A New Way of Keeping Scores

Northwestern University orchestra director Victor Yampolsky was conducting a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis last week in Pick-Staiger Hall. “We always have the same problem,” the professor complained to his student ensemble in a rich Russian accent. “Please, for once, think about it before you play.” Yampolsky was standing on a podium, facing an odd-looking music stand. It was bigger than a traditional stand, with a bulky stem and a cord that snaked across the floor to an electrical box. And on the shelf, where the sheet music would normally go, were a pair of glowing computer screens.

This contraption, called the eStand, is the brainchild of local patent lawyer David Sitrick. He plans to roll it out at the American Symphony Orchestra League conference in San Francisco next week, and says it’ll revolutionize the music industry. Among those who’ve given testimonials are Itzhak Perlman, who used it when he conducted a concert last summer at Ravinia (he also has an interest in the company), and Hollywood composer John Williams. Northwestern has been using three eStands (one for Yampolsky and two for players) as part of a trial run that culminated in two performances of Missa Solemnis last weekend.

Sitrick, who was at the rehearsal with a video cam and two members of his staff, is a cofounder and former owner of Arena Football, but the eStand is a product more in line with his own diverse interests. A Niles East High School graduate who played the guitar well enough to be offered a contract by Nashville’s vaunted Tree Publishing when he was 15 (it was vetoed by his mother), he started his professional life as an engineer for Ford. Later, as an engineer at Texas Instruments, he went to law school on the side, and in the 80s he and a brother opened a legal practice in Skokie and Chicago. (Another brother, Michael, runs a high-profile PR firm that specializes in spin control.) In his spare time Sitrick has developed networking technology now widely used in video games and helped start a company called Sigmedics, which developed a neuromuscular stimulator to help people with spinal cord injuries walk.

For years after he gave up paying gigs with bands, Sitrick continued to play with six or seven people once a month or more–and was always frustrated by the chore of getting multiple copies of the music together. “I’ve got degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, and I got to a point of thinking, this is ridiculous,” he says. “If you can automate word processing, why can’t you automate this?” Now, after more than a decade of development, an unspecified but “significant” financial investment, and a pending patent-infringement lawsuit against a would-be competitor, eStand is offering several models (student and professional, small and large) of what Sitrick calls a user-friendly “appliance”–a networkable music-display workstation that can store up to 40,000 pages of music. The music can be imported electronically or scanned in, modified on-screen with a finger or a stylus, exported to CD-ROM or another computer, sent wirelessly to other eStands, and even printed out for players to take home. Sitrick doesn’t have distribution lined up yet, but the machines, which range in price from about $2,000 to about $12,000, will be available directly from eStand (www.estand.com) later this month.

The morning after Northwestern’s weekend performances Yampolsky says the eStand represents “a very necessary step up to modern times” for many aspects of the music business, including the purchase and rental of music scores and orchestral parts. The public doesn’t realize it, he explains, but a good deal of orchestral music is only available through rental. Rented music for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, Duke Ellington’s symphonic works, and unpublished movie scores, for example, is used again and again, “marked up beyond recognition” and worn down by erasing. Popularization of the eStand could force music companies to digitize the music they own, allowing users to download it in its “maiden form” and store it for a specified period of time.

Then there’s the laborious process of transferring the conductor’s marks to orchestral parts. “This is usually done by librarians, copying in pencil,” Yampolsky says. “No more. As soon as I mark my score on my eStand, I push a button and it takes exactly two seconds to copy everything.” EStand should end those periodic drops in volume when everyone reaches to turn a page; the device does the job at the tap of a foot switch or a finger on the screen. It’ll facilitate all kinds of communication between players and eliminate those bothersome light stands in the pit. No one will need clothespins to anchor pages at outdoor concerts. “I love science fiction,” Yampolsky says. “With this, I am witnessing how science fiction becomes reality. I am more and more enthusiastic about it.”

But it may not be time to burn all the sheet music yet. “I was asked my opinion of the pilot unit,” Yampolsky says, “and I made suggestions.” The wires should be hidden, he says; it should have a digital metronome and a clock and a nonreflective screen to cut glare from overhead lights. And he isn’t persuaded that the eStand’s touch-screen system can stand alone. Sitrick touts it as “intuitive,” a way to maintain the pencil-on-paper experience musicians are used to. But according to Yampolsky, it’s more like using a Palm Pilot. He’d like a computer keyboard outfitted with music terminology because even a stylus is “approximate rather than accurate.” In his business, “where phrasing is everything, that inaccuracy could be devastating,” he says. “They said, ‘We consulted Pinchas Zukerman and Perlman and they were fine with the stylus.’ I had to tell them, listen guys, neither Pinky or Itzhak ever have to do much marking.”

And then, admits the maestro, there are those inevitable moments when machine and man will go their separate ways: “Last night the stupid thing turned two pages instead of one. I looked down and thought, where are we?”

Poets in Motion

Last week Governor Blagojevich appointed a committee to find a new poet laureate and announced that the laureate’s term will shrink from lifetime to something like the governor’s term: four years, with a renewal option. Gubernatorial spouse Patti Blagojevich is heading the nine-member committee, which also includes Gwendolyn Brooks’s daughter, Nora Blakely, and Poetry magazine editor Joseph Parisi. The governor noted that three people have held the job so far: in reverse order, Brooks, Carl Sandburg, and Howard B. Austin.

That sounded sweet to Austin’s youngest son, Dean. As this column detailed in March, in 1936 Poetry editor Harriet Monroe objected strenuously to news of Austin’s appointment, then printed that the governor had assured her it was merely “an after-dinner informality.” Dean has finally located a copy of the governor’s official pronouncement, and yes, it was put to paper.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, Stephen Anzaldi.