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UK virtual orchestra puts you in conductor’s stand

May 22, 2012

LONDON (AP) — A London museum is putting the conductor’s baton in visitors’ hands, allowing guests to direct a virtual orchestra using three-dimensional motion sensors.

The “Universe of Sound” installation is an effort by the British capital’s Science Museum to dissect how classical music is made, using specially shot footage, immersive sound, and 360 degree projections to give an unusually close-up view of the well-regarded Philharmonia Orchestra.

“At the end of the whole installation you become part of the entirety,” said David Whelton, the museum’s managing director. “You become part of the Philharmonia.”

At the center of the Science Museum’s exhibition is footage of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” a majestic orchestral suite at times martial, moody or ethereal. Some 37 cameras shot the Philharmonia’s 132 musicians running through the score on the specially-blacked out stage at Watford Colosseum, just outside London, early this year.

They were shot over the course of a single day, playing together, playing in groups, or playing alone. That’s something which allows those browsing the footage — projected on large screens against the Science Museum’s darkened, sonorous interior — to zoom in on a single section or even a single musician, picking single strands of sound from the general swell of the music.

Greg Felton, who does digital work for the orchestra, pointed an Associated Press reporter to the woodwind section’s subtle, atmospheric notes.

“There are people who know The Planets incredibly well who would never have heard this,” he said.

The exhibit also gives visitors a chance to see parts of the orchestra in an up-close way which wouldn’t otherwise have been possible, focusing on a harpist’s hands or a violinist’s fingers. One camera was even attached to a trombone’s slide, whipping back and forth as the brass section got into gear.

“None of the musicians can get away with anything,” remarked the Philharmonia’s principle percussionist, Kevin Hathway, who was on hand to demonstrate an interactive drum set.

Would-be maestros may like the virtual conductor program the best.

Several installations at the museum use Microsoft’s Kinect technology to capture the hand movements of visitors who stand in specially-made pods. Raise your left hand and the orchestra — which appears on a set of television screens — plays louder. Speed the movement of your right hand and the tempo of the music increases. Get the movements wrong and the musicians get out of tune. Get it really wrong and a computerized audience starts coughing politely.

The conduct-yourself exhibits are likely to be popular, but Felton seemed to like the close-ups the best — particularly the ones that showed musicians resting between movements, their hands slack but their faces alert.

He stopped at a video of organist Richard Pearce, normally hidden behind his massive instrument, far from the back-and-forth of the conductor’s baton.

“You never get to see that guy play!” Felton said.

Universe of Sound opens Wednesday. Admission is free.

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