A woman who thinks she is a cat takes off her gloves and dances to a faint tune. Classical musicians practice in the halls and back corners of a venue before a show. A composer and her friend grab a glass of wine while discussing a 20th century science-fiction writer.
These are all things visitors to Walt Disney Concert Hall will encounter in a new tour. And none of the are “real.”
Thought Experiments in F# Minor, which launched on Friday, March 1, is an augmented reality experience at the shimmering venue designed by Frank Gehry. For the 40-minute excursion, visitors get an iPad Mini, don a headset, and follow a set path that wends from the lobby to the underground parking structure to the main performance space to the building’s various pathways and balconies. Along the way they come across dancers, an unexpected wedding, impromptu drum sessions and more.
Created by the husband and wife team of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Thought Experiments is inspired by the building’s architecture, a short story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, texts from colleagues of the creators and even a real violent incident that happened in Vancouver, Canada.
“We call it physical cinema, as opposed to augmented reality,” Miller said. “We keep it pretty simple. We’re not interested in moving into where a satellite knows where you are.”
Miller and Cardiff have been creating immersive experiences such as audio and video tours for 20 years. Yet Miller emphasized that Thought Experiments is more of a guided narrative and performance through the venue than the free-flowing, enhanced experience commonly found in augmented reality set-ups.
The tour is free and continues through the close of the L.A. Philharmonic’s season in May. There are 30 kits available most days from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Visitors pick up the iPads and headsets in the main lobby of Disney Hall.
The L.A. Phil commissioned the piece as part of its centennial, with company Artist-Collaborator Yuval Sharon curating some of the elements and bringing in the artistic team. Thought Experiments follows Refik Anadol’s WDCH Dreams, which put digital projections on the stainless steel skin of the concert hall from Sept. 28-Oct. 6.
Miller and Cardiff developed the piece last fall and winter, and shot video over approximately 10 days. Users begin the tour by sitting on a lobby bench while Cardiff narrates. She is accompanied by her friend Schroeda (actress Jena Malone), a woman who thinks she is a cat and wears an extremely detailed and slightly creepy feline mask, plus a fanciful suit.
Schroeda weaves in and out of the piece, as Cardiff guides users around different levels of Disney Hall. Thought Experiments takes people in and out of the building, and lands upon some unusual happenings, including a children’s magic show and a wedding that is being photographed.
L.A. Phil performers also make an immersive visit. In the effort to make the experience as natural as possible, Miller recorded all of the sound using binaural microphones, which mimic human ears, so the music plays as if users are truly walking next to the musicians.
The tour includes a new composition from Ellen Reid, which the Phil commissioned for Thought Experiments. Sharon introduced Reid to Cardiff and Miller, who found that she had the conceptual skills to compose work that could be heard in a three-dimensional environment.
Cardiff and Miller said an influences on Thought Experiments was Dick’s short story “The Preserving Machine.” In it, a scientist tries to save works of classical music in the event of an apocalypse; he uses a machine that turns compositions into living creatures, and Bach’s “Fugue in F-sharp minor” becomes a beetle.
That composition is briefly performed in Thought Experiments. Later, people on the tour wind up in an atrium, where the orchestra performs Reid’s “#Bang huM oFFice ruin,” which riffs on Bach’s work.
“All of the fast strings are basically a different rhythm of the Fugue melody. And in the very beginning you have the Fugue, but reharmonized so it sounds more modern,” Reid said.
As the tour continues and users become fully immersed in the visuals and sounds, Miller said that the experience becomes almost like a time machine. He added that it is best experienced when users line up their point of view with the camera angle of what’s on screen.
“It’s about this overlapping of realities, about past and present aligning,” Miller said.
Cardiff said that most of the story in Thought Experiments was developed from walking through Disney Hall and developing a path for the tour. There are some ideas she and Miller always intended to explore, while others arrived seemingly by serendipity.
“Some things just come to you, like when you look over the top and see these guys loading carts with chairs and they’re bored out of their tree, you think, well, why not make them dance?” Cardiff said. “So then you hire a dancer and have them do that scene.”
Thought Experiments is not intended to replace the traditional audio tour of Disney Hall, which details the history of the venue and other components. Rather, the intent is to use the building as a launch pad for a story-focused experience.
Cardiff said that if Thought Experiments works as intended, then users will feel both in the moment and like they are stepping into the past.
Thought Experiments in F# Minor is at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., (323) 850-2000 or laphil.com