It is every orchestral player’s greatest anxiety dream. You are sitting on stage at the Royal Festival Hall as the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen strides up to the podium. He looks you directly in the eye and raises his baton for the first downbeat. It is only then that you realise you have forgotten your instrument, or even how to play one. But this is not a dream – it’s real. Or virtually real. Welcome to Britain’s first fully immersive, 360 degree, non-existent orchestra.
Cyber-orchestras seem to be gaining traction at the moment, though the Philharmonia’s project is a very different beast from the BBC’s Virtual Orchestra, which invited the contribution of more than 1,000 amateur musicians to the Last Night of the Proms via their smartphones. Instead, it pitches the viewer into the heart of a top-flight, professional ensemble as it performs the final movement of Sibelius’s fifth symphony.
The realism of the experience, developed by the Philharmonia in association with London-based VR specialists Inition, is extraordinary. You sense the tension build while wandering backstage, watching musicians tune amid catering tables and the alien sarcophagi of the double-bass cases. Then there’s the intensity of the performance itself, which feels more like going into battle than listening to a concert. The proximity of bows and trombone slides is so close it’s impossible not to flinch. Finally you arrive at Sibelius’s great, slashing conclusion of six massive chords punctuated by silence. The whites-of-the-eyes perspective gives Salonen the almost-maniacal look of an emperor pronouncing execution.
The seamless, latency-free production is an indication of how far VR technology has developed since the initial, clunky headsets that tended to leave the user feeling slightly nauseous. Now that anyone with a well-specced smartphone has access the VR experience, orchestras are scrambling to gain a purchase on the new platform.
The pioneer in the US has been the LA Philharmonic, which last year launched the VAN Beethoven project – a VR-equipped articulated truck that simulated the experience of sitting in the Walt Disney concert hall. Both the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Symphony Orchestrahave experimented with VR performances accessible on YouTube. But in the UK, the Philharmonia has been leading the charge, not least due to the fact that its principal conductor admits to being a bit of a geek.
“Unashamedly and proudly,” Salonen declares. “I’m the tech companies’ idea of a perfect victim because I buy everything. But it was when I tried one of the new Samsung headsets for the first time that the potential for orchestral music became apparent. It seems to me that we are at an equivalent point in history to the birth of the long-playing record. This is not a gimmick. It will become a significant means by which music is consumed within the very near future.”
The Philharmonia has been at the leading edge of new media since it was founded in 1945 by EMI producer Walter Legge as an in-house recording ensemble. In 2012 it became the first UK orchestra to develop its own app, which gave multi-camera views of the players alongside interactive scores and commentaries. This was followed by the Universe of Sound, a 37-screen installation based on Holst’s Planets Suite, whose sequence of rooms enabled you to play percussion, edit the score or even take over from Salonen himself, using motion-capture technology to follow the conductor’s beat.
The Universe of Sound was first seen at the National Science Museum in 2012 and has since toured the world. Until 2 October it is installed at the Royal Festival Hall as part of a two-week residency by the Philharmonia’s Virtual Orchestra.
“To really understand how a symphony orchestra works you have to be on stage, among your colleagues, in front of the conductor, with this barrage of sound coming at you from all directions” Salonen says. “VR has arrived at the point where it can provide a fast-track to the heart of the symphony orchestra, giving the sense that there is something complex and almost magical going on.”
Yet for all the digital wizardry, there’s an aspect of orchestral playing that lies beyond the realm of even the most sophisticated simulation. “It’s like a swimming amid a giant school of fish” Salonen explains. “Science has not yet entirely been able to explain how the school of mackerel hangs together in such perfect formation. At the highest level, a symphony orchestra moves a bit like this. The individual players have their distinct identity, yet manage to fuse into a form of super-organism. It is very difficult to explain in layman’s terms how this happens or what a conductor does. But VR is the perfect medium to experience this mysterious, wordless communication in action.”
Just how quickly mainstream classical audiences will embrace the slightly goofy world of VR goggles remains to be seen, though the first objective of the digital residency at the South Bank is to entice those who might never venture beyond the foyers to experience a genuine, real-world performance for themselves. But Salonen can envisage a future in which VR enhancement becomes a commonplace aspect of the concert-going experience.
“It’s already happening” he says. “Composers are beginning to include aspects of augmented reality as a means of expression. The only things holding us back are the production costs and the inevitable consumer-battle to create a universal platform. We’re still waiting to see which of these gizmos will go the way ofBetamax or become the new VHS.”
The teething troubles that can beset VR-enhanced compositions were experienced recently by Paola Prestini’s ambitious Hubble Cantata project, which took place last month on the waterfront beside Brooklyn Bridge. The interplanetary journey, which fused live choral music with images beamed from the space telescope, was slightly compromised by the promised supply of Google Cardboard headsets running out. But the presence of more than 6,000 attendees indicates the appetite for music within the virtual realm.
And having overseen the Philharmonia’s VR project from inception, Salonen is still impressed with its capacity to surprise. “For me, the most heart-stopping moment is the final sequence, in which you suddenly find yourself levitating 30 feet above the platform of the Royal Festival Hall,” he says. “It’s something I occasionally feel on the podium but have never encountered in such physical terms – the point at which music becomes a truly out-of-body experience.”
The Virtual Orchestra is in Royal Festival Hall foyers until 2 October. Free entry. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 1 October in The Virtual Orchestra: Live in Concert, presented by Marcus du Sautoy.