First virtual reality Prom announced

By Mark Savage
BBC Music reporter

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Image caption,
The film will expand on the multi-media presentation of Anna Meredith's Five Telegrams

The BBC Proms is to enter virtual reality for the first time, with a production that puts viewers in the centre of the Royal Albert Hall.

Five Telegrams captures a performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the first night of this year's festival, mixed with cutting-edge spatial sound.

Written by Anna Meredith, the piece is an exploration of the means of communication in World War One.

It encompasses everything from news and propaganda to code-breaking efforts.

The centrepiece is a seven-minute movement called Nothing To Be Written, inspired by the multiple-choice postcards sent home from the trenches.

The pre-written cards allowed soldiers to choose one of three options: "I am quite well", "I have been injured" or "I am in hospital."

They were allowed to sign their name and date it - but if they wrote anything else, the cards would be destroyed.

Image caption,
Soldiers were permitted to choose one of three pre-written options

The VR experience will put viewers in the shoes of the soldiers and their loved ones, contrasting the horror of the trenches with the quiet dread of their families as they waited for news to arrive.

Meredith said she was "totally delighted" with the "beautiful story-telling" in the film, which was created by 59 Productions - best known as the video designers for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

"To me it mirrors the music I wrote, by allowing you to experience the texture both at a distance or really zooming into the detail of the field postcards and the stories they tell beyond the prescribed text," she added.

In keeping with the Proms' "performance-first" ethos, the film will premiere to a live audience at Imperial College, across the road from the Royal Albert Hall, on 21 August.

Around 400 tickets will be available for the initial event, before heading to further events associated with 1418-NOW's World War One centenary commemorations.

The experiment follows in the footsteps of other orchestras, who have been employing VR to let audiences experience live music at home.

The Philharmonia Orchestra have even created an app that puts the user in the centre of the musicians as they perform Beethoven's fifth symphony and Mahler's third.

The Proms film takes a different approach, using the Royal Albert Hall to illustrate the music by having the building's walls and geometry morph and change.

"The space feels real but heightened," said Lysander Ashton of 59 Productions. "As the music begins, the hall begins to transform in response to the music.

"The architecture around you shifts and changes, becoming a canvas on which the music is painted."

The film will be released for home users on platforms including Oculus VR and the BBC website later this year.

Nothing To Be Written will also be made available as a stand-alone VR experience.

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