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      Extra Tones Podcast: When Virtual Reality Meets Classical Music


       

      Virtual reality’s potential

      The advancement of virtual reality technology has sparked creativity for classical music enthusiasts who are creating new worlds for audience members to enjoy. Saurab Bhargava is the Vice President of Isobar, a digital marketing agency, along with being a classical pianist and supporting initiatives for classical music in the city of Chicago. Saurab is an advocate for the intersection of classical music and technology. He believes that virtual reality, or VR, has immense potential for transporting people into different times, places, and environments that inspired our favorite composers. “What if all of a sudden you could experience Beethoven’s pastoral symphony in the countryside where he wrote it at that time? You’re in that world completely. You’ve become Beethoven composing this,” Saurab says.

      Beethoven composing the Pastoral symphony, as depicted in the "Almanach der Musikgesellschaft" edited in Zurich in 1834.

      Beethoven composing the Pastoral symphony, as depicted in the “Almanach der Musikgesellschaft” edited in Zurich in 1834.

      The Virtual Orchestra

      Similarly to how web developers quickly shifted to creating smartphone apps when Google and Apple launched their app stores in 2008, developers are acting on the growing accessibility of VR headsets. While the highest-quality VR may be out of reach for the average consumer, companies like Samsung are integrating VR headsets into their latest smartphones. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, London Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen said, “When I tried one of the new Samsung headsets for the first time, the potential for orchestral music became apparent. […] It will become a significant means by which music is consumed within the very near future.” In the fall of 2016, The Philharmonia Orchestra invited people to slip on a VR headset and 360-headphones to experience “The Virtual Orchestra“. Participants were transported to the center of the stage while the orchestra performed the third movement of Sibelius’ fifth symphony. As they turned their head, the sights and sound would follow. This project inspired Saurab and creatives alike to begin integrating VR into classical music performances.

       

      Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and “virtual reality paintings”

      Saurab, Isobar, and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) are collaborating with VR artist Teek Mach, who uses an application called Google Tiltbrush to create 3D paintings. The Concerto for Tiltbrush and Orchestra is in it’s planning stages, but if executed to the fullest, would give audiences the ability to view Teek Mach’s 3D painting in real-time, as she interprets the CYSO performing Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The CYSO are excited about the opportunity to use VR technology in a new way, and it has opened up their eyes to the immense possibilities for entertaining audiences in new ways.

       

      Performers using virtual reality headsets

      While not every symphony attendee wants to have a pair of goggles strapped to their head, there are certain instances when the composer has a creative idea that may be better interpreted via virtual reality. Pianist Adam Tendler saw this as the case when he began practicing Drew Baker’s “Stress Positions” which requires the pianist to play in a fixed position and wants a complete black-out of the stage by the end of the piece. Tendler thought to use a VR headset to read the score in order to add to the theatricality of the piece. It is intended to make the audience feel isolated and uncomfortable which is achieved with the pianist wearing a headset that creates no additional light source.

      VR has great potential for both performer and audience members to experience classical music in new ways. It is a way to transport yourself into new worlds. With new technology comes creative ways of interpreting old ideas and in result, makes them feel new again.

      Want to experience The Virtual Orchestra?

      The Philharmonia Orchestra’s virtual orchestra project can be experienced at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL from July 11-23. Admission if free for those attending concerts but paid park admission is required.
       

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