Houston Symphony Bringing VR Into The Concert Hall

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Houston Symphony Bringing VR Into The Concert Hall
February 10, 2021
Virtual Reality in Concert by the Houston Symphony.
Photo: Houston Symphony

 

Austin artist Topher Sipes is translating the music into life-sized works of art by way of structured improvisational, full-body movement.

 

This weekend, the Houston Symphony is bringing virtual reality technology into the concert hall, allowing audience members to see music in ways beyond their imagination.

 

As the orchestra, led by guest conductor Ming Luke, plays light classics such as Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals,” the Austin-based artist Topher Sipes will use Tilt Brush, Google’s virtual reality painting app that recently transitioned to an open-source project, to translate the sprightly tunes into life-sized works of art by way of structured improvisational, full-body movement.

 

Throughout “Music Illustrated: Virtual Reality in Concert,” a video team will draw the curtain back to share a behind-the-scenes perspective from inside the virtual world, welcoming viewers into the artist’s creative space. This insightful glance into his process — combined with live footage of him performing downstage left and of the orchestra playing the inspirational melodies close by — will be projected onto two screens on either side of the stage, mimicking a mixed reality environment. The hour-long program, which has been a few years in the making, will be available to view in person with two socially distanced concerts at Jones Hall and online with a livestream option for Saturday evening.

 

“This, to me, is like ‘Fantasia’ in real time,” says Lesley Sabol, the Houston Symphony’s director of popular programming. Her childhood fascination with Walt Disney’s musical masterpiece cultivated her affinity for artistic expression, and several years ago, when a friend introduced her to this virtual reality technology, she immediately set out to unite the immersive sensory experience with the orchestra and perhaps captivate a wider audience along the way.

 

In her search for a collaborator, Sabol was referred to Sipes, who had won the inaugural Tilt Brush competition presented by Originator Studios in 2016, after which he facilitated various Tilt Brush performances and installations, including one for Smartcar during South by Southwest.

 

Sipes has long approached digital visual media through the lens of a musician. Having studied piano and keyboard as a child, he eventually began to translate his ear’s sensitivity to rhythm and melody onto paper. Even today, after he listens to a piece of music with his eyes closed while sitting still, he plays the track again and allows his hand to move in response across a page, tracing an improvisational, abstract creation with a colored pencil.

 

“This helps me to look at the song visually, take a step back and see how the music moves overtime,” says Sipes, who then enters the next phase of his process, shaping reactive responses to the music with his entire body while wearing his virtual reality headset. He later refines the emerging imagery by selecting appropriate colors and brushes, and even times the choreography of his drawing. “For me, it’s like solving a puzzle by whittling away at a four-dimensional time sculpture.”

 

The canvas serves as his dance floor, so to speak - a concept that is far from new to him. In 2011, Sipes co-founded ARTheism, an immersive dance company for which he projected motion graphics that he drew using a digital drawing tablet or a multi-touch screen onto performers such as his partner Samantha Beasley. The two artists formed an abstract visual language of their own that allowed them to improvise while staying in sync with one another, as if they were having a conversation through light, Sipes explains. Although his creative medium has changed, this endeavor paved the way for him to become a virtual reality artist.

 

In this weekend’s visual spectacle, Sipes will create multiple works of art, each inspired by a different piece of music, and by the end of the concert, he will reposition them into a whole new composition to the lively “Perpetuum Mobile, Op. 257” by Johann Strauss II. Once the curtain closes, all of these creations will be shared online for people to explore at their own leisure.

 

In reflecting upon the past several years, preparing for this multi-dimensional concert and pursuing his mission to humanize technology, Sipes recalls a quote by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that has affirmed his practice: “Art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time.”

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