An orchestra tunes – and immediately, a sense of anticipation and wonder ripples through the room. As this super-instrument brings its marvels of engineering together into a single pitch, we are witnessing both art and science. The same orchestra that explores our emotional depths is also our finest example of interactive technology.
The ‘making of the orchestra’ that has occurred over centuries continues into the present day with Philharmonia Fantastique, a concerto for orchestra and animated film. Only recently in its spectacular evolutionary history has the orchestra incorporated digital sounds and projection screens, offering the perfect medium for a kinetic exploration of musical instruments and how they work. Guided by a mercurial Sprite, we fly inside a flute to see its keys up close; jump on a viola string to activate the harmonic series; and zip through a trumpet as its valves slice shafts of air.
Composer Mason Bates writes:
Inspired by a desire to offer my own kids a fresh guide to the orchestra, the piece was created with director Gary Rydstrom and animator Jim Capobianco during visits to Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’s campus of creativity north of San Francisco. With their extensive film experience – Gary won Oscars for his dinosaur sounds in for Jurassic Park, Jim wrote the story for Pixar’s Ratatouille – they helped solve many of the film’s unique puzzles: namely, how to introduce the many facets of the orchestra without using words.
Sometimes accompanying me to the Ranch were my kids and a posse of their friends, playing the role of a slightly suspicious focus group. They responded best to an exuberant piece of art, not a didactic piece of pedagogy, that has elements of mystery and darkness. Equally important is the Sprite, whose journey of self-discovery brings a crucial emotional angle to the story. The Sprite is formed in the work’s opening minutes from a primordial soup of abstract animation, with its arms and legs representing the four ‘families’ of the orchestra: woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion. Represented by a simple yet harmonically wandering piano melody, the Sprite soon dives into the orchestra to explore the instruments from the inside out.
Each family speaks its unique language: noir-ish jazz for the woodwinds; bending lyricism in the strings; dark techno for the brass; and drum-corps in the percussion. Having presented themselves separately, their attempt to play together fails so spectacularly that the Sprite shatters back into the primordial darkness. Only through learning each other’s languages do the different instrument.
Mason Bates (Composer/Writer) Composer of the Grammy-winning opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Mason Bates is imaginatively transforming the way classical music is created and experienced as a composer, DJ, and curator. During his term as the first composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he presented a diverse array of artists on his KC Jukebox using immersive production and stagecraft. Championed by legendary conductors from Riccardo Muti to Michael Tilson Thomas, his symphonic music is the first to receive widespread acceptance for its unique integration of electronic sounds. He was named the second most-performed composer of his generation (to John Adams) in a recent survey of American music. Bates has also composed for film, including Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts. A diverse artist exploring the ways classical music integrates into contemporary culture, he serves on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Gary Rydstrom (Director/Writer) has been nominated for eighteen Academy Awards, winning seven for his work in film sound, including Jurassic Park, Titanic, and Saving Private Ryan. As an animation director, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his Pixar short film Lifted, and in 2015 directed Strange Magic, a Lucasfilm/Disney musical that features innovative integration of music and animation. He has contributed sound design for the Mason Bates orchestral pieces Alternative Energy and Mass Transmission.
Jim Capobianco (Story/Animation) has worked as a story artist on many major animated films, including Lion King, Fantasia 2000, Finding Nemo, and Inside Out. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Ratatouille. His love of traditional animation is evident in the imaginative end credits he created for Wall-E, in his Pixar short Your Friend the Rat, and in Leonardo, a hand-drawn animation that has been screened at numerous international film festivals. He has recently completed supervising the animation sequences for Disney’s new live-action feature film Mary Poppins.
Duration: 25 minutes
1 contra bassoon
4 horns in F
3 trumpets in C
piano (doubling celesta)
(required as an audio/video playback device, to be supplied by Technical Director)
strings (no fewer than 12/10/8/8/6 players)