The multi-million dollar innovation stage at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music’s newest building may not look like much at first. It seems like a normal room with a large window and ample floor space.
But look a little bit closer and you’ll see what’s hidden in plain view.
Advanced cameras, lights, recording and broadcasting equipment. Toward the ceiling, a projector shines on the window to broadcast live performances to the outside world. On a standard folding table are a bunch of virtual reality headsets. Put one on, and you’re transported to a virtual yacht sailing the seven seas where a real UM professor lectures real students. Or you’re watching a performance of the opera “Hansel and Gretel.” The student performers on stage are real. But the magical forest they’re singing in is not.
This is the future of live performance, music and technology the university says its preparing its students for. Today, UM’s Frost School of Music announces the completion of the new Knight Center for Music Innovation, a $36.5 million, 25,000 square-foot building dedicated to combining performance and technology. The hub was funded in part by a gift from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a nonprofit, and was designed by H3.
From Oct. 28 to Nov. 5, the school is hosting a grand opening celebration of programs and performances. On Nov. 2, is the “Shaping the Future of Music” gala, featuring Gloria Estefan as the master of ceremonies and performances by Frost alumni.
Plans for the hub, which was about 10 years in the making and took two years to build, “started out as a more modest thing,” said music school dean Shelton G. Berg. The Frost School of Music hosts 350 performances a year and needed another great recital hall, he said. But the school had greater aspirations.
“Over time, it’s evolved into so much more than that,” Berg said. “It ended up evolving into sort of a hub for our strategic plan.”
The end result is a state-of-the art, crisp white building that almost looks like a spaceship on the outside. It includes the 200-seat recital hall, the high tech Thomas D. Hormel Music Innovation Stage and a feature called the Windowcast. The new recital hall joins the Maurice Gusman Concert Hall, which the school also uses for performances.
On one side of the building, which faces a plaza students frequent to get to class, is what appears to be a normal 20-by-40 foot window. The window is made of a “smart glass” that switches from clear to opaque with a press of a button and the plaza is dotted with speakers.
The school plans to use Windowcast -- similar in concept to New World Symphony’s Wallcast -- to broadcast live performances for students and community members to enjoy. Berg looks forward to students stumbling across a string quartet performance between classes.
“What you thought was just a walk on campus is that experience,” Berg said. “For students who might not want the the commitment of going into a concert hall and taking a seat and staying there for an hour, they can wander by for five or 10 minutes and experience something that they wouldn’t otherwise experience.”
The innovation center itself is dedicated to finding new ways to explore, perform and disseminate music, said Reynaldo Sanchez, a professor and associate dean. When discussing the building’s implication for students, he recalled a TED Talk by David Byrne about how architecture impacts music.
“There’s a quote in there that says, ‘Architecture spurs creativity, venues and spaces spur creativity,’” Sanchez said. “The history of this school is really the history of innovation in music. We have a lot of firsts that happen around here. It seems that every time something new was developed, a new building came up.”
‘This is our playground’
The heart of the building is the Robert and Judi Prokop Newman Recital Hall, a picturesque performance theater with with acoustics so clear, seats in the back row are just as good as the front. The stage sits in front of a wall-sized window that captures the serene lake and blue sky like a picture frame.
The theater is especially important for how the school promotes innovative, experimental chamber music, which is much more than “white guys in white wigs,” Sanchez said.
“One of the beautiful things about that particular stage is that it was designed for intimacy from the beginning,” Sanchez said. “Even the furthest row in the back is still close enough to be able to not just hear the music but actually physically see the people that are performing and feel the emotion.”
Jeffrey Zeigler watched and listened as the Henry Mancini Institute Quartet, a four-piece group of graduate student string musicians, performed in the new hall in front of the scenic view. Zeigler, an assistant professor of Chamber Music and Innovation, said the new hall is “a very ideal room” to listen to performances. He said he is excited to see how students innovate older forms of music in this space.
“There’s more that we’re going to be able to do,” Zeigler said. “This quartet will be just as home in this space as well as the Hormel space. There’s so much more that we’re going to be able to build and experiment with and share with our audience.”
On the other side of building is the Hormel Music Innovation Stage. “This is our playground,” Berg said.
The space is meant to be versatile to adapt to new technology in ways we can’t even imagine today, Berg said. Here, students can experiment with technology like virtual reality, augmented reality and volumetric video cameras.
In the spring, Berg said, the school will present a virtual reality opera where performers will be on stage interacting with animated characters and sets that they can’t see in real life. When audiences look on stage, they’ll see a performer singing. When they look at a screen in the space, they can see the full picture, Berg said.
“These are the kinds of technologies that are going to enter the mainstream,” Berg said. “That means that this isn’t just to be cool. Our students are going to need to know how to do these things for their futures.”
He added: “We want music’s future to be better because of the people that we send out into the world as musicians.”
Students looking to make it in the entertainment industry will benefit from using new technology in creative ways, said professor Jeffrey Buchman.
“We grew up in a world where there are very traditional paths for breaking into the industry,” Buchman said. “But now, students can really come up with any new path for themselves as long as it’s put forth in a convincing, compelling way. That’s what I’m trying to nurture in them.”
Buchman stressed that the need for this building is about much more than the latest and greatest tech. It’s still all about the people.
“Technology is a tool, but technology is not innovation,” he said. “Innovation is human creativity.”
This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.