In October of 2009 London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and its Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen decided to turn Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring” into an ambitious interactive media experiment. This experiment took place in a four-story warehouse on London’s South Bank known as the Bargehouse. The basic idea was that the entirety of that space was turned into an installation through which one could “tour” different sections of the orchestra, including the conductor’s podium, as one might visit the individual galleries of a museum; and all this would take place while an audio recording of Stravinsky’s music was being played. Through the ingenious coupling of captured video to audio, the audience could, almost literally, “get inside” a performance of the music. When one stood next to the projected image of the English horn player, one heard the English horn louder than the other instruments in the ensemble. There were even opportunities for interacting, including picking up a baton or mallets for percussion performance.
This set an impressively high bar for the use of technology when it came to advancing audience appreciation of music dismissed by many as too complex. However, lightning struck again at the London Science Museum three years later with a second installation scheduled to take place in conjunction with the Olympic Games in London. This time the “subject matter” was Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets. Furthermore, composer Joby Talbot added a final movement specifically designed to provide “user interaction” for visitors to the installation.
At this point I would hope that at least some readers are wondering whether the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley would react to these impressive British achievements as a challenge. Apparently this summer the gauntlet has finally been picked up; and American innovation will be championed by Oculus Rift, viewed by many as the Cadillac of providers of head-mounted displays that present the most convincing “virtual reality” to video games and computer-based imagined environments. In conjunction with Immortal Beethoven, a festival of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven that will be presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director Gustavo Dudamel between September 29 and October 13, Oculus Rift will provide the underlying technology for (drum roll, please) Van Beethoven.
According to a report written by Leslie Katz for the Tech Culture division of the CNET Web site, this will be a van that will drive around the greater Los Angeles area, visiting venues such as the County Fair and inviting visitors to step on board for a virtual concert experience. Once inside the van (“complete with carpeting and concert hall seating,” according to Katz), the visitor can don the head-mounted display and experience “the first minutes of the composer’s Symphony No. 5. led by Gustavo Dudamel.” As Peggy Lee used to sing so well, “Is that all there is?”
The contrast, to say the least, is chilling. The Philharmonia recognized that there are always going to be a lot of people going to concerts out of some sense of obligation, who don’t know what do to with themselves when they get there. Their installations could plant the seed that there could be more to going to a concert then just sitting there and letting your eardrums vibrate. By providing an “under the hood view” of the performance of a moderately long piece of music as an active process, the installations not only induced familiarity with the music itself but tweaked the imagination of the visitors to suggest that listening to music could be more than just hearing the sounds.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic, on the other hand, seems content to reproduce the experience of sitting in a concert hall as a virtual reality that is far more virtual than it is real. On the one hand it has dropped the bar back down to the level of hearing, rather than listening. Furthermore, it has trivialized even the hearing by reducing the whole experience to only a few minutes, whose very brevity undermines any thought that the experience has anything to do with Beethoven or, for that matter, the performance of any piece of classical music.
I suspect that there are those who would argue that anything more would be prohibitively expensive. They are probably right. I am sure that neither of the Philharmonia installations came cheap. In all likelihood they came to be by finding just the right way to couple aggressive scholarship in the name of the music with aggressive fundraising in the name of getting the installation built. London has provided the rest of the world with a model, not only of the “finished product” but also of the process through which that product was brought to completion. The result is that Los Angeles will now suffer an inadequate product that was probably the result of a poorly-conceived process.
Then, of course, there will be the usual half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none arguments. Let’s be clear. Compared to the Philharmonia installations, Van Beethoven is a far cry from half a loaf. It is barely a single poppy seed on the crust of a slice of rye bread!