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At a Concert, Floating Through Outer Space in Virtual Reality

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Still from “The Hubble Cantata: A Fistful of Stars” (2016) (all images courtesy BRIC Arts Media unless otherwise noted)

On Saturday night, some 6,000 people gathered on the Prospect Park Bandshell’s grassy knoll and waited to be beamed up into space. Via Google Cardboard VR headsets, they would float through the Orion Nebula, a Milky Way star cluster more than 1,000 light years away. As they floated, they would listen to a Norwegian string orchestra, a choir of 100 and two Metropolitan Opera stars singing about the parallel life cycles of stars and humans.

This was the Hubble Cantata, a staggeringly ambitious work that attempted to bring the cosmos down to Brooklyn and make sweaty crowds bordered by beer tents and porta-potties feel like astronauts. Part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series, the event fused music by composer Paola Prestini with astrophysics and a finale in virtual reality.

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The Hubble Cantata at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park (2016) (photo by David Andrako)

Prestini’s operatic score, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, did not encourage the “astronauts,” as the MC called the audience, to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight: Instead, it was a thundering opus that obliquely told the story of a woman losing her child and committing suicide. The 20-person orchestra was silhouetted behind a translucent screen projected with Sasha Arutyunova’s ghostly black-and-white photographs of a couple in despair, hands forming shadow puppets, and a glowing pregnant belly. This human tragedy was framed by a parallel narrative charting the birth, life, and death of a star, narrated by the Hubble’s lead astrophysicist, Dr. Mario Livio.

When composing the cantata, Prestini took a synesthetic approach to translating the Hubble’s Orion Nebula images into music. “There’s actually no sound in space,” Prestini told Hyperallergic. She asked herself, “What do collapsing clouds of gas sound like? What do stars sound like?” In her musical imagination, they sound almost apocalyptic, with foreboding timpani rolls and searing string runs. The bellowed lyrics — sometimes a little on-the-nose — mused on “intelligent life,” “exhausted promises, exhausted frontiers,” and “a filter of doom.”

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The Hubble Cantata at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park (2016) (photo by David Andrako)

Forty-five minutes into the piece, a message appeared on the screen: “Astronauts: Lift Off Imminent.” The choir began a countdown. Before the show, audience members had been told to download an app, called Fistful of Stars, featuring a five-minute VR video by filmmaker Eliza McNitt. In unison, the “astronauts” popped their smartphones into the VR headsets, handed out for free, and launched into a 360-degree tour through space composed of CGI-animated imagery of the Orion Nebula, first photographed by the Hubble Telescope in 1993.

“People have asked, did you actually send your cameras to space [to make the video]?” McNitt said.

No, it would take thousands of years to get the footage back. And to the human eye, [the Orion Nebula] would just look like white light. We used Hubble Telescope photos as reference, to create a photorealistic simulation of what it would be like to travel into pockets of the universe that only the Hubble gets to see. We tried to make things as accurate as possible, but also to create a sense of magical realism.

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Still from “The Hubble Cantata: A Fistful of Stars” (2016)

Looking through the headset’s plastic eyeholes, a glow on the horizon grew into a glaring white sun, and the astronauts, sitting on a patchwork of blankets in the grass, were virtually transported into the silver cylinder of the Hubble Telescope. But just as I was about to float into the telescope’s round eye, the VR experience stopped, interrupted by a low battery warning on my phone.

Sans headset, angrily tapping the phone screen, I was returned to a non-virtual reality of french fry trays and half-eaten burgers and $8 cups of beer littering the grass, mosquitoes biting my legs, a crying baby, and my own dumb lack of preparedness (why hadn’t I visited the “charging station” nearby?). Stars in the real sky overhead twinkled faintly behind the light pollution. Around me, hundreds of people stared into their headsets, swiveling around in wonder, like drunk cyborgs. They had blasted off without me. My escape had been thwarted.

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The Hubble Cantata at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park (2016) (photo by David Andrako)

My expectations for the Hubble Cantata, vaguely based on sci-fi imaginings of VR, were impossibly high. I had arrived in Prospect Park hoping to achieve something akin to astral projection. A lazy meditator, I thought maybe this technology could offer a shortcut to five minutes of enlightenment. “All elements in our bodies were forged at the centers of stars,” Dr. Livio had said at the start of the performance, “which means we literally are stardust.” This wasn’t news, because I had heard Crosby, Stills & Nash before, but I’d hoped this smartphone app, paired with loud opera, would kill my ego and make me feel like stardust, for once. I had hoped an animation of the Orion Nebula seen through a cardboard headset would give me a hallucinogen-level out-of-body experience without destroying brain cells. Of course, this was too much to ask. The experience of VR, so far, doesn’t live up to the fantasy of total escape. (For the sake of staving off a Black Mirror-esque dystopia filled with VR porn addicts, that’s probably a good thing.)

“We may be doomed and intelligent civilizations will not survive for very long,” said Dr. Mario Livio from the speakers. “Life is extremely rare.” As if rooting for the survival of intelligent civilization, my phone did not die, the video resumed, and massive peaked clouds of pink and orange and blue star stuff began to swirl around me in all directions. Flecks of dirt on the screen camouflaged into thousands of virtual stars, and the usual sounds of Prospect Park mixed into the booming orchestra: Airplanes, skateboards, and garbage trucks on the nearby road, cicadas and tree frogs. The effect was dazzling and so unreal.

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Still from “The Hubble Cantata: A Fistful of Stars” (2016)
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Still from “The Hubble Cantata: A Fistful of Stars” (2016)
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Still from “The Hubble Cantata: A Fistful of Stars” (2016)
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The Hubble Cantata at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park (2016) (Photo credit: David Andrako)

The Hubble Cantata is currently raising funds for an international tour on Kickstarter

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