This composer created a VR experience to help you channel some Zen in the Canadian Rockies
Try out ‘spacialized music’ and a view of the Canadian Rockies in this new virtual reality world
By this point in the pandemic, most of us are desperate for a break from our homes.
Enter Northward, a new Canadian-made virtual reality art piece that takes you to the mountains while playing a beautiful score written by Vancouver's Brian Topp.
What makes this not-your-average VR experience, though, is that as you move around the world, the sound stays put.
That means if you hear a violin to your left and you walk to your right, the violin gets quieter, while other sounds you're getting closer to get louder. It's an idea known as "spacialized music."
"It is actually surprisingly difficult to do that," says Topp, who is doing his doctorate on interactive music technology. He points out that music in stereo uses only two channels — left and right — but his composition has more than a dozen.
The VR experience, while in Topp's wheelhouse, was born of the pandemic.
A few years ago, he helped a group called the Redshift Music Society build a massive 16-channel speaker system. The idea was to create spacialized music that "moves sounds around a physical space."
Once the speaker system was built, he wrote a composition for it, called Tundra.
"The work itself was inspired by the great Canadian North," says Topp. "I sort of found that, for me a lot of times, works are inspired by an image or almost more of … a feeling. I try to think of some kind of image or scenery to try and invoke with the music."
For this piece, the inspiration was an image of Vancouver that shows the city as comparatively small, set before many kilometres of mountains and northern terrain.
His composition played wherever the speaker installation travelled, but when the pandemic hit, Topp decided to try making it available to everyone, everywhere — no 16-piece speaker set necessary.
So he brought the idea to his friends at Chroma Mixed Media. Together, they merged Topp's vision of northern B.C. with his composition, and anyone who wants to can step inside and experience what Topp calls "sonic immersion."
"It's interesting because a lot of the works I've done in the past, I tend more towards drama and things that are very dense and heavy," says Topp.
This piece, though, is more meditative. The idea is that it just "slowly passes by," a pace he says he needs right now.
"One of the big things from the pandemic, for me especially, has just been self-care and really sort of getting more attuned to my own mental health and emotions," Topp says. "I unfortunately lost a pretty good job halfway through the pandemic.
"[Northward]could actually be just kind of a nice escape."
You can watch the 360 video on YouTube here or, if you have a VR headset, you can try it out here:
This story is part of Digital Originals, an initiative of the Canada Council for the Arts. Artists were offered a $5,000 micro-grant to either adapt their existing work or create new work for the digital world during the COVID-19 pandemic. CBC Arts has partnered with Canada Council to feature a selection of these projects.You can see more of these projects here.