LA’s Philharmonic Is Bringing the Symphony to Everyone—In VR
Fifty-five seconds into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the French horns call out from the lilt of the orchestra with three quick high notes and three longer lower ones. It’s Beethoven’s dramatic introduction of Fate, the symphony’s main character; it’s a fitting personification by a musician entangled in a personal struggle with the concept. Even as he wrote the most famous and recognizable piece of music in the classical library, the composer was going deaf.
The moment is drama. Tension. Crescendo. And I am sitting in the middle of it. I can see Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s slightly closed eyes as he leans forward to signal the horns. Thanks to the Samsung Gear VR headset I’m wearing using Oculus technology, I’m so close to the concertmaster, I could reach out to shake his hand.
This is the demo for the orchestra’s new digital initiative. Four minutes later, I emerge from virtual reality to a bland conference room at a WeWork space in downtown Manhattan, slightly wistful. I’m not ready for the music to end. Starting September 11, you can have this experience, too. A bright yellow van—aptly named VAN Beethoven—will make a five-week tour through greater Los Angeles, stopping to treat locals to this very private concert I’m enjoying.
The promise of virtual reality has long been that it can take us places we never otherwise would have visited. And as I’ve tested applications of VR and its fraternal twin, augmented reality, over the past year, I’ve seen remarkable simulations. I stood on the moon with Microsoft’s HoloLens. I perched in the forest as Reese Witherspoon wandered by in the movie Wild. And I nearly wept during Lost, director Saschka Unseld’s animated short about a severed robot hand lost in the woods. But no programming has moved me as much as four minutes of classical music put together by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra’s crack digital initiatives team.
You should probably know that I’m a classical music buff. Having spent a couple decades in my younger years practicing the French horn daily, I watch symphonies the way some people watch soccer games, looking for form and tempo and star performances, and I listen to them with all five of my senses. I pony up regularly to sit in the symphony hall. Quite honestly, digital director Amy Seidenwurm didn’t design VAN Beethoven for me. Many of the people who catch this tour will not be frequent visitors to Walt Disney Concert Hall. Her goal is to bring the symphony hall to its audience. Says Seidenwurm, “We’re an organization dedicated to the art form—we need people to know that they like it.”
This is what makes VAN Beethoven so incredible: it’s the first time I’ve seen a nonprofit organization harness this technology to bring a cultural experience to underserved communities. Gaming is cool. Movies are awesome. But this? This is the larger promise of virtual reality, realized.
Efforts to introduce new listeners to classical music have been central to conductor Gustavo Dudamel. At just 34, he’s a Venezuelan musician who came to classical music through a publicly-financed program called El Sistema, which offered free classical music education for impoverished children. He began playing the violin at 10, and conducting shortly after. By 27, he’d signed on to be the LA Philharmonic’s permanent conductor. Dudamel likes to say that music is a fundamental human right.
VAN Beethoven will be outfitted with carpeting and a half-dozen seats from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It will stop at a dozen locations from food festivals to the LA Korean Festival, and organizations can request stops here. Visitors will be invited to take a seat, slip into a Samsung headset, and experience the symphony. If you don’t live in LA, or you simply miss the van, the VAN Beethoven experience will be available as a free app called Orchestra VR in the Oculus Rift and Samsung VR app stores.
Creating this short piece was a massive undertaking. It was funded by a gift from Geocities founder David Bohnett, an LA Philharmonic board member—and a man who cares deeply enough about the project that he is sitting beside me in the WeWork offices while I watch it. To make the piece, Seidenwurm employed the Canadian interactive agency Secret Location. They used two cameras, one with eight Go-Pros attached to it and another with six. They recorded binaural sound, using 40 microphones throughout the hall to replicate a 3D sound experience. So, when you’re facing the orchestra and the violin makes an entrance, you hear it, as you would in the hall, from the left side. Swivel your head, and the orientation of the sound changes.
The team has also designed a series of animations that dance over the musicians, signaling an untrained ear to recognize the sound of various instrument and intended to animate the symphony’s theme—the struggle with the idea of fate. The music is over too quickly, and shortly I find myself on the elevator, searching YouTube on my iPhone to find a longer recording of the symphony. You’ll want to hear the whole thing. That’s the point. And if you happen to be in LA next month, you can. The LA Philharmonic will start its fall season with a Beethoven festival, Immortal Beethoven, in which they will play all nine of his symphonies sequentially, twice.