The Hubble Cantata: A Song for the Stars

This swirling space opera will merge virtual reality, live music, and celestial imagery from the Hubble telescope for an audience of thousands.

A light-year may be a mind-boggling distance, but the countless number of them between Earth and the cosmos hasn’t stopped humans from trying to get closer to outer space. For centuries we’ve built telescopes, planetariums, and, in more recent decades, even spaceships in an effort to better understand the planets and stars far beyond our reach. This month, adventurous New Yorkers will be able to experience an unprecedented view of the universe thanks to the Hubble Cantata — a VR performance featuring breathtaking imagery taken from the Hubble telescope set to a live, immersive score — which makes its debut on August 6 in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

Developed at New Inc, the New Museum’s artistic incubator, alongside arts space and nonprofit National Sawdust, the multidisciplinary work brings together a composer, a director, a team of sound designers, and an astrophysicist all with the hope of transporting an audience to the virtual heavens. Inspired by the Cantata’s monumental scope — not to mention our own cosmic curiosity — we asked some of the project’s most involved players about how it came together.

Which aspect of this project initially drew you to it?

Paola Prestini, composer: The opportunity to work with a diverse group of collaborators in deep-process work — from Mario Livio to Eliza McNitt and the Endless Collective and dancer Wendy Whelan.

Duncan Ransom, visual effects for The Endless Collective: The experimental nature of the project. It’s an ambitious culmination of varying art practices, where each aspect is equally vital to the larger whole.

Mario Livio, astrophysicist and project advisor: I was thrilled by the fact that a composer [Paola Prestini] felt inspired by Hubble images of the universe and by my writings, which had attempted to fuse science and art, to the point that she wanted to create a piece of music that would embody this fusion.

Eliza McNitt, VR Director: The challenge of transporting an audience to the cosmos alongside the Hubble telescope drew me to the Hubble Cantata. I want to bring viewers the opportunity to float in space through corners of the universe that only Hubble gets to see.

Jess Engel, VR producer: People say VR is antisocial, but here is an example of people gathering to experience something together in such an amazing way. I wanted to see this vision come to life: [the Hubble Cantata] is the biggest live-synced VR experience to date, gathering 5,000 people in Prospect Park to take them on a journey into the cosmos with a live opera soundtrack — all on a shoestring budget.

“People say VR is antisocial, but here is an example of people gathering to experience something together in such an amazing way.” — Jess Engel, VR producer

What was your first experience with VR?

Paola: This one. It’s been transformative and an extraordinary opportunity to work with a team that allows the music to come first in the visual scape, which I understand is atypical.

Duncan: A very close friend had originally bid on the first Oculus. I recall gathering with some friends trying the Tuscany demo in Montreal. Even though the image resolution was low, there was no latency when I turned my head. Instantly I knew this was the start of something very special.

Mario: I must admit that because I suffer from vertigo, VR makes me dizzy after a while. I still find it absolutely stunning.

Eliza: My first VR experience was at the Nanotronics lab at Pioneer Works in 2014. I was suspended over a city on a ferris wheel and felt like I was floating in the air. My friend filmed my reaction, unfortunately, so I know that I flailed my arms around a bunch and kept screaming, “I need to hold on to something!”

Jess: My first experience was Félix and Paul Studios’ Wild— The Experience at Sundance 2015. Then I tried their Nomads: Herders experience, where I was put in a Mongolian hut with a family. It ignited my curiosity in the field. Coming from film, it felt like a new way to share experiences and tell stories — and that felt exciting and worth exploring.

This project is the result of intense collaboration. What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

Paola: The absolute team player attitudes this team has — we are all experiencing different pressures and yet are all focused on the end result and are passionate about the free experience that will hopefully be enjoyed by many.

Duncan: I was humbled by the process and importance of 360-degree ambisonic sound to truly elevate the experience and create absolute immersion.

Mario: You might have thought that since a composer, a librettist, a VR specialist, and a scientist see things from very different perspectives, the interactions among them would not be easy. This turned out not to be the case at all. In fact, most of the time we had the same vision, and our individual fields of expertise beautifully complemented each other during the project.

Eliza: The live component and the technical demands of an on-site virtual reality experience have presented a lot of challenging obstacles — we need all the Wi-Fi in Brooklyn to power this!

Jess: With VR, we usually think of people isolated with a headset covering their face and headphones covering their ears, disengaged with the immediate world around them. This collaboration has expanded my view of how VR can be experienced. It’s not just about the content itself, but the context in which it is shown — that gives it further meaning and can create that next-level experience. I hope this project helps move the needle on what VR can be.

“I want to bring viewers the opportunity to float in space through corners of the universe that only Hubble gets to see.” — Eliza McNitt, VR Director

What have been your greatest sources of inspiration while working on this project?

Paola: Mario Livio’s blog, the writing of [theoretical physicist] Michio Kaku, space samples from NASA, old IRCAM sound samples, and John Cage’s book, Silence.

Duncan: All of the other artists, scientists, and engineers involved. Listening to Mario discuss the scientific observations Hubble has made. The immense library of images captured by Hubble from the NASA online galleries. And every time I look up outside of the city on a clear night.

Mario: An art critic for The Guardian once called Hubble images the greatest works of art of our time. I always felt inspired by these breathtaking images that, at the same time, represent real cosmic objects. Combining those with another passion of mine — music — has been nothing short of a dream come true.

Eliza: Listening to Paola’s moving music and Royce [Vavrek, librettist]’s words sent my imagination on a journey to the cosmos. I also drew inspiration for the visuals from Mario Livio’s poetic words about the parallels between human life on Earth and stars in the heavens.

Jess: The time I’ve recently spent in nature, like in the desert or in the woods. Looking at the massive sky, I always dream about swimming in that sea of stars. In a way, creating this experience has been an attempt at capturing what that must feel like.

Describe your expectations for the live performance in just a few words.

Paola: Awe-inspiring, fun, and once-in-a-lifetime.

Duncan: Safe and sound.

Mario: Prepare to be amazed!

Eliza: Immersive cosmic exploration.

Jess: Lord help us.

How did collaborating with this team change the way you think about your own work?

Paola: It made me realize the importance of willingness to play, trust, believe, extend oneself, and dream all over again in the seemingly impossible.

Duncan: It made me realize we are all after the same thing: inviting strangers into our imaginations. Doing this together creates an unpredictable sense of magic.

Mario: I have always felt that the excitement of discovery should be shared by everybody. This imaginative combination of science and art opens the door for more opportunities to broaden the scope of the creative process.

Eliza: This team has pushed me to imagine the impossible.

Jess: This experience reaffirms the need for more cross-pollination and collaboration within and between fields. Let’s not keep things siloed. Let’s work together and create the unexpected.

If offered the chance, would you venture into outer space?

Paola: Definitely. First in line!

Duncan: If there was a blissful bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen somewhere deep within the cosmos, yes.

Mario: I am not the best candidate for space travel. I do hope, however, that we’ll know the answer to the “Are we alone?” question in the not too distant future.

Eliza: Depends on who wins the [U.S.] election.

Jess: Absolutely.

Help bring the Hubble Cantata’s journey through space to even more viewers around the globe by backing it before Friday, August 12.