A couple of weeks ago I sat inside a small room wearing a virtual reality headset at the ARUP SoundLab in lower Manhattan. The room was capable of simulating any environment through sound. In this case, that environment was outer space—specifically, the inside of one of the better-known and most visible interstellar clouds of gas and dust, the Orion Nebula.
“This is a five minute exploration through the cosmos, alongside the Hubble Telescope, as you’re transported into the Orion Nebula, and experience the birth, life, and death of a star,” said Eliza McNitt, a few minutes earlier. McNitt is the young writer and director of this virtual reality journey into the stars that uses images taken from the Hubble Telescope, brings them into the third dimension, and takes us along for the ride, using Virtual Reality technology and high-end sound engineering from ARUP.
Tomorrow night, six thousand people have the chance to experience the same virtual reality journey through space, for free, as part of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! at Prospect Park Bandshell, co-produced by National Sawdust and VisionIntoArt. The world premiere of the Hubble Cantata—infused with a 360 degree sonic scape—will be accompanied by an original score by composer Paola Prestini (founding artistic director of National Sawdust), which will be performed by 120 people on the BRIC stage and include two opera stars, an orchestra, and a children’s chorus. Visually, the musical portion of the performance will be enhanced by still images of City Ballet star Wendy Whelan and actor Rufus Collins.
The cantata was created to honor the 25-year legacy of the Hubble telescope, first sent into space in 1990 to orbit our planet and take graphic images of galaxies with a resolution that was incredibly high and clear, and not achievable from land. “It gives you the opportunity to float within the photo realistic simulations of iconic imagery from Hubble, which has deepened our understanding of the universe,” the filmmaker Eliza McNitt told those gathered at Arup SounLab, for the preview of the Virtual Reality performance.
Dr. Mario Livio, who has worked with Hubble Telescope for 24 years, narrates the interstellar journey. Wearing the glasses, I was virtually carried up close to and through the Hubble Telescope itself, and then deep into the Nebula. Dr. Livio’s omnipresent voice informs me, “The [Nebula’s] new stars contain elements forged in the nuclear furnaces at the heart of the previous stellar generations.” He sounds something like the Israeli version of Werner Hertzog, in his quirky insights and sweeping learnedness. “Our bodies are also made of atoms created in stallar cores,” he continues. “We are literally star dust.”
While this VR journey is mind-blowing, the musical portion that precedes it—at least on an Earth scale, if not on a cosmos scale—is even grander. “For the first 40 minutes, we explore the human connections with stars,” Pristini told the eager participants in the virtual reality preview of the Hubble Cantata in the sound lab. The seed for the entire project, Pristini explained, was planted four years ago. She was approached and asked to create a musical score in honor of the Hubble’s quarter century run. “Dr. Mario Livio had a beautiful blog, and he was able to explain complex issues of astro physics and space to people like me,” Pristini recounted about her creative process and inspiration. “I was touched by his words, and wanted to create something that took the birth, life, and death of a star and create connections to it.”
And so Pristini’s portion of the cantata—the score and still images of Whelan and Collins—is meant to highlight the connection of humans to the stars, one that, often, we are likely oblivious to, but also one that, if we take a moment to think about it, is overwhelming. After all, as we know from Dr. Livio, it is stars from which we are forged.
While the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! crowd will not have the immense pleasure of affixing the clunky yet incredible VR glasses to their heads that give you this thoroughly enveloping view of space, cardboard virtual reality glasses and an app, Fistful of Stars (which you should download on your phone ahead of the performance right now) will nearly replicate the experience, and bring the Hubble telescope images, with VR, straight to your phone.
I can’t emphasize enough how thrilling this space tour is and how much you should try not to miss it. When I was first told about the Hubble Cantata, that it was a VR tour of space, I knew I wanted to experience that very badly. But the reality of it far surpassed my anticipatory excitement. When the five minute tour of the Nebula ended—after I’d craned my head in all directions, seeing nothing but space everywhere I looked, feeling suspended deep within the Orion Nebula, and traveling inside the blinding brightness of the stars—I had the distinct impression that, in some sense, I really had gone where no one had gone before. But then, just as Dr. Livio told me I was literally made from star dust, it was over.
“Oh no,” I said out loud to a laughing room, like I was being torn out of a high, or, for all you Star Trek: TNG fans, like I’d been ripped out of the Nexus. “I don’t wanna go!”
“Yeah, it’s not the first time,” said Terence Caulkins, the sound designer at ARUP. “The final version, you actually go into the heart of the nebula, too, which is like a beautiful climax.”
I’m pretty sure the climax he is referencing is also unlike any I’ve known before. But tomorrow night, with the Hubble Cantata, it can be all of ours.
See the Hubble Cantata (and Tigue!) tomorrow night at Prospect Park Bandshell for BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!