UC San Diego News Center


‘Cloudy’ Exhibit Rains Music on Visitors to Walt Disney Concert Hall


Photo by Mathew Imaging

Visitors to Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles are now being transported into a cloudy rainstorm as they ride escalators through an enveloping atmosphere of clouds, light and sound to reach the renowned music hall.

The multimedia installation “Nimbus,” which includes six clouds concealing 32 speakers that rain music down on guests, opened Oct. 1. The captivating environment was created by a team that included Yuval Sharon, artist-collaborator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and UC San Diego professor of music Rand Steiger, the project’s composer and sound designer.

“Nimbus” is the first project to come out of Sharon’s three-year residency at the L.A. Phil. When Steiger was invited to join the project last fall, he readily agreed, even though he would need to put several projects on hold and the deadline would be tight. In a matter of months, Steiger penned 24 short pieces that flood the atrium space with richly textured sounds. Along with these composed pieces, “Nimbus” will incorporate ambient sounds generated when visitors trip sensors in strategic locations.

“It’s as large a stage as I’ll ever be on,” Steiger said recently, during a break from putting the final touches on “Nimbus” in the Department of Music’s hi-tech black box theater. “Thousands of people will experience ‘Nimbus’ every week. It will be at Disney hall all season, so anyone who visits will walk right through it.”

The inspiration for “Nimbus” was Angel’s Flight, the narrow-gauge funicular that for more than a century carried passengers up a steep slope on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from Disney hall (it’s been closed since 2013 due to safety concerns). As with Angel’s Flight, Disney’s escalators lift visitors through a dramatically changing environment. The design of “Nimbus,” according to Sharon, took shape along the lines of Austrian composer Wolfgang Mitterer’s sound installations, where electronic processes create a disorienting sense of space in everyday settings.

Disney concert hall, of course, is not exactly an everyday setting. It is the landmark L.A. building designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, who gave “Nimbus” his blessing. The atrium space occupied by “Nimbus” is full of Gehry’s signature asymmetrical forms. Escalators ferry passengers from an underground parking garage up several levels to the capacious lobby. Over the escalators, giant clouds crafted from fabric batting appear to float in the space as their LED lights change colors and speakers send out waves of sound.

Steiger’s short pieces are not all conventionally musical, at least not in the way that most of us understand music. One of them combines voices of many actors reading Goethe’s 19th-century letter in support of new cloud nomenclature proposed by meteorologist Luke Howard. These cloud names—cirrus, stratus, cumulus—are still in use today.

Performers reciting Goethe’s words ranged from Steiger’s young son Sam to Steven Schick and Phil Larsen, both of the UC San Diego music faculty. Their voices, as processed by Steiger, produce an environment of murmuring voices.

Other pieces will feature musicians from the LA Phil and singers from UC San Diego’s Music Department, and one piece “takes the noisy sounds of the escalators and transforms them into beautiful chords,” Steiger said. “When that piece begins, it sort of turns the space upside down because the escalator is beneath you but all of a sudden it seems to be above you. Then, it gets translated into something else entirely.”

Steiger’s participation in “Nimbus” came when his path fortuitously crossed Sharon’s when he heard the composer’s “Template for Improvising Trumpeter” in 2015 at the Ojai Music Festival. Sharon was struck with the “beguiling electronic layering of virtuosic live performance” and became convinced that Steiger would be perfect for “Nimbus.”

"Rand Steiger has been at the forefront of new music for decades and remains one of the most innovative composers working today,” said Nate Bachhuber,” artistic administrator at the LA Phil. “The facile use of technology in Rand's compositions is exciting to experience and always serves to amplify the emotional effect and artistry of the musicians he writes for. Rand's knowledge of and history with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as his openness to new ideas and approaches to music making made him the ideal composer to work with the LA Phil, The Industry and director Yuval Sharon on Nimbus."

Along with Steiger in a lead role, “Nimbus” includes various other contributors with UC San Diego connections. Ulysses Nieto, who earned his undergraduate music degree in ICAM (Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts), did some of the audio engineering, as did Yen-Chun Yang, who has a degree in sound design from the Theatre and Dance department. And the piece that will be played most frequently in the installation features Kirsten Wiest and Ashley Cutright, sopranos who are graduate students working with Professor of Music Susan Narucki.

Steiger said he was energized by the experience of working alongside the youthful Sharon and his Millennial-ish team. By comparison, his own generation “tended to be more skeptical, more dark, more questioning. I’ll be 60 next year and I’ve been thinking about this,” he said. “These younger artists seem to have a much more forward-looking optimistic view of what they’re doing. There’s an unwillingness to let obstacles stop them from achieving what they want to achieve, at a time when it should be very difficult. They have found new ways of doing things, sometimes on a more ambitious level than my generation did when we were their age. It’s exciting to be around them.”