The sweeping sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra's string section filled the upper floor of the Science Museum, easily leading visitors to the exhibition Universe of Sound: The Planets. Darkened rooms, similar to a cinema, enclose listeners with wall-sized screens displaying the musicians of the renowned orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

This exhibition investigates the mystery of sound and how it is heard by our own ears, while questioning how an instrument such as a double bass is differentiated from a bassoon, for example. The idea of how sound waves are heard is addressed, and while some questions are left unanswered, listeners are welcomed in for an overall unique and impressive experience.

Music stands with actual parts from the orchestra are spaced evenly throughout the rooms. Visitors are essentially a temporary member of the orchestra, and their part depends on what section of the orchestra they are playing. Strings, winds, percussion, or even the conductor are possible positions to play in this exhibition. A couple of chairs are available at each stand, for a chance to follow along with the music. Upon arrival, it was unnecessary to look at the music to recognize that the experience began in the lower strings section. The low and rumbling sound of the viola and cello register that resonated in this section was instantly identifiable.

On each wall is a video of the actual section you would be facing if you were sitting in a specific area of the orchestra. The larger-than-life sized visual displays a close-up of the musicians' every detailed action, from the vibrato technique of the violinists to the musicians' facial expressions when approaching a rather dramatic part in the suite. In the fifth movement, “Saturn”, it was remarkable to observe the precision this orchestra exudes as the violinists and violists play a continuous syncopated rhythm off from each other.

This is an experience to be had by musicians and non-musicians alike. When a young girl entered with her mother, a lengthy “Wow!” was exclaimed while taking in all of the visual and auditory stimulations the exhibition has to offer. There are many sections which offer an interactive experience as well. To be the conductor of the orchestra, one must stand on a mat in front of a panel of screens which displayed the orchestra as well as a guide to the pattern of conducting. Similar to a virtual gaming device, your hands are detected and the screen guides them in the pattern of the particular meter that the orchestra is playing in at the moment.

Further into the exhibition is the percussion section, where a Philharmonia staff member awaits visitors to assist them in actually becoming a part of the music making process. Several percussion instruments are set up to choose from, as well as video tutorials directly in front of them. A percussionist from the orchestra appears on the screen to direct the new musician and count them in. This is a very popular section of the exhibition among all ages.

This exhibition creates a way to attend a concert that is futuristic and interactive; an experience that is normally not found on a typical night at a classical concert. Appealing to all ages, I believe this exhibition is guaranteed not to disappoint.  

Universe of Sound, at Science MuseumMarissa Goodman reviews Universe of Sound: The Planets, an interactive virtual orchestra at the Science Museum.4