionality, so organic is the front-end experience.
The name Tido, incidentally, was formed by combining the culminating two tones of the classic solfège do-re-mi scale (ti – do!), and is thus meant as a sort of triumphant and unsurpassable tonic resolution. (“The idea is that we’re the summation of quality!” says Cohen.) And, to be clear: while “Tido” is the name of the autonomous business venture, as well as the digital platform it offers, there are nested levels of applications and product names below that.
“Tido Music” is one such application (the one described here so far). And the first product for that app is the currently available “Piano Masterworks.” Launched with exclusive content from Edition Peters, it includes several major works by John Cage, as well as J.S. Bach (there are at least seven major offerings so far), Beethoven (at least five), Chopin, Debussy, Grieg, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, with additional composers and pieces added weekly. Each work is accessorized by all the Tido-distinctive features, including the recorded Edition-Peters-commissioned master performances viewable from multiple perspectives; and the gorgeous, “pixel-perfect” Edition Peters scores.
(A second app currently offered on the Tido platform, “Mastering the Piano with Lang Lang,” is an equally potent, proprietary series of instructional units developed in collaboration with Faber Music, in which the lauded eponymous pianist, Lang Lang, “… shares secrets and techniques that have inspired millions to play the piano.”)
The Tido Music app also boasts numerous other layers of information, enrichment and empowerment. Along with expert pianistic performances by the likes of Tendler, Joanna MacGregor, Daniel Grimwood, and Roy Howat, each piece is augmented by recorded masterclass-style commentary by distinguished authorities offering musicological, historical and cultural depth (John Fallas does the Cage commentary); one may also call up beautifully illustrated textual material; and there are even micro-targeted discussions of individual passages, covering proper technique or the relationship of a passage to a piece’s overall structure, accessible just by tapping on the corresponding measures of the score itself.
Finally, there are a slew of ways to personalize one’s increasing “ownership” of each piece, such as adding notations about individual fingering, tempo or dynamic preferences; or, coming soon, even the ability to record one’s own progressive performances and compare them over time.
And, of course, piano works are only the beginning. Masterworks for other instruments (as well as, eventually, interactive performances of entire symphonic works) are slated for offer down the road, as well.
The “Tido Effect”
Cohen relishes the phenomenon he witnesses whenever someone is exposed fresh to Tido.
“There’s this thing I call ‘The Tido Effect,’” he says. “When you share the idea of Tido with someone, about half an hour later his brain explodes. If you’re going to have digital notation which is flexible, then why not have more than one layer of that notation? Why not add audio? It’s all the same piece – right? It doesn’t matter whether you express it as audio or notation or video or text. That mental breadcrumb path is a very quick one to travel down. It becomes clear that there is no theoretical limit to what you can do!”
For example, while the scores now offered, from among the wealth of intellectual property administered by the house of Edition Peters, are in a format that the publisher proudly calls “urtext” – authoritative editions reflecting a composer’s conception, free of extraneous or historically accumulated accretions by others – Cohen looks ahead to the prospect of offering optional access to all of that, too – an idea for which he has coined the German phrase “tief-text” or “deep text.”
“It’s on our roadmap,” says Cohen. “Having layers of, say, historical adaptations, or historical commentary, like the Paderewski edition of Chopin.”
And Cohen also notes with enthusiasm that, while Tido was designed for – and currently functions only on – the iPad, his and the company’s “roadmap” envisions a radical broadening of user paths within the next three to six months, with Tido becoming functional on a whole range of other devices and platforms as well – android, laptop, desktop.
Who is Brad Cohen?
Cohen, an internationally renowned classical conductor, has worked with the English National Opera, New York City Opera, Opera Australia, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and many other top-drawer organizations; he is also the artistic director of West Australian Opera.
An Australia native, Cohen describes his youth as a series of mind-expanding musical discoveries, each of which so affected him that he was propelled to learn more, and study music passionately, deeply, and ultimately professionally.
It’s a telling reflection, as it mirrors precisely the kind of punctuated passions with which he hopes every Tido user will now be blessed.
At Oxford University, Cohen earned a degree by exhuming an obscure symphony by neglected 19th-century British composer Cipriani Potter, and creating an authoritative edition of it. Delving into archival material, finding buried treasures, and restoring what has been lost have since then all been hallmarks of Cohen’s career, and further exemplify the impulse that led to Tido.
Besides his stellar conducting work, probably Cohen’s most widely conspicuous – and lucrative – professional accomplishment before Tido was his research on and restoration of the previously fragmentary score of Georges Bizet’s once less-well-known opera, The Pearl Fishers.
“The edition was just in a shocking state,” Cohen recalls, and when he was asked to conduct – and record highlights – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008, Cohen determined to “have a look at the sources myself.” What he found, he says, “was a whole load of stuff that was not in the existing editions.”
Cohen thus created what is now considered the authoritative edition of the Bizet work – an edition which has conferred on Pearl Fishers a greatly enhanced critical stature, and status in the repertory.
“The Met did it with Diana Damrau,” Cohen says of his restoration. “It’s been done in Covent Garden, and Zurich, all over the place.”
And when Cohen sold representation of the edition to the august publisher Edition Peters, a relationship was consolidated that would bear wonderful fruit in the form of Tido.
Prodded to recall if there was a single instance of inspiration for Tido – any identifiable “Isaac Newton moment” – Cohen colorfully obliges, and discloses that the figurative apple falling on his head was – well, rather literally an Apple!
“I had always been interested in tech and digital possibilities for music,” Cohen offers. “The Isaac Newton moment was when I was conducting for the New York City Opera in 2010/2011 and the first iPad came out. All the things that I had been thinking about – combining beautiful notation with audio, video – fell into place when I realized that this was going to be an incredibly popular consumer device.”
Cohen constructed his own private specifications and wish-list for his dream tech platform – a wonder widget he couldn’t actually execute himself, but which he confidently intuited was possible, given the power of iPad functionality.
“I thought about it intensively in my own private mental lab for a good 18 months,” Cohen recalls. “Then, since I had this fantastic relationship with Edition Peters, the first person I went to was Nicholas Riddle, Group CEO of Edition Peters Worldwide. Nicholas has a very interesting history. He worked for a Swedish tech firm before he went into the music business – so of all the music publishing executives I could have taken the idea to, Nicholas was the one who would absolutely understand its power and its significance.”
Still, the initial intentions were modest. “We thought we’d spend maybe about £100,000 and create a little notation app, ” says Cohen.
But the explosive “Tido Effect” appears almost immediately to have galvanized Cohen and Riddle themselves and cranked them into overdrive.
“I was empowered by Nicholas and Edition Peters to go on a talent search, and I spent the next year or so scouting the globe in this very small niche area of digital music notation.”
In his searches, Cohen discovered Mohit Muthanna, the inventor of an HTML5 notation engine called Vexflow. “He became a really important consultant and advisor,” Cohen says.
And Cohen also found his new lead developer, Cyril Silverman – living in his parents’ attic in Seattle, and “coding as a kind of dropout from college.”
“We moved him over to London,” Cohen says of Silverman, noting that Silverman’s parents “thought he’d finally vindicated his expensive education.”
“They’re very happy,” Cohen says.
Now, after several years, and the equivalent of some 5 million USD in technical development, design, content production and other costs, Tido is a reality, and a thing of beauty, with capabilities far outstripping even Cohen’s original Newtonian musings.
Indeed, in Cohen’s estimation, Tido is without rival. “We think it outperforms everyone else currently in the market,” he says; then adding, with mock diffidence: “I would love to be proved wrong, because it would give us a different challenge to work towards.”
Playing Both Sides
Still, one might well wonder how Tido managed to claim such unique ground. Why has no one else ever come up with anything quite like it before?
“It’s a very good question,” Cohen concurs. “Because like all great ideas, once you’ve had it, it seems incredibly simple.”
But, as it turns out, there is a practical explanation.
“There’s a lack of trust between the tech world and the music publishing world,” Cohen explains. “Music publishers are constantly under siege by tech solutionists who say, ‘Your business model is doomed. I’ve got a great idea. I’m going to build this for you, and all you’ve got to give me is 50% of your profits.’ And the music publisher says, ‘I’m not going to trust just anyone with my valuable [intellectual property]and copyrights.’”
Hence, because of a unique concatenation of credentials, backgrounds, interests and personalities, Cohen and his collaborators were able to steer a course between two previously opposed and virtually irreconcilable camps.
“We come from a music publishing background,” Cohen offers, “so we have access to all this fantastic content. For a lot of our competitors that’s a real hurdle. But for the tech community, our credentials are impeccable, because we have really gifted, ambitious and creative developers. That’s our secret weapon, really.”
Come One, Come All!
It should be noted that while Tido was originally targeted primarily at active music learners (a group Cohen further sorts into “adult returners” to the piano, attracted by an engrossing way to reconnect with a musical avocation they may regret having abandoned in youth; and “students aged 13 to 19”), Cohen also realizes that an even vaster market for Tido is the more passive music appreciator.
“The market for the music enjoyer, as it were, is very many times larger than that for the music practitioner.”
Still, Cohen rightly realizes that ultimately such categories are artificial. “For us,” he says, “there’s no hard and fast division between consumer products and educational products.” Rather, in an insight that recapitulates Cohen’s own musical rites of passage, Cohen remarks: “We see life-long learning as intrinsic to the music experience.”
“At one end of the spectrum there is the music enjoyer,” Cohen says. “He’s very happy to sit and listen to a recording, maybe with some supporting notation. On the other end there’s an academic musicologist. But both extremes are educational in their purpose. The music we love, we want to learn more about.”
The Tido experience is immersive and enriching, and represents an authentic digital innovation for boosting musical performance, literacy and enjoyment. But it is perhaps most distinguished for one thing more.
Brad Cohen speaks warmly and often of the intrinsically “humane” value of musical education – and for him, that which humanizes cannot be done cynically, nor on the cheap. Thus, though it would be easier and less costly, for instance, to use musical content generated by MIDI technology, rather than live performance, it will never happen. (“The fact that you can do something is never an argument for doing it,” Cohen says with sage rectitude.) It wouldn’t be enriching, ennobling, humane.
And it may be that that attitude, as much as all the unique vertical integration of elegant design, cutting-edge technology, and peerless content, is what truly makes of Tido the palpably classy commodity that it is.
Marshall McLuhan – the philosopher and futurist credited with, among other things, having envisioned the contours of the digital age decades before the ascent of the internet – predicted the eventual rise of certain technology-enabled new categories of aesthetic perception: “instant sensory awareness of the whole,” immersion in a “total field,” an experience of “form and function as a unity,” and the ability to enjoy a “sense of the whole pattern.”
It sounds a lot like the musical experience Cohen and company are making possible with their new digital-age platform.
Chalk one up for the Tido Effect.
Once can find more information about Tido, as well as an invitation to a trial subscription, at the company’s website, here. You may also want to check out any of several excellent Tido-produced demonstration and promotional videos on YouTube, such as this one.