Here, have an iPod: Tech shapes art at Mondavi Center

Editor's note: The popular image of technology is that it has little to do with the arts. That image has never been true--and new forms of technology continue to transform both the expression and experience of art. A dance performance scheduled next year at the Mondavi Center, for instance, will invite audience members to listen to an accompanying score on an iPod shuffle during the show. We asked Don Roth, who runs the Mondavi Center, to write his thoughts on the subject for the IT Times.

By Don Roth

I appreciate the opportunity to write in IT Times about the ways in which technology impacts our world over at the Mondavi Center and in the arts everywhere. Specifically, technology has had an enormous impact on our ability to reproduce and disseminate art; it can provide new methods to help us better appreciate art; and it can be used, as well, in the actual creation of art works.

Here, in a nutshell, is how technology and art intersect.

Reproduction and dissemination

Since Edison, the impact of reproduced sound and images has had a major influence on the arts. Artists can hear and see the works of previous generations of musicians and choreographers, allowing influences to pass across miles and years in ways that were never possible in the past. Technology not only makes it possible to record and reproduce performances, but also to disseminate them to an ever-widening audience. Now, with the Internet and satellite radio, even audiences with very specialized "niche" tastes can find whole sites and stations devoted to those interests.

All of this has a powerful and positive impact on live events, giving artists without enormous resources an opportunity to build a following.

Appreciation

The power of computer technology has only begun to be exploited as a way to enhance the experience of live performance.

One of the more popular enhancements i s the use of "supertitles," which allow audiences to read, in real time, translations of operas on stage. Since much of the operatic repertoire is not in English (and operatically sung opera is usually hard to understand!), this has transformed operas from being vaguely understood, overacted musical events, into true music theatre.

Similarly, many museums use technology to provide recorded commentary on exhibits, and classical concert presenters are experimenting with devices that allow audience members to read, in real time, "program notes" about pieces as they??'re performed.

Since many people are unnecessarily intimidated by these art forms, it is great to have such user-friendly technology in use and in development.

Creation

Technology increasingly has become part of the compositional palette of various artists. Through the centuries, artists have used whatever means were at hand to expand their canvas. Today's artists are exploring our highly advanced audio and visual devices, along with all that the Web can bring.

A number of artists already use these resources to stunning effect. For example, when John Adams, the California composer, was asked by the New York Philharmonic to write a piece in memory of those who perished in 9/11, he combined the sounds of a full orchestra with tapes of relatives reading the names of those lost. Presented in surround sound, the work has an astonishing visceral impact.

The Mondavi Center, in its short history, has welcomed new artworks involving technology. We recently presented "Super Vision," a theatrical piece incorporating computer images with live actors. Next season, choreographer Merce Cunningham's "Eyespace" will come to Mondavi Center, al ong with 500 iPod shuffles loaded with the dance piece??'s score. Audience members who borrow one of these will be able to hear and see "Eyespace" completely differently than their neighbors in an arts experience that is entirely of our times, thanks to a great creative artist and a portable hard drive encased in plastic!

Technology alone does not make an art work exciting. But just as Leonardo experimented with new paints to create the Last Supper, great artists find ways to make use of the world available to them in order to enrich ours.

Don Roth is the executive director of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.