Richard Slaney, Managing Director of 59 Productions, reflects on the inspiration behind Five Telegrams, creative process and collaboration with Anna Meredith.
Five Telegrams is a 25-minute work in five parts, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. Each part offers a reflection on methods of communication - codes; redaction or censorship; “spin” or propaganda; personal communication; and armistice. It kicked off the 2018 BBC Proms season in London and will launch the Edinburgh International Festival in a unique first-time collaboration between these two great arts festivals.
Five Telegrams is the fourth Edinburgh International Festival commission for 59 Productions, and we have been working closely with composer Anna Meredith from the very start of the process. For both us, it is extremely important that the work offers a respectful retelling of history, but steers well clear of the visual motifs that audiences might expect. We want to create a new visual and musical language that encourages reflection and remembrance whilst being unexpected and thought-provoking. Working directly with Anna has been a really fun way to collaborate, as previously we’ve either responded to a musical work (e.g. Harmonium) or made a soundtrack to our imagery (as in Deep Time). This year we’ve been working closely from the start of the process, and Anna has been gracious enough to take our ideas and requests into her composition. We’ve then been able to add visual responses to follow Anna’s thoughts. We’ve also extended our partnerships for this project - working with young designers from Edinburgh College of Art on costumes for the performance, as well as working with our commissioners at 14-18NOW to research the First World War thematic ideas.
We were really keen that the work didn’t feel like a memorial or commemoration of the 1914-18 war - but rather took some of the research and presented it in interesting and contemporary ways. A focus on communication came early on in the project, as we found out more about the different types of technologies and methodologies that were being invented and used at that time. Some of the ‘new’ communication techniques seem at first glance archaic, but when you dig into it the themes are really common to how we communicate today - the need for swift, concise communication via a telegram and the potential for that communication to be misinterpreted or not put across the whole message feels an awful lot like social media. We also felt that by focusing on the mechanism, not so much the message, we could make a piece that wasn’t overly sentimental, but that still carried an emotional weight.
We worked with historians at the Imperial War Museum to examine some of these themes, and came away with so many different ideas, many of which contradicted certain assumptions we had both made - for example censorship and redaction have, through recent conflicts and political scandals have become imbued with massively negative connotations, but at the time were viewed as a necessary way of keeping troops safe.
Unsurprisingly it was some of the personal communications that were most emotionally affecting - maybe because of the mundanity and briefness of the conversations: “Please send 1 bottle of Horlicks… awfully useful for this kind of life”, but mostly because in the piles of papers we saw, most ended with a notification of death - letter, letter, postcard, letter, postcard "regret inform” - over and over again. We decided to focus our ‘personal communication’ movement on a Field Service postcard - a sort of multiple-choice postcard which allowed soldiers to send a brief pre-set message home “I am quite well” which were sent in huge volumes. Anna has set the text of the postcard for young voices, each singing the various options en masse, before briefly breaking out in a moment of individuality.
There are no surviving veterans of the First World War, and the conflict is almost beyond living memory. Even the Second World War has far less personal significance to young people today, so to make new connections in this ‘year of young people’ in Scotland felt like a great opportunity. Young people will perform in both London and Edinburgh, have designed costumes and will assist backstage, and will be capturing the event on film.
My job is to bring all these moving parts together to create a singular moment on the night in Edinburgh, which is always slightly nerve-wracking. But the crowds for previous 59 Productions opening events have been so engaged and willing to go on a journey with us and I’m sure the same will be true this year. Five Telegrams is a huge collaboration, and the fact that we can welcome 15,000 people to come and experience it for free to kick off the opening of this year's Edinburgh International Festival is an opportunity for which we’re truly grateful and honoured to be a part of.
Aberdeen Standard Investments Opening Event: Five Telegrams opens the 2018 International Festival on 3 August. Free tickets are released at 10am Monday 2 July.