In 2017, composer Evan Ziporyn debuted a special arrangement of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, re-imagined as a cello concerto. His ensemble The Ambient Orchestra, along with visionary cellist Maya Baiser, has performed Bowie Symphonic: Blackstar around the world. In 2018, Alex Rigopulos, co-founder of the studio that created the hit videogames Rock Band and Guitar Hero, commissioned Secret Portal to create a special visual presentation of the show known as Aura: Blackstar Visualized. The show debuted in Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on February 28, 2019.
Aura: Blackstar Visualized is an immersive “mixed reality” experience created especially for the unique performance space within Calderwood Hall. It is a series of animated vignettes, one for each of the Blackstar album’s seven songs. Evocative computer-generated imagery is projected both onto the floor of the stage—for viewing from the Hall’s three mezzanines above—and onto the face of the soloist’s cello itself. These animations serve first as an entrancing visualization of the music, dynamically transformed by the sound from the live cello and orchestra. The imagery also integrates the songs’ lyrics, which would otherwise be absent as Bowie’s vocal lines are given to Maya Beiser’s cello. Thematically, all seven of the scenes orbit a prominent “black star” on the stage, an anchoring element that is meant to represent Bowie himself, as well as the void that was left by his departure.
To enable projection of imagery onto the face of the cello—which moves as Maya performs—new technology had to be created for this show. The system involves VR spatial sensors for tracking the position and orientation of the cello, combined with a software projection mapping system that “sticks” the video stably to the face of the cello, even as it moves, to magical effect.
Aura: Blackstar Visualized was developed by art collective Secret Portal, a Boston-based group that has been exploring innovative use of immersive technologies in public spaces since 2014.
Mike Mandel – Tech Lead
Sam Perzanowski – Visuals Lead
Dare Matheson – Visuals
In collaboration with:
Alex Rigopulos – Producer
Eran Egozy – ConcertCue Synchronization
Sachi Sato – Audio Support
Simon Rigopulos – Audio Support
Jared Rosenthal – Custom Part Fabrication