Experience Beethoven's Synesthesia with Oculus VR

The LA Phil uses VR to bring Beethoven’s music to the people.

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Sep 29 2015, 2:20pm

VAN Beethoven orchestra VR screenshot, courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic

Many people recognize the opening four notes to the first movement of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5," usually from a movie, the radio, or the internet. Certainly not many have heard the beginning notes of Beethoven's 67th opus performed live by an orchestra like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose star conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his frenetically bouncing head of curls have become as much part of an LA Phil show as the music itself.

For anyone living outside LA and for most people living in it, getting to either of the LA Phil's seasonal homes of the Walt Disney Concert Hall (an artwork in itself) or the Hollywood Bowl is a haul. So the orchestra decided that if distance, traffic, cost and/or laziness were going to prevent people from going to hear live concert music, they would bring the concert to the people with a mobile virtual reality theater experience called VAN Beethoven.

Photo by Kelle Ramsey, courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic

Picture a really nice private viewing room inside a plush food-truck style van where the interior is not a kitchen, but a micro-theater. There's no screen, only comfy seats and Samsung Gear VR headsets powered by Oculus. Instead of a live concert, viewers are treated to a four-minute long snippet of the beginning of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5 In C Minor"—in virtual reality.

Photo by Kelle Ramsey, courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic

In the VR experience (which is also available through an app for anyone with the headset and a Samsung), Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall as animations swirl above and around the orchestra, further drawing attention to the mounting synesthesia. VAN Beethoven is produced by interactive agency Secret Location, and is part of the David C. Bohnett Presidential Fund for Discovery and Innovation. (Bohnett founded GeoCities in the 90's before Yahoo bought it, and now serves as chairman of the David Bohnett Foundation. He donated $20 million to the LA Phil to create projects like VAN Beethoven.)

Gustavo Dudamel wearing the Oculus Rift Samsung headset, photo by Vern Evans, courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic

The experience is as new and different as Beethoven's music sounded to his own audiences in the early 19th century, and it's safe to say that the technology itself is still pretty new, too. I tried the Samsung Gear VR four separate times over the past seven months, with four different programs—one feature-film demo, two video games, and VAN Beethoven—and I've had the same experience each time. Besides offering a 360-degree, 3D view, the headset-and-smartphone combo also provides a noticeable texture you'd expect to see while holding a phone right up to your face, with or without an Oculus device. It's an immersive pre-programmed environment, yet that environment is very obviously a mere chimera of real life. Still, it's interesting to feel temporarily immersed in a world that is ironically more unreal than real, emphasizing the "virtual" in virtual reality.

In the end, it is worth experiencing the Oculus with the Samsung just to witness the seeds of a new technology that may or may not replace real life in the future. In the case of VAN Beethoven, though, VR only makes you want to hear the real thing, proving nothing can ever replace hearing Ludwig Van Beethoven’s music performed live—and that might very well be the whole point.

Photo by Kelle Ramsey, courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic

VAN Beethoven is part of the LA Phil's Immortal Beethoven festival September 29-October 13, featuring the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Check out the full schedule or request a stop if you're in LA.

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