As a precocious show-off of a child I would often try to make my mum laugh by “conducting” along to Classic Fm (NB a cake tester makes an excellent baton). There’s something beguiling about the whole performance of classical music, the drama, the incredible skill and the intensity combine to create something epic, and thanks to a new installation at The Science Museum you can immerse yourself right in the epicentre of an orchestra.
Universe of Sound is an hour long immersive experience featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra playing Gustav Holst’s The Planets. After recording the 105-piece orchestra using 37 cameras and more than 30 microphones, visitors can see close-up each section’s role, play along in the percussion section, indulge their conductor fantasies on an insane digital simulator and absorb the music in a 360 degree dome.
For such an ambitious undertaking, Richard Slaney head of digital at the Philharmonia, is refreshingly unpretentious about the inspiration for the installation. “We just thought wouldn’t it be cool if you could get up and sit on the stage in the middle of a concert. The Planets is a piece of music that everyone knows even if they don’t know they know it and it’s also good because there’s lots of sound worlds going on and it uses one of the biggest orchestras in terms of scale.”
The number of youngsters who flock to the Science Museum obviously presents a great opportunity to turn on the younger generation to classical music but it’s so intelligently produced that seasoned music lovers will get a lot out of it too. Richard says some people stay for more than one run-through of the entire cycle flitting back and forth to experience different sections, hearing what the musicians hear.
And it’s also a natural fit with The Science Museum on several levels: “There’s the psychology aspect, and we se the orchestra as a huge machine with all these different parts working together.” We are told about frequencies below 20HZ that even though inaudible seem to have an effect on people, and that conductors train their minds to look and listen with equal concentration.
There’s nice touches too – the trombone section is filmed using a camera on the instrument’s slider and there’s something oddly mediative about sitting watching the organist, only needed for a small section, just waiting his turn. “It was interesting for us to show what people do outside playing their notes,”RIchard says, “the counting, the concentration and the resting.”
Professional members of the orchestra will be on hand every day, playing along and answering questions and it is hoped help explode some of the anachronistic myths about classical music being stuffy or staid.
A specially-commissioned piece by Joby Talbot plays after the Planets cycle and this is where the conductor simulator really comes into its own, you can choose different paths through it and even which soloist is used. Certain sections of the simulators will be available online so people can create their own “remixes” but be warned if you’re heading there, it is possible to mess-up the orchestra’s timing and they’ll even start coughing and looking bored if you do nothing.
Richard calls the installation “the perfect fusion of science and arts” and he’s right but more than that it strikes the ideal balance between being educational and rip-roaringly good fun.
Universe of Sound runs until July 8.