On the Stage: Universe of Sound

Posted on August 8, 2012

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This article was originally written for MouthLondon magazine

Deep inside the labyrinth of the poorly signposted Science Museum, an octagonal ring of screens display the looming faces of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and if you stand in its centre you can experience being utterly submerged in Holst’s The Planets, as music booms out from speakers on all sides.

This month, a small corner of the Science Museum is being inhabited by the Philharmonia Orchestra. Universe of Sound uses video to lead you through the different sections of the orchestra while they play The Planets and its new companion piece, composed by Joby Talbot, Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity, on loop.

The digital installation incorporates motion-sensing screens, which aim to let you experience conducting. These unfortunately didn’t seem to be working when I was visiting (unless I’m just a terrible conductor). You can also have a go at playing weird and wonderful percussion instruments along to the music (best to go late in the day if you don’t want to have to wrestle a child to have a go).

…even if they do look bored much of the time.

The music was chosen well. Even if you think you don’t know it, you do. Holst’s recognisable progressions, great swells and booming refrains are some of the most exhilarating music you will find. My only criticism would be that it might be nice for the screens to switch focus once in a while­ – watching the same horn player and flute though long periods of counting is pretty visually uninteresting.

Traditionalists will tell you that nothing can match the experience of hearing music live, but both live performances and high-quality recordings accompanied by video have their merits. The sound quality is more even and precise, and there is a novelty to being able to see the musicians up close – especially the conductor, who typically has his back turned – even if they do look bored much of the time. You can also chose how long to stay, wander around, chat to fellow visitors; it’s a rare thing to find such a relaxed environment in which to appreciate high-quality classical music.

While, grouch that I am, I could have done without the “fun” elements, the Philharmonia and the Science Museum have done a fantastic job of opening up the orchestra, making classical music seem more accessible and creating an exciting and immersive musical experience.

Universe of Sound is at the Science Museum until 27 August

Admission: free

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