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Houston Symphony Pushes Artistic Boundaries With Music Illustrated

Music Illustrated: Virtual Reality in Concert with Houston Symphony pushes the limits of what art is and what it could be.
Music Illustrated: Virtual Reality in Concert with Houston Symphony pushes the limits of what art is and what it could be.
Photo by Tanner Walters, illustration by Topher Sipes
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When music, dance, and technology meet, the result is something unexpected. Houston Symphony's Music Illustrated: Virtual Reality in Concert, taking place on February 13 and 14, will push the threshold of the listening experience to the next level in a groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind event featuring Google’s amazing virtual reality technology. As the orchestra performs favorites like "Clair de Lune" and "Carnival of the Animals," artist Topher Sipes will dream up mesmerizing, life-sized art that responds to the music in real time and takes on a life of its own.

During the concert, Sipes will make life-sized visual imagery using Google’s innovative Tilt Brush virtual reality technology in real time with the music, creating an experience one must see and hear to believe.

"It's pretty stunning to be able to watch what someone interprets in real time as they listen to music and be inspired by what they're hearing," said Lesley Sabol, director of popular programming at Houston Symphony. "We want to try as much as possible to keep up with the times and with pop culture. Virtual reality has taken off in this country. Having a tool like this really showcases what we can do. We can pivot, come up with new ideas and keep entertaining people with this brilliant music but in a different way that might excite younger people or people who are really into technology. We're trying to reach as many people as possible with our really talented musicians and what we can do on stage. Why not explore the boundaries of art?"

Sabol said the idea for a concert like this originated around 2016.

"I worked with a friend of mine in the entertainment business on a speed painting experience, and one of the artists used this technology. I got chills immediately. I thought if we found the right artists, Houston Symphony could do this with the orchestra and choreograph the artist with the music in real time," she said.

Sabol sprinted to Rice University, where the technology was already in use, to experience it firsthand.

"I got to play with it, and it is so fun and cool. I contacted Google, where they had a fellowship program to use the technology, to see what they came up with. That connected me with Topher who had just won a technology competition. He has a background with technology, dance and music. It's just grown from there," she added.

In the performance, Sipes will wear virtual reality goggles and hold controllers in his hands to create the visual art.

"It's as if one hand has a palette and the other holds a brush. He can change the brush strokes, brushes, colors, lights or effects all in his hands. When he moves his hand, the audience will see a beam of light and the lines and art he creates, and it will pop right out on the screen," Sabol commented.

For Sipes, this opportunity to perform with the Tilt Brush is an eventuality of his upbringing. He said that he's been drawing for as long as he can remember, starting with pencil and pen and working his way along as technology evolved. He ended up studying Communications Design at Texas State University.

"I was inspired by animation, cartoons and video games. Along the way, I had some amazing opportunities to study under a few folks like Chuck Jones. He is a Warner Brothers animator who created Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Marvin the Martian and the original Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!," Sipes said.

"When I was in college, I remember being introduced to a digital drawing tablet that connected me to a computer with a digital stylus. That allowed me to draw by hand but also to input that into a digital format. That was a lightbulb moment for me that bridged the analog and digital states," he continued.

That was when the idea was born that would one day connect Sipes with the Houston Symphony.

"I studied piano and guitar for many years, so I had a musical understanding and background. When I started to experiment with visual arts, I treated that space like visual instruments. I looked at a drawing pad or piece of paper almost like a dance floor for my hand. I started to intuitively combine dance, drawing and music into a mode of expression," Sipes said. "I co-founded ARTheism, which is almost like a religion of art. In that project, a dancer would be on stage and I would project art onto her. It was almost like we were communicating through light. None of the graphics were pre-produced. Everything worked seamlessly because we developed this performing arts dance language together. That laid the ground work for virtual reality performances."

The language was well received and has been heavily sought since then. He's been invited to conferences and competitions showcasing this type of technology.

"While musicians were on stage doing their thing, I got to use virtual reality wands in my hand, move around, dance and create in a spacial and volumetric way...as opposed to drawing on a touch screen or tablet. It felt like the next step in art theatre. I was controlling the graphics the entire time. The artwork I'm creating is projected onto a separate screen and it's a whole separate process," he added.

During the performance, the video crew will have perspectives on the orchestra, angles of Sipes' actions, and they'll be able to mix in the artwork being created in real time. 

In short, Music Illustrated: Virtual Reality in Concert, will push the boundaries of how we view, appreciate and digest art. It expands the horizon of what art is and what it can be, which is something the Houston Symphony has been doing for years.

Sipes said, "Having studied and played classical music when I was younger, it's exciting how this performance synthesizes the two foundational elements of my early exposure to creativity: music and arts. It's like the wildest dreams from my childhood. It's a synthesis of music, dance, drawing, and sculpture."

Patrons may enjoy the socially distanced concerts in person (if they already have tickets to the sold out performances) or watch the Saturday evening livestream from home. (Hint: If you don't have a Valentine's Day gift yet, this would be a quick and easy solution.)

Music Illustrated: Virtual Reality in Concert takes place at 8 p.m. on February 13 and 2:30 p.m. on February 14 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For more information, call 713-224-7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. Tickets for the in-person concerts are sold out. Tickets for Saturday's virtual performance are $20.

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