When we conceived this series, Crowded, we aimed to spotlight local arts crowdsourcing campaigns, in part, because they speak uniquely to the kind of city we are: smart, innovative, and supportive. Cadenza couldn’t be a finer example: like our beautiful skyline, it is both ambitiously modern and rooted in the classics. “An orchestra in an app,” this project lit us up with that fluttery feeling. I guess you’d call it “promise.”
Crystal Germond: Let’s start with some background- what is Cadenza and who created it?
Ann Chao: Sure! My name is Ann Chao and my company is called Sonation. We started in 2013 and we’re a team of three founders: I’m the CEO and I have a business background. I got my MBA from HBS (Harvard Business School) last year and prior to that I was in strategy consulting. I’ve always taken a multidisciplinary view of my goals and have played piano from age five and flute from age nine. Music and art have been a very big part of my life, so once I got to Harvard Business School I was really thinking “How can I really combine these skills to do something meaningful?”
I feel there’s a fundamental drive in every human being to create something and express themselves in a unique way, and I think that drive is closely tied to entrepreneurship. It’s arts but its also entrepreneurship. I started thinking “What kind of problems have musicians faced?” and one problem that consistently came up in my own practice is that you need to play in a group, because its very rare that you’d have just one person playing a solo instrument. Most pieces are written to be performed with maybe a forty piece orchestra, or at least one other person in a duet. But it can be hard to find someone to play with, and since the core of music is spontaneous and one person playing off of another, you need to be interacting and creating that collaborative sound. Technology has really revolutionized the way we listen to music- recording and distribution technologies have really taken off, to the point that now we can just turn on our phones and listen to our favorite piece whenever we want for free. We really take that for granted, but for music makers themselves how much has really changed? We have new tools and new ways of editing and recording but in terms of the actual act of making music you still can’t really find people to play with when you want to. That really hasn’t changed since Mozart’s time.
These days everyone is connected and technology is helping us create whatever we want so I thought, “Okay, how can we empower musicians to do this too?” I started looking online for terms like “intelligent accompaniment” and found my co-founder, Chris Raphael. He is a professional oboe player and switched to computer science because he felt the same need–that we don’t have any technology solutions that can organically help musicians practice. If you’ve already been practicing the violin for ten years you may not need to learn something new, but a way to practice that makes your life easier, that feels extremely natural, and gives you that orchestra sound. So Chris starting developing the technology that is at the core of what we do at Sonation: he came up with a very robust system that replicates what a real orchestra or chamber ensemble will do. It will breathe with you and predict how your going to act, and learn with you as well. When I pick up my flute and turn on the system, Cadenza, it’s almost as if the conductor is waiting for me and my cue, not that I have to wait for a track and fit myself into their expression. And if I want to take creative liberties or take a breath or slow down here or there it will accommodate that, just like a real orchestra will. After I play I can save my rehearsals and it will learn from that. We see it as an orchestra where ever you want or need it to be.
CG: What drives you to work for this particular solution, your personal mission?
AC: I see an access problem. To hire an orchestra costs $50,000 or you have to be the winner of a concerto competition, which could be one in a hundred music majors at a top school. On an individual level, we want musicians to allow themselves to have fun and express themselves in a way they couldn’t before. You work so hard on all these pieces and you really deserve to have your voice heard and be a star.
CG: You and your cofounders have started a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $25,000 and a little over two weeks to go. Why?
AC: Cadenza came out as a Mac app last year and we took it around to all the major music schools and festivals. We tested it with a lot of teachers at Juilliard, at the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and what we kept hearing was “I want this on my iPhone or iPad.” It’s the right time for people, in terms of mindset–a lot of the young students we met assumed that since this already exists it should be an app for their phone. We want to make it as easy as possible for them, plus it makes sense–if you are carrying around your violin you can whip out your phone or iPad and open the app. So over the last year that’s what we’ve been working on, and the Kickstarter will enable us to have the funds to finish developing the app as well as expand the library, which is the second biggest request we’ve gotten.
CG: You’ve got some pretty amazing rewards for support of the project, like private concerts or lessons.
AC: Yeah, we’ve been really fortunate that teachers from the New England Conservatory or the Met and others are offering private lessons with a $1,000 pledge. For a $3,000 pledge or more we are offering a private concert in your home and a visit with our founding team. We hope that we can continue to inspire a dialogue on the future of music and technology.
Help keep young musicians engaged with music and join the action yourself by pledging as little as $5 to Cadenza’s Kickstarter campaign. The last day to pledge is March 26th. To find out more about Ann, her co-founders, or to start using Cadenza on your Mac right now, visit their website.