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Creating The Harmonium Project

By Richard Slaney, Creative Director, 59 Productions

In 2014 59 Productions was approached by Edinburgh International Festival with a brief to create a brand new artwork to open the 2015 Festival, based around John Adams’ incredible choral work Harmonium. The piece is around 35 minutes long, and sets three fantastic poems (one by John Donne, two by Emily Dickinson) for large chorus and orchestra. As a source we couldn’t have asked for more. Part of our brief was also to mark the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus - a world-renowned organisation made up of talented singers from across the city that is a part of so many wonderful performances at the Festival.

In recognition of this, we wanted to create something incredibly celebratory, which could really open up the Usher Hall, a venue where so many fantastic concerts take place during the Festival and throughout the year. We also realised that the building itself might sometimes go unnoticed as people pass by on Lothian Road. With these initial ideas our plans began to come together: to create a large-scale event, transforming Usher Hall through projections, and filling Festival Square with the sound of the orchestra and chorus.

We quickly decided against anything too literal in our interpretation - it would have been easy to broadcast the performance onto the hall like a ‘big TV’ type outdoor event, but we felt that it would be more interesting to represent the chorus and performers in unexpected ways, whilst creating animations drawn from the repetitive, hypnotic nature of the music. At around the same time the possibility of a collaboration with Edinburgh University came about, and at an initial meeting we were quickly excited by the possibility of capturing different information about the singers in the chorus, finding out what happens when they perform and using visualisations of this data to accompany the music.

So earlier this summer we worked with the experts from the Centre for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh to capture different data from members of Edinburgh Festival Chorus whilst they sang - looking at heart rate, eye movement, brain activity and so on. We wanted to look at what it means to be a singer in a chorus and what it physically means to sing in a group in this way. We also filmed the singers and occasionally during the piece faces will emerge from the building as a part of the projections. We filmed with infra-red cameras rather than with conventional cameras which meant that we could capture both the video of what we’re seeing as well as recording the depth information of the face of the person singing. This means that now we’re in post-production, we can start to move around each face and take different angles past the face without the camera actually moving when we filmed.

For the past three months a team of animators, led by our animation director Nicol Scott have been creating visuals that interpret this data, narrative ideas taken from Donne and Dickinson’s poems, as well as timing everything to follow the musical ideas in Adams’ score to create a visual celebration of Usher Hall as a building by mapping it perfectly to its surface. It’s been some task, but we hope that the combination of scientific data, spectacular visuals, beautiful music and great performers creates something new. Ultimately we want to celebrate the Festival and the city and hope that we can create a show that has the spirit of celebration and innovation that is the hallmark of so many of the works created for Edinburgh International Festival.

Find out more about The Harmonium Project

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