Symphonies in space: orchestras embrace virtual reality

On Saturday, the Hubble Cantata saw audience members explore the Orion Nebula the latest in a series of experiments between VR technology and classical music

Virtual reality technology has allowed people to relive weddings, scale Mount Everest and visit Olympic venues from their living rooms. At Brooklyns Prospect Park on Saturday, the emerging technology took New Yorkers inside the Orion Nebula, the gaseous cloud of dust and evolving stars some 1,500 light years away. The VR installation was part of the Hubble Cantata, an hour-long composition for orchestra, 100-voice chorus, soloists and narration, by composer Paola Prestini and librettist Royce Vavrek.

Staged at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn concert series, the cantatas climatic moment came in its last five minutes, when audience members were cued to slip their phones into free cardboard VR headsets that were distributed at the gates. As the narrator, astrophysicist Mario Livio, poetically described the life and death of stars, attendees shifted in their seats, craned their necks and even stood to view the three-dimensional renderings of Hubble photographs, directed by Eliza McNitt.

The free performance, which also included three-dimensional sound piped over 20 loudspeakers, wasnt entirely glitch-free. With 6,182 attendees (6,000 were expected), the venue ran short on VR headsets, and the Wi-Fi was halted by the rush of last-minute app downloads (people were encouraged to download it in advance). But the event also demonstrated that classical musicians arent content with sitting on the sidelines as more pop and rock artists get involved with VR videos.


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A lot of opera companies are starting to think in technological ways but VR hasnt been done in this way yet, said Prestini, who studied composition at the Juilliard School in New York and is the executive director of Brooklyns National Sawdust arts space. On Sunday, the musicians recorded the score for a planned app re-release as well as a commercial recording. Prestini is also talking with other venues including the Sydney Opera House and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

At least a half-dozen professional orchestras have created 360-degree films for use with VR headsets, among them, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Most aim to replicate a concert hall experience, whether on stage so the viewer can hover over a violin section or an oboe soloist or in the audience, where the 360-degree view also includes rows of empty seats.

Last year the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in Australia hired Jumpgate, an Australian VR studio, to create a stage-view, 360-degree performance video of Sibeliuss Finlandia. Created using a rig of 16 GoPro cameras in front of conductor Guy Noble, the video has been distributed through YouTube and Facebook (it can be viewed using a headset or on a desktop computer). Vincent Ciccarello, the symphonys managing director, says the goal is to build awareness for the orchestra, but he also envisions educational applications. The new augmented reality possibilities are mind boggling, he says, referring to the technology that fuses the digital world with the real world. Imagine being able to play alongside professional musicians.


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The audience were invited to don VR headsets in the works final five minutes. Photograph: David Andrako

Similar in concept is a 360-degree rehearsal film of Tchaikovskys Sixth Symphony created by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with the Canadian studio VR Cinematic. Orchestra officials say they hope to find a sponsor to fund a mass purchase of Googles $15 cardboard viewers, which could be delivered to schools, nursing homes or community centers. Until then, headset adaptation is biggest limitation to this technology, says Michael Morreale, the orchestras manager of digital content.

Orchestras will also need to connect with the younger consumer groups who tend to show a stronger interest in VR. So far, web traffic for most orchestra VR videos has been modest, generating a few thousand clicks on YouTube. Drew McManus, a Chicago-based orchestra consultant, questions whether performing arts organizations would be better served by redirecting those resources toward improving the infrastructure of their existing online efforts, such as their website, online ticketing and database management.

But advocates see greater creative possibilities beyond concert films. Theres no doubt that virtual reality is a very profound tool thats going to have a major effect on art-making in the future, said Edward Bilous, the director of Juilliards Center for Innovation in the Arts. I think the breakthroughs are in true VR, in which the participant can really interact and shape and direct the content of the experience. Thats still a bit down the corner.


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Tigue, the opening act for the Hubble Cantata. Photograph: David Andrako

Last year the American violinist Tim Fain worked with Jessica Brillhart, a VR film-maker at Google, on the 360-degree short film, Resonance. The vaguely surreal film shows Fain performing an original composition against several backdrops, including a graffiti-tagged empty warehouse, a barnyard and a church, with directional sound guiding the viewer through each new space. Filmed using Jump, a new camera rig intended to create a greater sense of depth, it has drawn over 420,000 views since November.

The short film used in the Hubble Cantata was a three-month undertaking, involving seven artists from the VR studio the Endless Collective. They were tasked with ensuring that the textures in the clouds looked realistic and the surfaces on the Hubble had just the right reflectivity. Prestini acknowledged the popular appeal of the telescopes photographs. People have such a personal relationship to them, she said. In our lifetime weve grown with these images and our knowledge of the universe has expanded with them. I was really wary of how we would use the images. The last thing youd want to do is make it look like a screensaver.

Duncan Ransom, the Endless Collectives creative director, sees the project in a tradition of space opera or movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Opera is a very classical art form and combining it with cutting-edge VR theres no better reason for mixing things up, Ransom said.

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