Thoughts On: The Harmonium Project

All still photography in this article taken by Kat Zgierska and used with kind permission

On the 7th of August the Edinburgh International Festival 2015 opened with a spectacular light show projected on the outside of The Usher Hall

A master-stroke of creativity, and a unique integration of Art, Music and Science, The Harmonium Project brought 59 ProductionsEdinburgh University Design and Infomatics and The Choral Union together to light up one of the city's most iconic landmarks. The visually arresting show was inspired by the physical experience of singing and was set to John Adams' choral work "Harmonium", featuring the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson. The music, a collaboration between the RSNO and The Choral Union, was pre-recorded and played from giant speakers arranged around the audience area. The projection itself was broadcast from the fifth floor of The Sheraton Hotel, located in Festival Square directly opposite the hall with additional lights from the top lip of The Usher Hall coming into play later on. Richard Slaney, the Creative Director of 59 Productions, has written about the process of creating of the collaboration in his own words here 

At 9.30pm darkness had almost fallen and crowds were already gathering in the usually deserted Festival Square in front of the Sheraton Hotel. The first of the barriers were up and officious yellow-bibbed workers herded people left and right. We walked past this scene at first, in search of a much-needed gin, bumping into friends as we went- the atmosphere buzzing and electric.

At 10pmgalvanised by the endless stream of people walking towards The Usher Hall we rushed out of a nearby pub as the barriers went up on Lothian Road, closing it off to traffic. From the edges of the crowd we ducked our way into the centre, seeking out the coveted "best spot". From the windows of office buildings high above us people craned out, blessing their luck, no doubt, at the good location of their workplace. Around us on the ground the full gamut of society from schemies to stoners, Morningside Ladies to Chinese Students pressed in, all looking up, all waiting.

At 10.10pm after the last of the fireworks from the castle petered out - and to many cheers- the floodlights snapped off.The music began as a hush and the first white lines sprang up as if from the very crevices of the 101 year old building itself, tracing the architectural detail and outline of The Usher Hall before dissolving into pulsing heartbeats and brain waves, racing across the inanimate stone. Surrounded by a crowd of excited revellers, I felt a swell of great pride on being part of this moment, connected to all others in the crowd through shared experience. From there on in, over the next 35 minutes the crowd was swept along, enthralled and captivated. The projections and lights built a level and dimension into the music that drew tears, gasps of wonder and cries of delight. 

The inspiration for the piece was the effect that singing has on the brain and body and integrated data collated by Edinburgh University's Design and Infomatics Centre, collected from The Choral Union members as they sang. The intention: to produce a visual representation of what goes on within the body when singing. At points I found the visuals themselves were rather too linear and digitally based for my usual tastes however given the starting point, and scale of the projection, no other obvious workaround comes immediately to my mind. I did enjoy the liberal use of geometric shapes  (how could I not), but perhaps not so much the repeated use of seemingly random lines. 

However there is no escaping the fact that the work was powerful.The singers had even been recorded in infra-red, merging them into the production and at several points their eyeless heads would loom out of the facade of hall like ghosts as they sang. This was an especially chilling effect, given The Usher Hall's spooky reputation.

Other highlights included moving depictions of the mapped cosmos, golden bars of wheat rippling and swaying, the shooting of great beams of light from the top of The Usher Hall into the sky like the batman signal, the sun rising on Usher Hall's West-facing facade and the magic moment The Usher Hall was projected onto itself, gleaming and shining- a beacon.

My favourite moment though, came as beams of light spread out suddenly from the roof of the Grand Circle, reaching over us in a great white array: I looked upward towards the heavens from the middle of the crowd, and could see, blinking through those bars of artificial light: the real stars in the real sky.

At the close of the show, as the assembled ruptured with an explosion of claps and cheers, I was brought back to the same feeling I had standing there at the very beginning. I had been thinking about us as a city, as a whole, a collective. We who pass each other day in and day out, bent over on our own way, focussed inwards on our own life - united in this moment, for this experience. We had all been through this majestic moment together.

That was what I loved the most about Friday night: the fact that the EIF brought this moment to us. This ambitious free event, an opportunity for engagement with the Arts that was open to every level of society and interest. And as last week turned into this, the conversations I have had with other attendees, people I don't know well, reminiscing, a particular gleam in their eye at the memory. As we embark on three weeks of sparkling insanity and chaos, an estimated 1.5 million people descending on our tiny city, this felt like a truly a fitting lighting of the fuse. 

I hope that Friday night was the beginning of a brand new milestone for us Edinburgh folk. We have, cemented in the very stones of the city, one tradition that marks the end of the International Festival. Every year fireworks spectacular above the castle with accompanying music played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from the Princes Street Bandstand, broadcast on Forth One. The people of Edinburgh respond by gathering atop hills and rooftops (Thermos/bottle of wine in one hand - wind up radio in the other) to watch. In this hilliest of cities we plan weeks, if not months, ahead as to which location we should watch it from. Some folks have their favourite spots year after year, some go to the ticketed event in Princes Street Gardens. Others, like me, have watched from several different vantage points over the years. Marking time, year on year in, reminiscing the last location you were, whose hand you were holding, who's tears you were mopping up. A unique milestone in the Edinburgh calendar.

So here's hoping that before it all gets a little too crazy, a little too Bacchanalian, us residents can have a moment to just gather together, watch something beautiful, and remember why we all live here in the first place.


Official video by EIF embedded from YouTube

Further photography can be found on The Guardian here

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