Technology in the concert hall

Gillian Moore explores how we can enhance classical performance in the digital age

Technology in the concert hall
(Credit: Geoff Brown)

At Southbank Centre, we’re launching our new classical music season with something of a Tech-Fest. Most obviously, we’re celebrating a relatively elderly form of technology which, since it was invented, has had an intimate relationship with music: the radio. BBC Radio 3 is moving in for two weeks, celebrating its 70th anniversary by broadcasting to the world from a glass box in the Royal Festival Hall café.

And this is a fitting location for the station’s birthday bash:  BBC Radio 3, formerly known as The Third Programme, came out of the same post-war idealism that gave us the Festival of Britain and the Royal Festival Hall. Arts and culture for everybody was considered as important as free healthcare and universal education in a society picking itself up after the catastrophe of global war. The Third Programme’s broadcasts allowed anyone with a radio in their home to enjoy the best music, literature and ideas. Similarly, the open, generous, democratic spaces of the Royal Festival Hall aimed to welcome everyone by creating an atmosphere of modernity and progress in contrast to the aristocratic splendour of concert halls of the past.  Both Radio 3 and The Royal Festival Hall were created to symbolise a belief in the future.

But aside from its intimate relationship with radio and recording, it is often said that classical music has been largely unaffected by recent technological progress. There is certainly some truth in that. Think of orchestral instruments: the technology of instruments was developing at breakneck speed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Instruments were adapting to the new, large, purpose-built concert halls and new instruments were being invented, or so it seems, all the time: bass clarinets, grand pianos, saxophones, contrabassoons. And then it all stopped, somewhere around the Wagner Tuba. Yes, there is electronic music, which came into existence after World War II and made glorious new sounds possible. But it makes only rare appearances in mainstream symphony orchestra concerts, existing more comfortably in smaller venues, clubs and contemporary music spaces.

Instead of enabling new instruments, it seems that digital technology has real potential as a mediator, an educator, a deepener of the experience of classical concerts. Some of this is speculation, dreaming for the future. I’ve read about visions of seat-back screens, or of in-seat USB ports from which the audience can receive programme notes and additional content to their smartphones. I’m open to anything, but instinctively I want to be looking up and taking part in a collective experience during a concert, not simulating a long-haul flight or having another excuse to look at my phone.

The approach taken by the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by their principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, has involved creating immersive experiences which exist alongside the live concert: before, after or, if you can’t physically get to a concert, instead of. Salonen, who has led the Philharmonia to being digital pioneers, is a composer as well as a conductor. Together with his orchestra, he has fronted some rather glamorous adverts for Apple iPads, showing how he uses the technology to compose and notate his music. Orchestra and conductor have also developed The Orchestra App with Touch Press, an iPad app with multiple features designed to immerse the user in orchestral music: multi-perspective videos, scrolling scores, interactive maps of the orchestra, technical deconstructions of how the music works, and interviews with musicians. 

Taking the immersive idea a stage further, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Salonen have created walk-through installations on famous orchestral pieces: first Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and then Holst’s The Planets. The orchestral performance is fractured into rooms, people walk into the rooms like they are wandering around an exhibition and are surrounded by moving images and 3D sound design which envelops them in the different sections of the orchestra, providing an astonishingly intimate perspective on these large works. 

The most recent stage of the immersive experience involves virtual reality technology which really can make the user feel that they are in the middle of an orchestra. Before I experienced it, I was sceptical - why would it be that special to sit as if in the front desk of violas in the Philharmonia? I’d been in my County Youth Orchestra after all. As soon as I put on the VR headset, I understood. The experience of being enveloped by a world-class symphony orchestra, being able to turn round and get a close perspective of other musicians, hear and even feel all the right sounds coming from all the right places (the sound design is brilliant) and to be conducted inches away by a top flight conductor is more thrilling that I’d let myself believe. And it really did give me a new insight into the music itself, from the bottom up - or, perhaps more accurately, from the middle outwards.

Gillian Moore is director of music at London's Southbank Centre. Sound Frontiers: Radio 3 Live at Southbank Centre and The Virtual Orchestra open at Royal Festival Hall on 23 September. 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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