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Air cello and more in 4-D 'concert' at a London museum

At Science Museum, an interactive digital installation co-developed by Esa-Pekka Salonen lets visitors conduct and step inside a virtual orchestra.

June 23, 2012|By Marcia Adair, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Saphron McLeod, 10, from the Henry Cavendish School in London at the launch of the Universe of Sound.
Saphron McLeod, 10, from the Henry Cavendish School in London at the launch… (Geoff Caddick / Press Association )

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.

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