The String World Explores Opportunities in a New Kind of Reality

By Brian Wise

In the late 1980s, when MTV and VH1 still played music videos around the clock, a 20-year-old Joshua Bell starred in a black-and-white video featuring Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1. Called The Audition, it featured the actress Karen Black as a chain-smoking femme fatale and Bell as a violin prodigy donned in stone-washed jeans and a flowing mane of hair. Despite only a brief run on VH1, it effectively marked the start of Bell’s extensive work in film and television.

Bell recently returned to Brahms’ First Hungarian Dance in the service of another emerging video medium. Released in February, the “Joshua Bell VR Experience” is a virtual reality (VR) presentation, filmed at London’s historic Air Studios and using a number of leading-edge 3D techniques that allow the viewer to “move around” Bell and pianist Sam Haywood as they perform.

“I’ve been following VR for a long time, waiting for it to come out,” Bell says in a phone interview. “I’ve always been a big video gamer since I was a kid. I was the first to get the Apple II Plus computer in 1980 when I was programming my own games. I would get a new laptop every six months because I wanted the newest and best and fastest.” When Bell learned in 2015 that the video-game division of Sony, for which he records, was entering the VR market, he spoke up. “I said, if you ever need me, I’m here.”

Joshua Bell’s Virtual Reality Experience in production

Experienced with a special headset, virtual reality plunges you into a three-dimensional cinematic environment. Turn your head and you can explore a scene in all directions. While sports, movie, and gaming industries have been among the most prominent early adopters of VR, a handful of enterprising string players and orchestras have also explored its potential for creativity and audience development. Most efforts are not without some technical or distribution hurdles.

“The technology is very much in its infancy,” says violinist Tim Fain, who has appeared in or co-created nearly a half-dozen VR productions. “Some of it, frankly, is pretty glitchy, and not really perfected at all. But even in those situations, where the delivery is less than ideal, there’s still kind of a power that the virtual experience has over one. For me, I’m drawn in to a far greater degree than with flat experiences.”

Having made a cameo in 2010’s Black Swan, Fain was already attuned to the filmmaking process when Jessica Brillhart, an artist in residence at Google, approached him about making a five-minute VR film. It would be a test drive of Google’s Jump, a rig on which 16 GoPro cameras and several microphones are mounted, with the resulting 360-degree footage stitched together in the editing booth. The somewhat mystical film shows Fain performing an original piece against several backdrops, including an abandoned hospital, a barnyard, and a crypt, as 3D audio leads the viewer through each setting.


On set, Fain performed to an orchestral track fed through an earpiece while Brillhart often crouched beneath the camera rig. “Sometimes the shots are very up-close and direct in a virtual setting to almost becoming intrusive and uncomfortable,” Fain admits. “It’s a very delicate balance in a virtual space to achieve a kind of intimacy while being respectful, if you will, to the way that the viewer is taking it all in.” In the final scene, the viewer “sits” within a 35-piece orchestra conducted by Eric Jacobsen, which until then was heard but not seen. The production, “Resonance,” has received a respectable 475,000 views on YouTube since its November 2015 launch.

“It’s a very delicate balance in a virtual space to achieve a kind of intimacy while being respectful, if you will, to the way that the viewer is taking
it all in.”

—Tim Fain

This year, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, Sweden’s Gothenberg Symphony, and the New Zealand Symphony have joined a growing pack of orchestras to release 360-degree performance films, each intended to simulate the experience of sitting onstage with the ensemble. “We wanted to play to our strengths,” says Luke Ritchie, the Philharmonia’s head of digital innovation and partnerships, when asked about their film’s format.

Working with the London VR studio Inition, the Philharmonia captured a performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, introduced with some backstage footage from Royal Festival Hall. Ritchie admits that the production process was laborious and time-consuming, particularly when it came to “stitching” the multiple camera shots, which involved some 300 edits. It was released in May as an app costing £.99 (about $1.35) on the Sony PlayStation VR platform. (A Playstation VR console and headset cost $450; other consumer VR headsets sell for anywhere between $50 and $500, or for as little as $15 for a Google Cardboard viewer, which attaches to a smartphone).

“People think of the orchestra as this slick, anonymous body of musicians,” says Ritchie. “But the VR experience is very visceral and physical and you can see that everyone’s working really hard.” This, he says,  gives the medium an edge over a flat, two-dimensional video, in which orchestra musicians can seem detached and remote (thus explaining the limited success of orchestral live-streaming in cinemas).

In the wider universe of entertainment and sports, companies including NextVR and Voke have begun to broadcast live events in virtual reality, at times bundling front-row views with backstage footage and interviews. Whether VR can capture a concert experience in a satisfying way is an open question. To be sure, it doesn’t require the hassle of buying tickets, going to the hall, parking, and trying to beat traffic home. But clunky headsets can inhibit the social aspect of listening to music along with friends.

Bell envisions VR as a tool for delivering master classes in 3D, so that students in distant locales can get a close-up experience. He adds, “I never got to hear some of my heroes play music, like Heifetz or Kreisler. We have some not-so-great videos of Heifetz. But too bad the technology wasn’t around then that lets you stand in the room basically and see Heifetz play.”


The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has supplied VR footage for use in hospitals and senior care homes in Toronto, offering patients a momentary escape. “We hope that giving these individuals access to the music will ignite positive memories for them,” says Michael Morreale, the orchestra’s director of digital content. Other orchestras have used their VR films as a form of community outreach.

When in 2015 the Los Angeles Philharmonic debuted a VR production featuring Gustavo Dudamel conducting four minutes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, orchestra staff loaded up a van (dubbed Van Beethoven) with six VR headsets and drove to 30 locations around LA, reaching some 10,000 people. Similarly, the Philharmonia Orchestra placed ten VR headsets in the foyer of its home at London’s Southbank Centre in September 2016, and shipped them to the Ravinia Festival in July, giving patrons a low-barrier introduction to the experience. Ritchie says that it’s still too early to cite sales figures but expects the project to break even; its ultimate goal is to “challenge preconceptions about orchestras.”

As VR developers work to improve resolution and other technical issues, musicians may seek out new concepts beyond performance-based film. “Frankly, what’s more interesting is to try and create experiences that would be impossible or extremely impractical in the real world,” says Fain, such as “swimming with a whale or flying unassisted.” Fain’s other VR projects include “Flock,” in which the player is a bird in flight, and based on their interaction with the program, the music becomes more or less intense. In a similar vein, the Philharmonia is due to release its second VR film late this year, directed by Google’s Brillhart and featuring NASA imagery set to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

In part, virtual reality is about serendipity—looking around and discovering the unexpected. The capacity to track viewers’ head movements as they watch can be revealing, says Toronto Symphony’s Morreale. Pointing to a heat map indicating where users gazed during Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, he remarks how the violinists and cellists commanded the most attention among the orchestra sections. His takeaway: “Poor violas.” 


Trendsetter of the Year: Joshua Bell

2017 has been a busy year for Joshua Bell. In addition to his career as a violin soloist and leader of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, he has been making inroads into virtual reality through the project detailed in this story, and also using technology to make his sound more widely available. In what virtual instrument–sampling company Embertone is calling the “Joshua Bell Virtual Violin,” composers, producers, and others in the music community will be able to incorporate his sound into their work through the company’s KONTACT Player platform, which will draw from more than 20,000 individual samples of his playing.

But his extra-curricular activities haven’t been restricted to tech—Bell has also figured into the world of children’s literature. His 2007 busking adventure in a D.C. subway station inspired children’s book The Man with the Violin by Kathy Stinson, and a piece of music, premiered in February, written by Anne Dudley. Bell then took the literary stage in a second book by Stinson, The Dance of the Violin. Released in March, the book is based on Bell’s experience as a 12 year old at the Stulberg International String Competition.

Given his penchant for innovative projects, and their potential power in introducing new audiences to string music, we’ve named Joshua Bell Strings’ 2017 Trendsetter of the Year.

—Megan Westberg