by Steven Pisano
"We are stardust/ Billion year old carbon/ We are golden/ Caught in the devil's bargain/ And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." --Joni Mitchell
For anyone interested in the origins of the Universe, the concepts of space and time, or the genesis of life, the spectacular, awe-inspiring photographs taken with the Hubble Space Telescope over the past 36 years have been a magical, almost religious source of wonder, enabling humankind to peer back 14 billion years into our collective past. These extraordinary photographs have inspired scientists to dream about what the future might hold for us.
In Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek's The Hubble Cantata, which received its world premiere as a full-length virtual reality experience at BRIC's Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival on Saturday night, the audience was invited to travel on a shared journey inspired by these majestic images, following the skeletal story of a woman who is born, dies, and seeks to be reborn, just as stars are reconstituted from their own stellar dust. Images of ex-New York City Ballet dancer Wendy Whelan were projected onto a scrim in front of the orchestra and chorus.
The tease of the show to the thousands of people in attendance was that it was the first-ever fusing of a major musical performance with Virtual Reality. But the VR experience--a wishy-washy video of the Orion Nebula called "Fistful of Stars" by filmmaker Eliza McNitt viewed on smartphones inserted into cardboard headsets--was underwhelming at best. I was anticipating oohs and aahs all around me, but mostly I saw a sea of shrugs. With a long line of feature film depictions of space from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity, there has been no shortage of jaw-dropping footage of what space might look like.
Nevertheless, the performance itself was full of magic and wonder. Space, of course, is silent: there is no audible music of the spheres. But, Prestini has written some astonishing musical passages that capture a sense of what it might be like to be set adrift in a universe without the limitations of space or time. According to Hubble astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio, who provided voice-over narration, all living matter on Earth is composed physically of star matter dating back to the Big Bang, so the stars are within us even as we are amongst the stars.
The performance itself featured the first-rate string ensemble 1B1 from Norway, the amassed voices of the Washington Chorus and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and soloists Nathan Gunn and Jessica Rivera, all conducted by Julian Wachner.
During some especially ravishing passages, I kept looking up towards the clear night sky speckled with stars, and felt a connection that was far more transporting than the mild VR one. I could only imagine what it would be like to hear this cantata in one of those places on the planet where the sky is teeming with millions of stars from our galaxy and not just a few pale pinpricks from the brightest ones.
Leading off the night, and getting the audience in the mood for some intergalactic travel, was the Brooklyn-based art-rock group Tigue (Matt Evans, Amy Garapic and Carson Moody), whose voiceless compositions lean heavily toward drone-like percussion that can often be trance-inducing. They played selections from their new album Peaks, including the spacey "Dress Well," featuring Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan on guitar and James McNew on electric bass.
There is a Kickstarter campaign seeking to raise additional funds to perform The Hubble Cantata again in this full-performance version -- it has previously been performed as a 20-odd minute piece without the bells and whistles -- and from there it may go on tour. And as for the Hubble Space Telescope itself? For all it has revealed about the Universe, it should continue working for many years to come - though it will soon have competition from the larger and more sophisticated James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018.
(More photos can be found here.)