From Harry Potter to Star Trek Beyond, behind the scenes with Seattle Symphony’s multi-sensory tech

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Rehearsing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. (Seattle Symphony Photo)

What do Casablanca, Star Trek Beyond, and Looney Tunes have in common?

All have been accompanied on the big screen by the Seattle Symphony, live, in concert.

But it’s not simply a matter of picking up a cello and playing along. From carefully synchronized digital projection to additional keyboards providing sound effects samples, the technology behind the scenes belies the on-stage image of hundreds-year-old instruments and paper sheet music.

It turns out Seattle’s symphony was one of the first orchestras to incorporate films into “multi-sensory” programs, and an overall early experimenter with tech — overt and hidden. “Seattle audiences are so sophisticated and adventurous that it’s allowed us to do things and take risks that other orchestras might not have been able to do,” said Kelly Woodhouse Boston, Seattle Symphony director of operations.

Seattle Symphony’s Joe Kaufman and Kelly Woodhouse Boston. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

Woodhouse Boston and Joseph Kaufman, the Symphony’s assistant principal bass, joined GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on the arts, science fiction and pop culture. We discussed how the Symphony mixes tech and technique to appeal to new audiences and present hybrid (but not quite cyborg) performances.

Listen to the episode below or download the MP3.

It doesn’t hurt that Seattle is known for technology. “I think the fact that it’s a technology hub gives us the freedom to program things that otherwise we might not be able to, because our audiences will come,” Woodhouse Boston said. It also might help explain why many of the movies accompanied live by the Symphony have a decidedly science fiction or fantasy tilt: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, and — most recently — Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets have been shown and performed.

GeekWire sat through a November rehearsal of the second Harry Potter movie concert, and noticed the tech touches: from a monitor with graphic overlays positioned directly in front of the conductor to keep the orchestra in sync with the screen, to sampling keyboards that could replicate film sound effects and instruments that weren’t on stage, such as a harpsichord.

It also became clear that a huge movie screen visible to the musicians adds another complication: two violinists quietly started laughing during a scene in which house-elf Dobby drops a cake on a guest’s head.

“There’s definitely an element of distraction,” admitted Kaufman, who himself recalled watching a long sequence in 2001 in which the orchestra didn’t have to play. “I’ve been caught off guard where I look down from the film and over to the conductor, and his arm’s coming up and I’m to play in about half a second.”

Kaufman said he got his bow up just in time. Woodhouse Boston added that it helps that the musicians are “very professional.”

Films are only part of Seattle Symphony’s multi-sensory repertoire, and nerd cred. The Symphony has performed concerts of music from the game Final Fantasy, and another program in which music from 25 video games was accompanied by game images.

Kinetic chimes and reedhorns from a 2015 Trimpin Symphony concert. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Perhaps one of the most tech-experimental concerts was part of the Symphony’s ‘[untitled]’ series in 2015, performed in the Benaroya Hall lobby. “When we worked with the sound sculpture artist Trimpin a few years ago, we were able to surround the audience with automated instruments as well as our own musicians,” Woodhouse Boston said. Some of the performance’s kinetic instruments remained installed in the lobby for visitors to hear after the concert ended. The concert itself was conducted by Music Director Ludovic Morlot with the help of a Microsoft Kinect.

Ahead is more use of projection mapping technology, as the Symphony recently purchased its own projectors. “That’s given us a lot more freedom to say, ‘Hey, let’s add some visuals to this concert,’” Woodhouse Boston said.

Ludovic Morlot and monitor at a concert incorporating video imagery. (Brandon Patoc Photo)

However, there isn’t a plan to replace the traditional paper scores on stage with digital tablets. “First of all,” Kaufman said, “There’s just the amount of light that comes off of those devices that’s not really easy on the eyes for musicians.” And there’s the cost, though Woodhouse Boston expects, in a few years, “You’ll start to see a major orchestra move to some kind of digital device whether it’s an iPad or something else.”

Next up on Seattle Symphony’s multi-sensory playlist: La La Land in mid-February. And, at some point, the remaining six of the eight Harry Potter films.

Listen to this episode in the player above and subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast in Apple Podcasts, Google Play or your favorite podcast app. Podcast production and editing by Clare McGrane.

Previously in this series: How this museum makes moldy machines work again, saving historic computers for the future

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