Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Harmonium Project - Edinburgh International Festival Goes Public

In a basement laboratory of the University of Edinburgh's science-fiction styled School of Informatics building, a soprano is being wired for sound. The soprano in question is Clare Hewitt, a member of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, who will be celebrating their fiftieth anniversary by performing as part of The Harmonium Project at Edinburgh International Festival.

In what amounts to EIF's opening gala this year, The Harmonium Project is a free outdoor multi-media spectacular that sees the Royal Scottish National Orchestra join forces with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus for a performance of John Adams' epic choral work, Harmonium. Throughout its thirty-five minute duration, the late-night performance will be accompanied by a series of animated projections created by hi-tech auteurs 59 Productions and beamed onto the walls of the Usher Hall.

In developing the project, 59 Productions' Richard Slaney and his colleagues have been spending time after-hours holed-up in the Sheraton Grand Hotel in the somewhat appositely named Festival Square opposite the Usher. As images bear witness to, their experiments with assorted projections make them appear like they're doing a twenty-first century remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Back in the lab, meanwhile, Slaney and Dr Robin Hill from the School of Informatics are measuring Hewitt's brain, eye and heart activity as she sings solo to Harmonium's score scanned into a computer that tracks her every movement. Accompanied by a recording of the Chorus in rehearsal, Hewitt appears to have a laser beam targeted onto her forehead, and as she sings, a tiny ball of light bounces around the score in synch with her eye movements like the singalong subtitles of a World War Two matinee.

“It was quite a thrilling experience,” says Hewitt later, “if slightly unusual in the first instance, carrying this weight on your head while at the same time not having anyone either side or in front of you. It was quite strange singing in that sort of set-up, but it wasn't too scary once I got used to having complete strangers in the room watching and listening to me the way they were.

“Harmonium is quite an astounding piece, and there are a lot more singing lines with this than there are in a lot of works, so it's been interesting finding out where my part fits in with everything else. It's really interesting seeing how it works visually, and how music affects people through the sheer physicality of the piece.

“The music itself has its own propulsion, and in both settings I find myself keeping time with the pulse, the smallest unit of movement within the piece, and playing out the cross-rhythms across both my hands or feet. My eye travels by bar rather than note to stay on cue, as it does with the chorus, but here it's the collective breath that was missing, the updraft that keeps you from getting lost.”

In terms of the data gathered through the exercise, Professor Jon Oberlander of the School of Informatics talks about the “social complexities of collective data,” and how “a lot of what we do is similar to what creative people do, while the creativity in science is not dissimilar to creative procedure. There's a rigorousness to both that they have in common.”

As EIF's director Fergus Linehan explains, this increasingly blurred cross-fertilisation between the two disciplines is one of the driving forces behind The Harmonium Project.

“The connection with the University has been amazing,” he says. “That whole area of of science and technology intersecting with the cognitive sciences and arts is fascinating, and that's raised a whole lot of ideas and encouraged us to think about doing large-scale outdoor events that aren't just bread and circuses. Obviously we're making it up as we go along and the risk is enormous, but, yes, you can have some kinetic experiences, but technology can also become a work of art in itself.

Oberlander sits on the board of New Media Scotland, the initiative set up to explore interfaces between art and technology that are coming increasingly to the fore in a way that 59 Productions have similarly pioneered through their work in theatre at venues from the Traverse Theatre to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and beyond.

“We haven't really looked at the data yet,” says Slaney, who has been testing several other members of the Festival Chorus as well as Hewitt, “but doing this has confirmed my suspicions that it's really difficult to be a chorus master and take on that piece of music. You can see the singers heart-rate going up quite a lot.”

It is the results, however, that will in part inform what is projected onto the walls of the Usher Hall.

“We're looking at some of it in a very literal way,” says Laney, “so you might see a heartbeat on the building, but then we can abstract that and make it more artistically interesting.”

Linehan knew 59 Productions from their work at Sydney Opera House, and became interested in “looking through a different prism of the city in a way that would have a transformative effect on it, opening it up with something that is about more than a concert.

“The Usher Hall is a really important part of the Festival,” he says, “and is really the birthplace of the Festival, but a whole lot of people don't really know what goes on there, even though what does go on can be quite spectacular. Talking to the University, we wanted to look at how Edinburgh is an important hi-tech place as well as a piece of heritage and history.”

While Hewitt will be singing on the night, being a lab-rat for The Harmonium Project has caused her to reflect on her experience and the nature of performance itself.

Harmonium is such a visceral piece,” she says, “that it makes sense to me to think of the whole experience as a living and breathing organism. In my imagination that's what the visual representation of it will be like, an aggregated image of what it's like to sing with other people, for breathing and heart-rates to synchronise, and for different lines of music to coalesce the sound of the piece as a whole.”

The Harmonium Project, Festival Square, August 7, 10.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk/harmonium

The Herald, August 5th 2015

ends

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