Universe of Sound

So. The Philharmonia Orchestra has this thing on at the Science Museum in London called Universe of Sound that uses HD video, a couple Microsoft Kinects and copies of orchestral parts to give people an idea of what it’s like be inside an orchestra when it’s playing.

It is a revolution, not because of the technology, but because of the attitude. Rather than reinforcing the gates of our little country club and then wondering why no one wants to visit, UoS assumes that classical music is something that everyone can get if given half a chance and then lets them get on with it. It trusts the product will be just as powerful when stormed by 100 squirmy children as it is in the hermetic confines of the concert hall.

In my experience, it was, in many ways, more so. Sure, I could have done with a bit less tam-tam, but at least no one gave me a death stare for blowing my nose or reached over an empty seat to grab my arm because I absentmindedly checked a text.

Here are bits from the piece I wrote for the LA paper.

“The power of the installation is that it places no demands on you,” explained [Philharmonia conductor Esa-Pekka] Salonen. “If you hate it, you leave after 30 seconds. If you like it, you stay for two hours, three hours. For me personally, the best experience was to see two old ladies in their 80s banging the hell out of the bass drum, trying to hit the off-beats and shrieking with joy like little girls.”


In the violin room, a boy of 9 or 10 brought his instrument and was bravely playing along with “Mars” as practice for his sight reading exam. Next door, a barely walking girl in a rainbow tutu was transfixed by the pair of on-screen harpists, while a group of teenage boys, all limbs and hoodies, gave the instruments in the percussion room a nonironic workout.


“Yes, we would like people to come and see the Philharmonia,” [Head of Digital, Richard] Slaney said, “we’re not going to argue with that idea, but it’s a very expensive way to get 2,000 people to go to a concert. Maybe they’ll go to a concert in 10 years’ time, maybe they’ll go see their local orchestra, maybe they’ll buy some CDs or maybe none of these things. I don’t think it matters.”

Read the whole thing ici.

Universe of Sound is about much more than technology or education or marketing and regrettably, I was unable to convince my editor that the whole of the Calendar section should be devoted exploring these themes fully. I hope to write about this more sometime, but for now, the summary is: Universe of Sound is what it looks like when you’re doing it right.

Here’s a docu explaining how it’s all done:

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