It was 8pm on August 6th, and 6182 people at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell were waiting for a “once-in-a-lifetime” event: an immersive music performance of a space-themed cantata, The Hubble Cantata, combining “live orchestral music, choirs, film and virtual reality technology”.
The live musical performance was primed by a percussion ensemble, TIGUE, and climaxed with a film featuring nebula-like images from the perspective of the Hubble Telescope. In the last 5 minutes of the hour-long performance, audience members were cued to put on the pre-distributed Google Cardboard Virtual Reality headsets and play the video they downloaded to their smartphones for a 360-degree view of the clouds through their headsets. Everyone had their own private journey through the Orion Nebula, yet it was a collective, communal experience that shared by over 6,000 people at the same time.
Developed as one of the art incubation programs at the New Museum and produced by VisionIntoArt/National Sawdust, the project is a 3-year collaboration between Composer Paola Prestini, Filmmaker Eliza McNitt, Astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio, Visual Effects Studio, The Endless Collective, and Design firm, Arup. The Hubble Cantata was a major production to put together because of both the variety of performers and inclusion of technology. Presented by BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, it was performed by “the Norwegian string ensemble 1B1, members of the chamber ensemble NOVUS NY, the 80-member The Washington Chorus, 20-member Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and opera soloists Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn from Metropolitan Opera”. When enhanced with a virtual reality experience and a 360-degree sound installation, the project exemplified a supreme joint effort by artists, scientists, engineers and a presenting organization.
In the case of the Hubble Cantata, it was staying true to a mission that drove everyone involved to outperform and a plan ahead of time to garner support and publicity.
1. The Mission and The Team
The common goal for the entire project team was to produce an unprecedented immersive “personal journey into space in a groundbreaking way” free to the public and transform the audience of the NYC community. While it appears that each team member was committed to that goal, when the partnership expanded to so many parties, how did they ensure art, science and technology blend seamlessly? Realistically, each individual team member had their own motives that organically push the project forward.
For the artistic creators, the project was an outlet for their creativity. Musicians and singers were willing to be part of this innovative, unique and massive-scaled production that had the potential to further their careers. For example, Paola Prestini is a classically trained composer who has been commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic. Inspired by Hubble telescope images released in 2013, Prestini’s composition was originally commissioned by Bay Chamber Concerts. Dr. Mario Livio has worked with the Hubble Space Telescope for 24 years and written five popular science books. He was “thrilled by the fact that a composer [Paola Prestini] felt inspired by Hubble images of the universe” and by his writings. Another team member, Eliza McNitt, who specializes filmmaking in fusing science with narrative storytelling, was drawn to the project by “the challenge of transporting an audience to the cosmos.” These three key players synergized the artistic creation to another level of excellence.
Until very recently, the emerging technology of VR was thought to be experienced in isolation. For the Hubble Cantata engineers, they had the opportunity to experiment with the technical details they can't ordinarily justify in a revenue-driven environment but “move the needle on what VR can be” with this project. Credited for visual effects in Hollywood films such as Gravity, Inception and Batman Returns, The Endless Collective was attracted by “the experimental nature of the project”, according to Duncan Ransom in an interview by Kickstarter with the project team. Ransom also learned from the process and the importance of “360-degree ambisonic sound to truly elevate the experience and create absolute immersion”, which could help to inform the commercialization of such techniques in film productions. VR producer, Jess Engel, wanted to see “the biggest live-synced VR experience to date” come to life, and expanded his view of how VR can be experienced after the project. He said in the interview, “It’s not just about the content itself, but the context in which it is shown — that gives it further meaning and can create that next-level experience.”
2. External Relations
As the group worked together following the same vision for the project, their individual fields of expertise “beautifully complemented each other during the project.” All the team members felt the concerted effort created the unexpected, unpredictable and impossible. With an all-star team, the project attracted media coverage by various scientific, music, technological and local journalists:
The project had a clear value proposition throughout all development and marketing efforts: the first free public VR experience with simultaneous multidisciplinary performance. Funding for the project was secured from multiple channels, with a mix of individual donors, corporate sponsorship by Time Warner Inc., grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York State Legislature.
3. Technology Planning
The complexity of the each and every component of the performance required meticulous attention to detail. Given that the bandwidth for live streaming wasn’t enough for all viewers, even with the on-site Wi-Fi donated by Time Warner Cable, the team built an app called Fistful of Stars for iOS and Android to work as a platform to download and play back the visual content. Audiences were instructed to download the app and a 300MB film before attending the performance. To make sure the audience had enough battery on their phones, BRIC set up charging stations on the venue. Audience members who didn’t have a functioning smartphone were still able to experience a 2D film projected on the screen.
4. Technology Implementation
Even with the meticulous planning efforts, there were still some minor issues that occurred on site. 6,000 Google Cardboards were handed out at the VR Hot-posts, but they ran short. The Wi-Fi went down due to last-minute downloads. There were occasions when staff “came out and implored people to turn off the wi-fi on their smartphones in order for others to be able download the ‘Fistful of Stars’ app and film for the main event”.
Some critics viewed the Hubble Cantata as a performance that fell short of its ambitions because too many elements were thrown at the audience all at once. Even though there were some hiccups, the Hubble Cantata’s efforts are to be commended, because it was the first time that VR was incorporated into art-making on such a grand scale and offered to the public for free. The VR element was carefully chosen to be added and employed at the end of the performance. The technology was seamlessly integrated into the storytelling, instead of stuffing it to a more conventional narrative. Paola Prestini said in an interview that the team “decided to not use Hubble imagery until the very end of the piece and holding back was very important. Because by the end, when you’ve connected with the human story and you finally get to be in the Orion Nebula, it’s much more visceral.”
A Look back at the Industry
We should consider the fact that the classical music genre has been dabbling with Virtual Reality for quite some time, but the professional orchestras who have tried to use the technologies only “aim to replicate the concert hall experience,” Although It is hard to predict whether Virtual Reality will have the same effect of diluting the local audience attendance as Met Live HD did for local opera companies, it has been taken as an approach for marketing, branding and audience development.
Back in September 2015, The Los Angeles Philharmonic launched a virtual reality project in a touring van during the orchestra’s Immortal Beloved Beethoven Festival, later released on its website, giving the audience a 360-degree experience of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 performed by the orchestra at Walt Disney Concert in 4 minutes. At that time, it was deemed as a marketing tactics to reach people “who might not get to otherwise experience one of our concerts,” said the Director of Digital Initiatives, Amy Seidenwurm, in an announcement video for the project.
Fueled by a completely different funding system, the London Philharmonia Orchestra developed a free interactive digital installation. Using “visual displays, touch screens, unconventional projecting surfaces, movement-based interaction and planetarium-style projections,” the installation invites the public to be an insider of the orchestra and encourage visitors to participate as “musicians, conductors, arrangers and composers.”
There are also oppositions on orchestras’ attempt to create 360-degree film for VR headset. Orchestra consultant Drew McManus advocates that “for most orchestras, even large budget groups, there are plenty of digital channels that deserve resources before casting an eye toward virtual reality programming.” and “redirecting those resources toward improving the infrastructure of their existing online eﬀorts, such as their website, online ticketing and database management” could better serve the ticket-buying audience.
The Hubble Cantata was a successful performance created by a multimedia producing company and presented by a presenter of free cultural programming in a local community. Both parties invested remarkable efforts to bring together classical music, astrophysics and VR technology to the public.
What is the future of classical music with technologies? Will fusion, crossover or multi-layered performance be a prerequisite for any transformational project? Will VR bring audiences into the concert hall for classical music? Or, will it revolutionize how people consume classical music? Comment below with your thoughts!