Thursday, 31 May 2012

Universe of Sound: The Planets - at the Science Museum

Child using one of the conductor pods, Universe of Sound, Philharmonia Orchestra, Science Museum
One of the conductor pods
The installation, Universe of Sound: The Planets is a collaboration between the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Science Museum. It opened last week and runs until 8 July (when it will then tour to other locations). We were given a tour of the installation last night, during the Science Museum's highly popular late night opening.

The Philharmonia Orchestra under their chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen made a high definition recording of a performance of Holst's The Planets with multiple microphones and multiple cameras. This meant that each section of the orchestra was able to be captured separately and the installation was divided into separate spaces for each group of instruments.


As you walk into the exhibition you are plunged into the violin section, with films playing on the four walls, each of the violins from a different angle including one camera that was one a players head so that you get a view of his hands playing the instruments (and a great deal of shake in the lively passages). The sound was similarly focussed, so that although The Planets was playing around you, the sound in the string room was principally of the strings.

In the next room there were the flutes. The night we were there they were joined by a live flute/piccolo player from the Philharmonia. She was playing along (as slightly surreal experience seeing the live player and her filmed image). In this room and in the brass room further along, one thing that the presentation brought home was not only the sound of the section, but how in the wind and brass, players have to do quite a bit of waiting and counting. It was a very surreal experience to go into the brass room to find images on four walls of brass players sitting doing nothing, concentrating on counting.

Each room has a display board about the instruments along with fascinating snippets of recent scientific investigation about the instruments in question and how the sounds are made. Also in each room are the relevant sheet music parts on stands. These were being used by the visiting Philharmonia players but the intention was that members of the public could play along as well; though as it is so public I am not sure how many people might do that.

Dotted around the display are conductor pods, where some rather amazing technology captures the motion of your hands and displays them as icons on the computer screen so you can attempt to follow the maestros beat (with your right hand) and, if you can, use your left hand to alter volume (the software actually does this). This pods did seem to be popular with people having a go.

At the centre of the displays was a circular domed space with images of the conductor and selected instrumentalists around the full 360 degrees, with the sound image being of the full orchestra, to give you a truly immersive experience of the full orchestra.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Universe of Sound, Philharmonia Orchestra, Science Museum
Esa-Pekka Salonen in the central dome.

Most fascinating for me were two displays with commentaries (printed on the screen and available spoken on headphones). One was a running commentary added, afterwards, by players commenting on what they were doing (or not doing) at any particular moment. The other was Esa-Pekka Salonen himself giving a commentary on the music.

The most popular room was the percussion one, here there were things to try and time-cued screens so that you could bang the bass drum or the tam-tam at the right time in the music.

Having played in orchestras in my teens (at one point I was in five orchestras), I am familiar with the sounds and sights of being one. But the exhibition was still fascinating and enlightening. For many of the other visitors and for D. who as at the exhibition with me, the sounds and sights were relatively new. The filmed images took in not only players playing but, as I have said, players not playing and also doing non-playing things such as cleaning the inside of a piccolo or opening a valve end emptying a French horn (a typical and very necessary activity) or, in the case of the organist, sitting doing nothing for LONG periods.

The only thing the exhibition seemed to lack was an electronic version of the score with a bouncing ball (or some such thing) showing where the music was at any point. It would seem a very helpful device for non music readers.

This was intended to be an immersive and illuminating experience and it certainly was. It provided information and entertainment for an old hand like me as well as for those for whom the orchestra was an exotic novelty. The players present (a flute/piccolo player and a double bass player) both displayed a willingness to engage with the visitors and chat to them. The double bass player apparently able to play along and chat at the same time (harder for a flute player!).  The players seemed to be genuinely involved and interested in the whole experience. There were plenty of room guides who were there, not to stop you touching, but to help, explain and encourage participation.

I went to the exhibition in the spirit of interested enquiry especially as it combined both my musical and scientific sites, but came away a real enthusiast. The exhibition is definitely a must-see experience and will fascinate children of all ages from 8 to 80.

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