California may be in a drought, but inside Walt Disney Concert Hall it's cloudy with a chance of rain.
Nebulous slate-colored thunderheads loom above the escalators that transport visitors from the parking garage into the soaring architecture of the music hall. The clouds are made from chicken wire and batting, however, and the showers are musical.
The new art installation is "Nimbus," and it's the work of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's artist-collaborator, Yuval Sharon, in conjunction with composer Rand Steiger and artist Patrick Shearn.
"Art in public spaces can awaken us to the potential of everyday life," Sharon says on a recent afternoon while standing beneath the clouds, which were being installed in anticipation of a soft launch Tuesday and public opening on Saturday.
The six clouds contain 32 speakers and are illuminated from within. Music rains down every 15 minutes in increments of three to six minutes. Speakers are programmed to play at different intervals, so sound descends upon the listener from all around the space, as if from a celestial stereo.
The rest of the time the area remains silent except for when someone steps on the escalators. That triggers a trickle of subtle flourishes.
The music, scored by Steiger, combines the work of L.A. Phil musicians and environmental sounds in novel ways. A rainstorm is made up of thousands of xylophone notes that start high in the top clouds and deepen in pitch as they migrate to the lower clouds. Steiger also recorded the whir of the escalators and processed it through a computer.
"Suddenly the sound of the escalators will rise up and be coming from above," says Steiger, who was a fellow with the L.A. Phil in the late 1980s and is a professor of composition at UC San Diego. "There's another piece that sounds as if you're putting your head inside of a piano with the notes coming at you from all sides. It alternates between this very gentle sound world and this more present musical experience."
The sound of wind and water rushing through the clouds is made in part by musicians blowing air through their instruments without producing notes. Solo pieces feature Martin Chalifour playing his violin and Robert deMaine playing his cello. Steiger divided those solos into 32 channels — one for each speaker — so suddenly a single instrument comes alive as part of an orchestra of itself.
The schedule of the music will change every day, so if you come through the space at 7 a.m. on your way to work, months might pass before you hear the same piece again. Twenty-four pieces add up to several hours of music.
The idea, says Sharon, is for the score to serve as a performative timepiece for the building.
"The hall doesn't have a clock, so this installation can act like one, and the sound can organize the time and change throughout the year that it's up," he says.
Sharon is known for his wildly creative projects with the Industry, the experimental opera company that he founded and that helped to land his three-year post with the L.A. Phil. Last year the Industry staged the opera "Hopscotch," performed in 24 cars driving in and around downtown L.A. The show was a logistical nightmare and a happy triumph.
He approached "Nimbus" with similar gusto.
"This makes the act of entering the hall one of transformation," Sharon says. "The same kind you hope for when you go to a musical concert."
Sharon knew he wanted clouds, but he had no idea how to make them happen until he pulled in Shearn, who co-founded the fabrication company Poetic Kinetics. Shearn's group creates large-scale installations for public spaces, events and festivals including the Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival music festivals.
Although "Nimbus" had been in the works for more than a year, Shearn was brought in just a few months ago. At the time he was receiving accolades for an installation in downtown's Pershing Square called "Liquid Shard," which was made from holographic Mylar and monofilament and stretched across 15,000 square feet of the park. The effect was that of an ethereal, shimmering sky that cast moody patterns across the ground below.
"A lot of my work takes a scientific principle and reveals it in a poetic or beautiful way," Shearn says. "You start looking at a cloud and you start seeing patterns. You need a lot of vapory detail and big, dramatic flourishes."
The clouds arrived by truck at Disney Hall wrapped in plastic and were loaded up with lights and speakers. The clouds were somewhat deformed in transit, Shearn says, so he and his crew fluffed and reshaped the sculptures before they ascended to the architect Frank Gehry's concert-hall heavens.
On Saturday, and again on Oct. 29, 24 singers from the Industry will populate the escalators and travel up and down, singing with the music and to whomever happens to be passing by.
"That's like the finishing touch," says Sharon, searching for the right words.
"It's like the god-ray coming through the clouds," Shearn says.
Sharon smiles. He likes that.
"That's the poetic version," he says. "I was going to say 'the cherry on top.'"