Curious about virtual reality? Attend this concert

In the art world, it’s not uncommon for visual artists and musicians to collaborate.

An artist might be inspired by a musician's work. Or a concert might be enhanced by a sketch or painting.

But something that Ed Stevens wanted to try that he hadn’t seen happening before was a music and artistic collaboration in virtual reality.

After hearing about virtual reality (VR) headsets, which allow artists to use tools like Google’s Tilt Brush to paint objects in 3-dimensions, Stevens started brainstorming ways to incorporate the technology into his music.

As a cellist with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, he imagined a show where artists’ 3D paintings inspired by music surrounded concertgoers as they listened to songs. Ed Stevens

Then, when he heard that Artlink in Fort Wayne had acquired a VR headset for artists to use onsite, he began collaborating with Artlink’s director Matt McClure to bring this vision to life.

On February 9th at PUNCH Films, Stevens and his informal ensemble group called String Shift will perform “A3rD (Art + Music Augmented)”—what promises to be northeast Indiana’s first concert in virtual reality.

Stevens founded String Shift in 2013 with his friend Charlie Witkowski, a marketing executive from Chicago. Together, their idea was to create Fort Wayne's premiere multi-genre string ensemble and perform concerts that had not been done before in the region.

Since then, the group has explored connections between pop culture and classical music in various types of concert experiences, typically featuring five to nine string players who perform regularly with the Philharmonic and other ensembles throughout the Midwest.

Although Stevens says String Shift has had many successful performances to date, he thinks the virtual reality event in February is the most exciting yet because it showcases cutting-edge technology.

But as with many innovative ideas, it inspires about as much excitement as it does confusion. While some people he tells about it are immediately enthusiastic, others have a hard time imagining how the show will play out.

To briefly describe it, Stevens says McClure is collaborating with the local artist Theopolis Smith, also known as “Phresh Laundry,” to create 3D art installations ahead of time, using the Tilt Brush at Artlink.

Then String Shift will play music live as Phresh Laundry’s 3D paintings are projected around the theatre, using a projection system coordinated by Alec Johnson.

“The audience isn’t going to be wearing VR headsets, but they are going to feel like they’re in that space because the images are going to be immersive,” Stevens says.

Even so, the experience won’t be quite like attending a movie in 3D where objects float right in front of viewers' faces. Instead, Stevens says it's going to be more like attending a theatre in the round, where 3D images revolve around the audience.

Google's Tilt Brush makes painting more like sculpting a 3D piece of art.

The concert will feature String Shift’s typical mix of pop culture songs and classical music, including pieces by Ramin Djawadi (a composer for “Game of Thrones”), Ruth Crawford Seeger (American folk), Arvo Pärt (classical and religious), Radiohead (rock), and more.

While diverse in genre, these pieces were chosen for the VR experience because of their visual interest, Stevens says.

“It’s music that depicts strong imagery,” he explains. “I wanted to give the artists plenty to work with.”

And while it might be hard for audiences to imagine a virtual reality experience, it's a challenge for the artists, too.

As the resident expert on VR at Artlink, McClure is coaching Smith to create installations for show and help the artist learn to paint in a 3D space with layers and depth.

“You have to think about how things layer on top of each other,” Stevens says. “It’s a little bit closer to sculpting than it is to painting, but at the same time, you’re not dealing with the confines of gravity or materials.”

Even so, McClure says the challenge has been an exciting one for him and Smith alike.

“On one hand, it’s like a sculpture; on the other hand, it’s like fabricating a set piece,” he says. “It’s creating a space, and being able to transport the audience into that space.”

For instance, he says that one piece for the show will mimic a cathedral, so it will appear as if Smith has painted a cathedral around the audience.

An example of a 3D painting created with Google's Tilt Brush.

“It’s really cool, and the more we dig into it and put the work together, the more exciting it's becoming,” McClure says.

After the show, Stevens says there will be a gallery of Smith’s 3D paintings for audience members to browse. VR headsets will be available for them to try out, too.

While working with new technology is always risky, Stevens is optimistic the show will be a success, and he hopes to perform more experimental concerts with String Shift in the future.

“One of the things I’ve always appreciated about this region is despite the fact that it has a rich, vibrant arts community, it’s not oversaturated,” Stevens says. “You can go to a larger city in Chicago or New York, and there’s amazing things happening, but it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Here, there’s such potential, and people in this community are so gung-ho about making things happen. It’s a great place to come together, and try new things.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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