LONDON — It’s the half-term school holiday in London and the Science Museum is crawling with children eager to look at steam engines, airplanes and satellites. This month, just past the steel-wheeled tractors and next door to the space exhibit, there is also music.
Universe of Sound, an installation developed by Esa-Pekka Salonenand the Philharmonia Orchestra as part of the London 2012 Festival, the cultural component of the Summer Olympics, uses Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” heaps of high-definition video and a couple of Microsoft Kinects to turn the orchestra inside out.
Seeing an orchestra play live is often a one-dimensional experience. You hear the music, you see the motion, but most of the time you aren’t close enough to take in exactly what is happening. Universe of Sound is a completely new way to experience an orchestra.
“People think classical music is something from the neck up,” Salonen said, “but in fact there is a tremendous amount of physicality in that amount of playing. If you look at the first violin section, for example, it’s much tighter than the best ballet company in the world or a break-dance group.”
Each of the rooms in the Universe of Sound exhibition is devoted to a group of instruments (violin and viola, celeste and organ, and so on), with each instrument getting its own big screen. The musicians were filmed up close for the whole piece — rests and all — and wandering through the installation gives one an immediate sense of the physical and mental effort required for 100 people to make “The Planets.”
Its seven movements, plus composer Joby Talbot’s addendum, “World, Stars, Systems, Infinity,” play on a loop throughout the installation, with the balance adjusted in each room to highlight the featured instruments. Sheet music in each room shows the information the musicians read to produce their part. The printed notes are augmented with penciled-in bowings (for the strings), breath marks (winds and brass) and pedal changes (harp), as well as reminders of changes made during rehearsal.
Even though the players are near life-size on the screens, as they play, count, empty spit, turn pages, there is still something a bit “Truman Show” about it. To get around this, members of the Philharmonia turn up in person in shifts to play their parts while sitting beside projections of themselves doing the same thing. A sort of meta-karaoke.
“Someone came ’round from the Space Center to look at this project the other day,” said Richard Slaney, the Philharmonia’s head of digital, “and they called the musician being there live a 4-D experience. I thought that was really cool because, yes, you have these NASA 4-D experience simulator things, but having a live player there doing their thing sounded really high tech. Really, it was just a guy playing the double bass.”
While NASA and the Philharmonia may have a different idea of what constitutes high tech, there is one innovation in Universe of Sound that could turn into something rather special.
For this project, “I was hoping to shed light on the communication of the conductor with the players,” said Salonen, principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Philharmonia and conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“[People think, there is] this guy standing on the box flapping his arms around and getting paid for it. Clearly, he is not producing the sound, so what the hell is he doing?”
To accomplish this, Slaney and his team have jury-rigged a Microsoft Kinect to turn it into a conducting simulator. You stand in front of three screens that show the whole orchestra playing and the challenge is to follow the beat pattern with one hand and control the volume of each section by gesturing with the other hand.
At the moment, the functions are quite basic, but it works well enough to give the sense of the aesthetic decisions a conductor has to make and the physical coordination required to communicate them.
Salonen and Slaney view the installation as a work in progress, able to adapt to user feedback and to incorporate new technology.
“We definitely haven’t reached the point where we’re like ‘Yes, this is amazing,'” said Slaney. “It’s more like, ‘Well, now we’ve got this bit working now,’ and I’m emailing developers as we speak to find out how we can get other bits working better.”
Universe of Sound will tour when it finishes at the Science Museum on July 8, with stops on the U.S. West Coast rumored.
The room that people seem to most enjoy — except for primary school boys, who are inevitable moths drawn to the percussion room flame — is the one where all the sections are projected together in a sort of octagonal halo suspended from the ceiling. The floor below is full of people lying down to take it all in. Some stay for a few minutes and then move on. Others cuddle up with their significant others and take in the whole piece.
Catherine Harrison, 37, who works in human resources, came to the installation with her husband, Mark. “It was so nice to sit there and feel like you’ve been properly drawn in. You can feel [the music] in you with the vibrations,” she said.
The couple are what’s known in the classical music marketing biz as “culturally aware nonattenders.” Those types regularly go to galleries, museums and the theater and listen to classical music at home but never venture into the concert hall. If it’s not about the cost and it’s not about interest, then why don’t they come?
Said Salonen, “The power of the installation is that it places no demands on you. If you hate it, you leave after 30 seconds. If you like it, you stay for two hours, three hours. For me personally, the best experience was to see two old ladies in their 80s banging the hell out of the bass drum, trying to hit the off-beats and shrieking with joy like little girls.”
In the three weeks since Universe of Sound opened, 16,000 people have visited, some coming specifically for the installation itself and others just dropping by as part of a larger visit to the Science Museum. While developing this project and precursor RE-RITE, based on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” the Philharmonia has focused on the middle ground between marketing exercise and education project.
“Yes, we would like people to come and see the Philharmonia,” Slaney said, “we’re not going to argue with that idea, but it’s a very expensive way to get 2,000 people to go to a concert. Maybe they’ll go to a concert in 10 years’ time, maybe they’ll go see their local orchestra, maybe they’ll buy some CDs or maybe none of these things. I don’t think it matters.”
In the violin room, a boy of 9 or 10 brought his instrument and was bravely playing along with “Mars” as practice for his sight reading exam. Next door, a barely walking girl in a rainbow tutu was transfixed by the pair of on-screen harpists, while a group of teenage boys, all limbs and hoodies, gave the instruments in the percussion room a nonironic workout.
“What art can do in the best-case scenario is offer an alternative to your own reality wherever you are in life on the timeline,” said Salonen. “Discovery is not a function of age, it is a state of mind. We should be able to offer that to everyone.”
First published in the Los Angeles Times.