Back in 2014, I had the pleasure of devising and creatively directing an EU-funded ‘visualisation of classical music’ project in collaboration with my students, alumni and staff. Our mission was to take on Verdi’s mighty Requiem, and not attempt to animate it, or fall into any turgid, representational mode committing us to grandiose CGI. You can dive nice and deep into the development of the project here, but I’m going to offer up the short version, which goes like this: first, we plugged Arie Van Beek into some motion-detection software while he was conducting Verdi’s Requiem with his orchestra in order to capture his every movement during the performance. Next, the resulting data was translated by a computer into seven curves, one for each of the discrete movements of the Requiem, which gave us spatial representations of the conductor’s gestural energy; along these curves followed his orchestra.
The seven curves originating from Arie Van Beek’s conducting of the Requiem
My students and alumni were then given the curves as digital files, and challenged to use them to produce sculptural forms fashioned in 3D using the animation software in which they were trained. They were asked to listen to each movement of the Requiem and allow their impressions of the music to inform their creative decision-making, and a final selection to be made from their respective entries.
The final seven 3D models produced by the students.
Ultimately, we wanted to physicalise the 3D forms as real-world sculpture, so had to devise a practical means to ready the digital models for fabrication. We divided the 3D forms into planes, or slices, with the idea of laser-cutting the silhouettes out of sheet steel, before reassembling them again to produce the finished piece.
One of the sculptural forms expressed as a series of silhouettes.
A 3D simulation of how the silhouettes combine to produce the sculpture.
Maquettes of the seven sculptures were then produced so we could understand how they would sit on the ground and actually work as physical things. I need to say here what an exciting moment this was, as we first understood what it meant to have taken an epic, canonical work of classical music and converted it into tangible, tactile things.
The seven movements of Verdi’s Requiem as diminutive, laser-cut maquettes.
Finally, laser-cut from steel, welded together and painted, the seven finished sculptures were installed on the lawn of the Royal Opera House’s High House Production Park, Purfleet, to accompany a further performance of the Requiem. The unspoken truth of this highly collaborative and interdisciplinary project was that all of us wished the budget had been very much larger, meaning we could have produced the sculptures at a much bigger scale. Sized as they were, the sculptures were playful, when I think we all wanted them to loom more grandly, as befitting their origin point. Still, the business of moving them around in various transit vans, and carrying them about, proved challenging enough; any bigger, and we would have needed a fleet of articulated lorries!
The pleasure of this project was not knowing how to do something, and not knowing how something was going to turn out, but always confident in the knowledge I was working with a bunch of talented individuals committed to making something wonderful take place.
Andante quasi lento e contabile, the third movement from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Admittedly, the lower 4th floor of a brick-built brutalist building is an unlikely fount of yuletide nostalgia. Even so, whenever I listen to Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, it is to this particular corner of this particular edifice my imagination travels first.
The corner in question is the base room for the undergraduate animation programme for which I was course leader, up until my resignation from the role in July 2019. Originally, there was very little ‘kerb appeal’ about this corner of the campus; the space in question had no natural daylight, and its ceiling dominated by a defunct network of ventilation tubes and vents. Over time, my staff and I transformed the unprepossessing bunker into a much envied cocoon of warm vibrant colour, modelled after a cinema foyer, complete with galleries of old movie posters, vintage folding cinema seats, and warm, pooling circles of light. I loved seeing the base room brimming with staff and students – as noisy together sometimes as a roost of parrots – deriving secret pleasure from the oft-repeated rituals of pushing chairs back under the tables after the students had left for their respective classes and restoring order to their scattering of film books, magazines and chocolate wrappers. On occasion, I feigned annoyance at their messiness, their apparent inability to eat a sausage roll without fountaining flakes of pastry over the base room’s rich red carpet, but in some heart-and-sinews way, I didn’t mind at all.
I likewise enjoyed the base room when it was empty and quiet, the orderliness and hush following the end of the autumn term, the majority of our students having upped sticks for Christmas. In direct conflict with edicts from campus managers and their kind, my colleagues and I would conspire to create further opportunities for our keenest students to continue working on campus in the days running up to the big holiday shut-down. In this one small way, I was trying to do as I’d been done by, recalling how supported I’d been made to feel by the teachers and tutors who’d populated my own educational experience; how it felt when my a-level art teacher trusted me to continue working in the classroom long after the school day was over; how it felt when he offered to make me a cup of instant coffee too, this simple erasure of hierarchy between master and the apprentice; how it felt during my Foundation Art degree, when the technician allowed me to work early, or late, in the workshop – because I was trusted; what it felt like to be a valued part of a community, where creativity was a shared act of support and time-giving, an existential thing more glorious than the precise letter of someone’s job description or the increments of a clock-face.
Thus, with a few industrious students scattered throughout the various studios and computer rooms, I myself would sit, not in my office, but rather at the large lozenge-shaped table in the middle of the base room, and finish off whatever remaining workload remained – usually writing heaps of feedback. The base room boasted a very large LED screen television and set of powerful speakers, and when the mood took me, I’d play Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony at some considerable volume, it’s third slow movement filling the long empty corridor outside with its midnight-clear and swirling snow. I suppose I fancied myself as an Edward Scissorhands figure; while Edward produced wintery effects where once there was none by shaving blizzards from blocks of ice, I sent Hely-Hutchinson’s darkling dream of winter whirling out of the base room to meet the opening doors of the campus lift, always thrilling slightly at the idea that my foot-sore wearied colleagues might delight, as I did, at finding their workplace enhanced so unexpectedly.
This is what I tell myself, such is the chicanery of nostalgia. My colleagues more likely wondered why I appeared so intent on propelling Christmas before me when there was no one around to care or notice, spraying Hely-Hutchinson’s seasonal music about the place like one of those blowers of artificial snow. For some of them, I may have struck a rather tragic figure, sitting alone at a large communal table in a largely deserted brick fortress. Their ear-buds packed tightly into their ears, my students were, in most cases, entirely oblivious to the ice and nightscape of Hely-Hutchinson’s third movement blowing past their respective studios – and if they were listening, they were probably rolling their eyes.
I don’t really know what anyone else was thinking if and when they heard Hely-Hutchinson’s music moving through the quiet conduits of the empty building – spooky, magical, wonderful, like the advance of frost. I’ll more confidently tell you what I was thinking. I was thinking, ‘This is how you do it!’ This is how you see off the barbarism of the fluorescent lights and long walks of grey non-slip flooring! This is how you unfurl the dark-bright heart of a Narnian wood within the confines of a concrete silo. This is how you turn an ordinary corner on an otherwise ordinary day and find yourself somewhere magical.
The other thing I know is this: whenever I hear the Andante quasi lento e contabile, I miss my former colleagues, all of us always knackered, all of us true-believers in the job-at–hand, and I miss all those twenty-somethings with their explosive sausage rolls and unicorn-coloured hair. I miss them, as I miss their delight in acts as simple as my donning a ridiculous santa hat, or handing around a mass-produced tin of mass-produced chocolates, recognising that delight for what it was – the trust generated by the moments when tutors choose to make themselves back into people. And yes, I miss pushing in all their bloody chairs.
But rather like one of those mass-produced chocolates in those big mass-produced tins, this specific bonbon of Christmas nostalgia is wrapped around a softer centre, for baked inside this Proustian madeleine is another. That I cleave so affectionately to Hely-Hutchinson’s atmospheric conflation of The Coventry Carol and The First Noel has as much to do with the age I was when I first heard it, as it does with the particular merits – or otherwise – of the music itself.
First and foremost, Andante quasi lento e contabile reminds me of my father in ways both welcome and less so. Hely-Hutchinson’s music carries inside it a very pure memory of my family, and thanks to the internet, I can be super-exact about its temporal coordinates: Christmas Eve, 1984, a little after 5pm. Our Christmas tree is sitting on top of the triangle-shaped coffee-table, squidged between the armchair and the sofa and throwing up scintillas against the rice-pudding sheen of our chip paper wallpaper. Dad is home early from work, and we’re all waiting for the final episode of The Box Of Delights to begin, the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s novel. For its signature tune, The Box Of Delights has taken the plucked harp from Hely-Hutchinson’s take on The First Noel. I don’t know the provenance of the music then, but I absolutely delight in the way it calls immediately for the hairs on my arms to rise in anticipation of what it to come. I’m fizzing with a curious brew of ‘Christmasness’ and dread, with pleasure and suspense – with pleasure in suspense. As the gas fire hisses, filling our living room with luxurious heat, I realise this is Christmas right here, right now; that it lives not in the brash adverts for children’s toys, or on Top of the Pops, but here, in this moment of exciting suspenseful darkness, here in this haunted music-box of a Christmas carol. For the record, it’s not just me, as someone wrote in the Radio Times back in 2015:
“The Box of Delights made a big impression on those who saw it when it originally aired more than three decades ago on BBC1. Mainly because it somehow managed to be the image of snowy Edwardian chocolate-box perfection, and pretty bloody creepy at the same time…”
That dad was home to watch this final episode with us is no small part of why this memory endures so powerfully. In common with my future self, who will later propel Hely-Hutchinson’s music out into the empty spaces of a near-deserted University campus in an effort to transform it for others, my pleasure at watching The Box of Delights was a pleasure doubled because it was pleasure shared. That my dad was there, taking this fantastical journey with me, seemed to be of special importance. Our family felt very close that Christmas Eve, drawing closer, Hely-Hutchinson’s music helping us towards each other with all its mystery, threat and promise of magic. This was the start of Christmas proper, the front door shut against the cold, work finished, school a distant memory, and the embargo on that year’s special purchases of Paynes Chocolate Brazils and Turkish Delight finally lifted.
In March of the following year, my father would leave us for another life with another family. Realistically speaking, this last Christmas spent as a family was surely a strained and miserable episode for my parents, and I think for my older brother too, who knew all of it before me. I wonder what they were thinking about as Hely-Hutchinson’s music began to play on our television? At least two of us were dreaming about journeying to another world entirely. It beggars belief I failed to intuit some of what was happening before it happened. Or maybe I did? Maybe the proof of what I knew is found in everything I’ve already written here, the import, clarity and preciousness of this perfect Christmas memory deriving from a child’s desperate act of magical thinking.
When, as sometimes happens, I find myself crying at the Andante quasi lento e contabile, I always try to figure out why. It is not a simple grief, because sometimes the tears feel like they are the physical expression of a surplus of hope. They squeeze out of me, silvered and involuntary. I suspect they are tears of frustration too, of disappointment with the synthetic sentimentality of the Christmas season and my struggle to go on feeling it – any of it. Hely-Hutchinson’s music surely makes me yearn for long walks at midnight on Christmas Eve, crumping across thick snow, and I think, if one day I do take a walk like that, I will come to understand how to ‘do’ Christmas again in some profound, legitimate way, and that it will fit with me again, as I think it once did.
And when I cry a bit, yes, I’m missing all those bloody students and the feeling being there for them gave me. I think, hand-on-heart, what I’m experiencing when I hear Hely-Hutchinson’s Andante quasi lento e contabile is loss – the loss of the child I once was and will never be again, and the loss of the children I don’t have and will never have, that pyjamaed tribe for whom I know I could get Christmas right; a sprinkle of ghosts and shadow, a perfect fragrance of clementine spritzed with my thumbnail, and all this imagination of mine poured into theirs, children I would never leave.
This week, the woods remain lovely, dark and deep, as dreams of snow and ice continue to characterise this suitably festive Kick-About, with new works inspired by the third slow movement from Hely-Hutchinson’s 1927 A Carol Symphony. The Kick-About has been running for thirty-four weeks and was started, in part, as a response to the first lock-down. Throughout this time, our fortnightly shindigs have been a constant source of anticipation, comfort and satisfaction and I just wanted to say a big thank you to all my fellow kick-abouters for your creativity, conversation and always, the surprises. A big thank you too to all those who comment, who participate, who browse, and who share. Now go have yourselves a very merry Christmas!
“This painting isn’t what I had intended – but then again what is these days! In my mind I had envisaged carol singers and a merry Christmas card type scene. Alas it all went rather pear-shaped, so this is one I did earlier. I suppose it has a rather snowy and bleak look about it, but if you just keep walking around the corner and over the hill, there is little village hidden away and yes, I can hear the sound of Christmas carols drifting across the fields. Merry Yule tide and a peaceful New Year one and all.”
“The wonderful piece of music for this week’s kick about prompt has been wafting through the flat today, reminding me that Christmas does have some very nice things about it, once I forget about all the things I’m supposed to associate it with these days. I used to love this time of year as a kid, less so as I’ve got older and feel pressured to have somebody else’s version of Christmas and not the one I want.
I made this collage a few years ago, putting a few of my favourite wintry things together to create a version of Christmas I’d actually like; snow, the winter landscape, a cosy lit window, a jet black sky studded with hard bright stars. If you stepped inside that house there’d be a real tree with very beautiful decorations and real candles. Oh, and Christmas pudding and custard – now I’m living in Germany, I’m missing Christmas pudding soooo much, they don’t do it here!”
“The music of this prompt felt very christmassy and warm indeed. To me, nothing feels more christmassy than going for a walk in the countryside of Ireland, where the invigorating air hits you with pure refreshment and the frost glistens the shrubbery and flora. I spent a lot of my time, when I was a young lad, outside, building rickety hideouts and treehouses with my friends and cousins. Going for a walk near my family home always feels like I am dipping into my memory vault, where walking past a bparticular tree will spark a memory of us building and climbing away; walking through the grasses of the fields reminds me of being cut by barbed wire, and being so dumbfounded by having fun, I didn’t realise I was bleeding with barbed wire marks in my palms.
I remember the beehive camouflaged into the ground of one particular field; I can only imagine the sight of us all running and screaming our heads off as we ran for our lives from the angry hive – after we’d awakened it! Memories like that are scattered around the countryside of Ireland. They echo as I stroll past them, and now I am older I can really appreciate them. Although all the hideouts and treehouses are dismantled, and our worn-down trails filled by vegetation again, the clean air and bright stars haven’t changed.
Although isolation has, for now, stopped me from revisiting those actual areas of my past, I remember them as I walk through the bogland surrounding my Mam’s house, where I know I would have been in my element too. I am still drawn to those picturesque areas and the crisp, clean air – and I really appreciate the little bird houses built into the trees to shelter the birds in the bitter winter. I still walk past a particular tree and think – that would have been a good one to climb.”
The house I grew up in had no central heating, only the gas fire in the living room. There was no double-glazing either and it was quite normal to wake up and see your breath in the bedroom. It was also common to find ice on the inside of the windows – frost ferns of extraordinary beauty. In response to this music, I wanted to capture those patterns of ice, but the weather here is stubbornly mild and ordinary. Undeterred, I set about recreating the sorts of photographs I might have taken, but had to rely on some digital transformations, taking an image of an actual frosted fern taken in my garden several winters ago, and pressing it against a window of my own invention. When the first of these images coalesced, I gave a small cry of delight – for yes, here they were again, those delicate veneers of ice, just as I remembered them, and for a moment at least, I was my small pyjamaed self.”
“As an 11th hour coda to my efforts at faking frost, I sent my resulting images over to CGI-whizz, Deanna Crisbacher, and asked her to have a kick-about too…”
“… and this last image is where Dee and I met in the middle to produce one more.”
“The musical selection of seasonal carols made me think of the cosmos – not just the return of the light this season celebrates, but the vast circles of time and space to which we belong. But how to show this in a concrete way? I turned to sacred geometry – the Seed of Life and the Egg of Life, images based on seven circles as a framework for the whole of creation, forms that also echo the tones of the musical scale. For my collages I used images from 2 of my reference books–Majestic Universe and Space Odyssey. It was a learning process, fitting all the pieces together like a puzzle, but I eventually approached the images I had in my mind. And for the poem, a seven line form–appropriately named Pleiades. Its six-syllable lines also reflect the 7 + 6 circles of the Egg of Life mandala.”
in the beginning, dark– isn’t it always?—then inside the seed, the egg, illumination—orbs invoking each other, imagined, conjoined, kin– instruments of (re)birth
“Listening to Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, I found myself wondering about the meaning and roots of the word “Noel”; why the Coventry Carol, also featured in this piece, could sound so gentle and loving when it was about the mass slaugher of children; and generally, how tradition and custom allowed us to sing of the Christmas story, without really registering the words at all. So I have tried to restore some of the words most associated with our Christmas carols back into the context of the original event – a re-telling of the nativity, which is all mine, illustrated with some beautiful paintings, which aren’t.
I’d also like to wish each of my fellow Kickabouters a safe and peaceful Christmas, and a much happier New Year! Thank you for making this year so much better than it might have been. Love and virtual hugs to you all.”
“Chris Rea once sang “I’m driving home for Christmas” Over the years I have often found myself doing the contrary. Whether it was for work or escapism, I would often find myself in a red and white queue, wending my way up some motorway or other. Rea shares an empathy with his fellow travellers, as they sit in their cars waiting to continue their journey to meet loved ones. I often experienced it in a different way as I was driving on those dark evenings; I was leaving home going somewhere, not back to family or to the out-of-town shopping centres, or to the supermarket to get the turkey dinner and this congestion Rea sentimentalises was a hindrance. I craved the dark mornings, or the late-night finishes. I knew the people on the roads then were the same as me, their purpose not driven by consumerism or sentimentality but by necessity.
Come Christmas day I would often find the ceremony of the event claustrophobic and melancholic. As the darkness settled in, I would make my excuses and leave. The streetlights led me somewhere – and away from something – neither the ‘somewhere’ nor the ‘something’ were tangible or important – the act of travelling was the goal. I would simply travel without a whim or care, but inevitably the ley lines of the world would draw me to the coast, where I would park by the harbour and watch the dark waves for a while before reluctantly returning home. Whichever way I experienced my Christmas lights, there was a freedom on those sodium drenched roads, no top-to-toe tailbacks, no red lights all around.
Now, having had a family, my house has had its share of being festooned. Christmas day isn’t so much of a chore, even with in-laws and pets and the general hullabaloo. I can even survive the most banal Christmas hit (just), but occasionally there is still that yearning to travel and experience those quiet routes again.”
“A mini mystery with a touch of fairy tale. We will pretty much all be indoors this year (especially if the rain goes on) so I’ve brought the spooky woods into the house and paused the singing… With luck it’ll resume. Winter Solstice! Light is on its way. Meanwhile, I hope everybody has a cosy creative few days with positive thoughts for 2021.”
“Well there you go – 2020 is almost over. I am a humbug from way back, so this really was a challenge! I guess I sidestepped it by jumping to a new year’s message, hopefully as treacley as the music. Based on some pics of cockatoos in Centennial Park – such wonderful clowns – which were taken a few weeks ago with grevilleas and bush cherry flowers, which are out in the garden now.
To all the kick-abouters Season’s Greetings and best wishes for a bright shiny 2021. It’s been marvellous seeing all your beautiful works.”
We have the lovely Gary Thorne to thank for our next Kick-About prompt, which will no doubt come as a very welcome distraction from all things titivated, gilded and ‘Christmassy’. Gary presents us with simpler fare this week – left-overs from the great feast, perhaps?
“And now we see what has brought everyone here under the guidance of the conductor’s organizing light. Now we understand this urge to converge. Now we see what Red is looking at: there, in the velvety dark circular basin before us is a glowing facsimile of the entire Kingdom of Sound. Think of it as mostly line drawing, but with block lustrous colours we’ve come to associate with the various districts. The camera is tracking slowly around the facsimile, which is extruding as we watch…“
From the script for Red & The Kingdom of Sound, August 2016
Back in August 2016 I finished writing the script for an animated adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra. Script-writing is a funny thing; you’re essentially describing the action of a film or animation that exists very completely in your own head, but nowhere else. More peculiarly, you’re watching something that already exists in your mind’s eye and transcribing the action onto paper in order for someone else to ‘remake’ it.
It is one thing to describe something in words, quite another to translate it onto the screen. I started this Throwback Friday post with an unspecial thumbnail drawing I did on the back of an envelope – literally – before hastily photographing it and sending it to Red & The Kingdom Of Sound’s production designer, Emily Clarkson. This untidy little sketch was my attempt to show what I was seeing at the climax of the animation – a hovering, extruding citadel, comprised of musical instruments, hovering within a deep architectural basin, while a giant modernist effigy of a conductor towers above it…
Yes, you’re quite right; my small quick sketch conveys very little of that grandeur and spectacle, but when you have the good fortunate to work with people who likewise have very powerful film projectors installed in their heads, a small quick sketch is often enough.
So from a few describing words on a page, via that hurried thumbnail sketch, we arrive at these concept paintings by Emily Clarkson…
Emily Clarkson, concept drawing of the maestro’s city in Red & The Kingdom Of Sound, 2017
Emily Clarkson, concept drawing of the maestro’s city in Red & The Kingdom Of Sound, 2017
… and, eventually, from these concept paintings – via the ingenuity and hard graft of an entire team of other creatives – we arrive at the climatic scenes as seen in the final animation, which has now been enjoyed by thousands of people all over the world in concert halls and at film festivals.
The maestro’s city in its full pomp at the conclusion to Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018)
Trailer for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018), including the Maestro’s City
Sometimes, particularly at the moment, there are days when it’s harder to apprehend the value in what we do, or to find the motivation to keep doing it. On days like that, I take comfort from what is unremarkable about my quickly-scribbled thumbnail sketch, and the world it went on to build with the help and vision of so many other talented people. I think to myself, ‘yes, this is how everything of value begins’ – with a big idea made visible and shared.
The not-inconsiderable job of re-working a selection of the original synesthetic paintings into an uninterrupted sequence of abstract animations fell to Tom Beg and Jordan Buckner, who took the paintings we’d created and gave them dynamism, character and energy, pushing the music back though the imagery it had inspired in our collective imagination.
Come the premiere of the animation, Tom, Jordan, Keith and myself were all stuck behind the screen onto which the animation was being projected while, in front of it, the orchestra performed, so we couldn’t see the audience’s faces as the film played out – but the moment of hush, followed by enthusiastic applause, confirmed something rather magical had taken place – a transportive synthesis of sight and sound.
After the long, slow, sleepy life-cycles of the Kick-About#8’s cicadas, I felt we needed a bit of clatter, percussion and forward velocity in the mix. I knew just the thing, unleashing John Adams fast machine and setting it rocketing off into the bloggosphere. You can see the full range of work Adams’ music inspired here – everything from adorable little witches riding steampunk brooms to strange abandoned industrial sites in Berlin.
It was to Ethan to whom I turned again to meet the challenge of the KickAbout#9, who took Adams’ Short Ride and converted it into a spectrogram – a visual transcript of the whole piece assembled out of its assorted frequencies.
Short Ride In A Fast Machine as a spectrogram.
I knew I didn’t want to fiddle too much with the resulting spectrogram, otherwise what was the point of producing it? That said, my over-riding feeling in response to the spectrogram itself was in direct opposition to my emotional experience of the music originating it. If anything, the spectogram has a distinctly calming effect. (Indeed, in his comment on the Kick-About, fellow blogger João-Maria suggested the spectrogram reminded him of the moonlit Seine, and now I cannot see it otherwise!). This changed when I divided the spectrogram into quarters. All at once I felt I was looking at POV shots of someone plummeting past Fritz Lang-inspired skyscrapers or views from great glass elevators speeding up and down. To be honest, once my brain had connected these images with the POV of falling people (a very short ride!), they in no way felt representative of Adams’ music, the energy and aliveness of it, and perhaps this can only be expected if you take something as dimensional as music and flatten it into a monochrome 2D strip!
Then how to restore the colour and light-fantastic into this clever/fascinating/boring strip of data? And what is that tickle of association in my brain, triggered again and again by the horizontalism of the spectrogram, by its flaring rectangles and bright little squares? Oh yeah…
Maybe this is where it all comes from – that compulsion to pull light and image out of music? One day soon I’ll finally do it, commit to discussing my love affair with this film, but until then let me just come right out and say Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) burned a bloody big marvellous hole in my head when I first saw it as a nipper. Those final rhapsodic scenes – with the mothership, the singing lights, and that rainbow-coloured graphic equaliser-thing – woke me up to image and music – and to fast machines powered by music too. So, with a nod and a wink at Spielberg’s science-fiction classic, I tried a couple of colourised versions of the Short Ride spectrogram to go some way to linking the image back to the idea of music, momentum and technology.
My restlessness continued however, as I still waited for the clunk-click that accompanies the moment you arrive at something you’re truly convinced by. I fiddled around with the idea of ‘the machine’, taking the spectrogram and collaging it digitally to produce something with the semblance of cogs and moving parts. I started to get something interesting – something that reminded me of another film a little less celebrated than Close Encounters – At The Earth’s Core from 1976 starring Peter Cushing and Doug Mclure! I could see the barbed head of that movie’s mechanical mole machine – and that’s where I left things, because Adams’ music is very clearly not the sound of a giant drill-bit chewing through rocks!
But something about that cheesy b-movie with its drilling machine brought me to Luigi Rossolo’s 1911 futurist painting, The Revolt, with its forward thrust of heat, noise and energy; and something about The Revolt associated with the opening credits to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) – and my exhilaration in response to them as a wide-eyed child (I get goosebumps even now, so perfect is this combination of soaring score, heroic typeface and sound design!); and from Superman‘s title sequence, it was another short cognitive jump to Kubrick’s celebrated stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, this is the stuff! This is what my short ride in a fast machine needs in order to leave the ground!
The Revolt, Luigi Rossolo, 1911
Opening titles from Superman, Richard Donner, 1978
The Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968
So in the end it was actually very simple: first, you turn Adams’ Short Ride In A Fast Machine into a spectrogram, which you colourise suitably to suggest heat, light and sizzle, and then you steal from Donner and Kubrick and give the whole thing some cinematic swoosh.
Back in March 2013, I was tasked with conceiving of a way in which an entire community of animation students, staff and alumni could work together on a big external EU-funded project, the goal of which was to visualise classical music engagingly and thus initiate new audiences into the concert-going experience:
“On Friday, July 12th at Grays Civic Hall, Essex, the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne will be performing a programme of music on a theme of ‘rhythm’. The programme of music will explore ideas of rhythm in classical music and in the celebrated jazz of the late Dave Bruebeck. The director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne, Marc Feldman, has challenged our creative community to work collaboratively to create an original work of animation designed to accompany his orchestra’s performance of one particular example of early twentieth century music that blends classical and jazz rhythms to exciting effect. The animation will be rear projected onto a large screen measuring 8.5m wide by 6.2m high, in front of which the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne will perform live.“
That ‘particular example of early twentieth century music’ was Darius Milhaud’s 1923 ballet, La Création du monde. I was entirely unfamiliar with the piece, but on hearing it for the first time, I was struck by its many contrasting textures, moving from lyricism to rattling percussion, and back again. My mind offered up abstract shapes, ribbons of colour, starbursts, wheeling cogs and the metropolitan rush of beeping cars and honking trains, and all the clamour and noise of modernity. What a gift to animators, I thought, and so it proved to be.
Over the course of ten consecutive days, the course community were challenged to listen to Milhaud’s ballet and ‘draw what they could hear’, producing abstract digital paintings as quickly and instinctively as possible in an effort to ‘photograph’ the synesthetic imagery inspired by the music. Of the many exciting projects my students and I undertook together, this stint of extra-curricular activity was particularly joyous, as everyone just rolled up their sleeves and painted. In the end, a huge range of speed paintings were generated in response to Milhaud’s music, the entire collection of which can be viewed here.
I’ve gathered by own efforts here, blowing off the dust. Produced very quickly, produced blithely, they still manage to cheer me up. When I look at these images, I recall the fireworks of Milhaud’s music instantly and likewise the very real pleasure of working side-by-side with such a lovely bunch of bright young things.
One name you won’t know is Keith Burden, but I’d like to change that. Keith Burden is a consultant in audio-visual technologies for performance spaces and the wizardry of project mapping, and the unsung hero of my various excursions into synesthetic concert experiences and the live synchronisation of animated imagery.
Happiest left to his own devices behind the scenes, usually dressed in stage-blacks and hunkered down behind a bank of hotly-humming computers, Keith is not one for blowing his own trumpet, so in this edition of ‘Spotlight’, I’ve taken it upon myself to strike up the horn section on his behalf.
Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France – December 19th, 2013 / If you very peer very closely at this image, you’ll see Keith Burden seated behind the table in the ‘cock-pit’, surrounded by computers, controllers and lengths of cable. Tom Beg and I are conferring in the background. We’re at the back of the stage hidden behind a huge screen, onto which we will soon project La Création du monde in live-synchronisation with the Orchestre de Picardie. Not sure what the shopping trolley is for.
His face illuminated by one of his three monitors, Keith continues his scrupulous pre-performance checks to ensure a glitch-free projection.
Phil: Hello Keith. Thanks for doing this. I know this isn’t your thing, being in the limelight and all that, but you do this transformative, rather magical job for people and for places, and I wanted to drag you – kicking and screaming if necessary – out from behind your kit. We met back in 2013 for the first of the sound visualisation projects, working with Darius Milhaud’s jazz-inspired ballet, La Création du monde (1923) to produce an animation to accompany a jazz-themed concert headed up by Chris Brubeck. I knew you first as ‘Clever Keith’, a guy with some seriously heavy-duty flight-cases, a vanful of cables, computer monitors and some very expensive, very powerful projectors. You were a bit like an agent in a Mission Impossible film, only in a fleece, and with bits of gaffer tape stuck to your trousers. How would you describe your role in our various creative collaborations?
CleverKeith: I see my main role as a form of conduit to get your plethora of artists’ work integrated with the live artists’ performance.*
*Keith is being characteristically modest here. Keith is much more like the black sleeve that encases hundreds of other smaller wires in some heavy-duty, utterly essential cable! Keith’s jobs include conceptualising the response to the space in regards to the logistical relationship between the hardware, the image, the audience, the musicians and the existing infrastructure – and then adapting everything at very short notice when the performance space is actually nothing like he was told it was going to be! There’s the install of the kit, all the time spent familiarising himself with the music and the visuals, there’s the checking and re-checking and checking again, and last but far from least, there’s the adrenalised act of live-synching the visuals and music itself in-performance, which can be like landing a passenger plane on a very windy day.
A selection of the various different concert venues across Europe to which Keith and I travelled during our adventures together in light and sound, all of which presented their different challenges in terms of projection and synching visuals with the nuances of the different orchestras.
Phil: When I was at school, I did one of those ‘career-picker’ exercises; I think I got ‘Florist’ when I inputed all my existing interests and career aspirations! I don’t remember seeing ‘projection-mapper’ or ‘live-synchroniser’ or ‘projector-wrangler’ being on the list. How did you get into this line of work in the first place?
Keith: A whole series of happy accidents after school, including my interest in photography, allowed me to develop a fairly unique set of skills. I was fortunate enough to be trained by three companies, Linn Products, Naim Audio and Quad Electro Acoustics, which provided, not only the foundation of my audio work, but also the signal chain for the visual and control element. Specialist 2 channel Hi-Fi turned into Home Cinema, which then became Custom Installation, which led onto interactive projection mapping.*
*Projection mapping, similar to video mapping and spatial augmented reality, is a projection technique used to turn objects, often irregularly shaped, into a display surface for video projection. These objects may be complex industrial landscapes, such as buildings, small indoor objects or theatrical stages. By using specialized software, a two- or three-dimensional object is spatially mapped on the virtual program which mimics the real environment it is to be projected on. The software can interact with a projector to fit any desired image onto the surface of that object. This technique is used by artists and advertisers alike who can add extra dimensions, optical illusions, and notions of movement onto previously static objects. The video is commonly combined with, or triggered by, audio to create an audio-visual narrative. In recent years this technique has also been widely used in the context of cultural heritage as it has proved to be an excellent edutainment tool thanks to the combined use of a digital dramaturgy. (Thank you Wikipedia).
So begins the process of blending the images of two separate projectors to produce a single seamless rear-projected image on the big screen at the Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France, December 19th, 2013. The checkerboard image is used to ensure the two projected images are aligned perfectly. I suspect Keith sees this checkerboard in his dreams..
Phil: Tell us about some of the jobs you’ve done, the unusual ones, the spectacular ones, the most expensive ones, the strangest ones….
Keith:One of my favourites is the Painted Room in Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College. Less than 2 hours to install and calibrate a seven projector system onto the walls, ceilings, and on this occasion, also the floor, to illuminate the performers. With one technical rehearsal the previous month, we were able to use the projections to illuminate the appropriate elements of the Painted Hall that tied in with that part of the performance.
I would say some of the most enjoyable works are where we are able to project discretely, where the audience get to experience the projections without being aware of all the technical elements. St Johns & St Elizabeth’s Hospice Light Up a Life Christmas projections have allowed us to project within the courtyard area of the hospital. In Turner’s old art studio, we were able to transform the space into a Tuscan landscape that subtlety changed to an evening under the stars, as the scenes changed throughout the evening. Leeds Castle fireworks was a fantastic canvas that allowed us to choreograph the visuals to the music and the fireworks for one of the finest fireworks displays in the country.
Most live events have challenges, but when you are sharing the stage with other performers, and in addition you have moving platforms with flames and lasers firing from them, it makes the set up not so straight forward! At Glastonbury we provided the visuals for The Egg when they headlined the Arcadia Stage.
The Arcadia Stage, Glastonbury
Some buildings lend themselves to projections and other have been painted white to allow us to project onto them We projected onto the Turner Contemporary in Margate, back in 2012 for the Olympic Poetry projections with Lemn Sissay. The clean lines of this building made it great visual experience. Bycomparison, a small disused unit in London was painted white, along with all its fixtures and fittings, converting the space into a “Doodle Bar”, not only for the benefits of the projection mapping and interactive projections, but for the people attending the event to doodle on any surface they wanted.
Phil: One of the things you do is make ordinary spaces into magical ones through light, colour, illusion and sound. Is that the element of the work you enjoy?
Keith: Being able to create these magical spaces, allowing structure to breathe and move in ways people do not normally see, is massively rewarding. We are so lucky to work in many architecturally beautiful spaces, but many events are in marquees, function rooms and sports halls.Rugby Portobello Trust use a basketball court/sports hall, with our operating position being located in the gym adjacent to the room.
The transformed space at the Rugby Portobello Trust.
Park Village Studios is a photographic studio with a 3-sided curved white walls and we operate from a walkway overlooking the area. On one visit to this venue we turned this studio into a Cotton Club for a wedding.
Some of the projects I have most enjoyed, similar to the sound visualisation projects with you, is where I’ve been involved with the creative process from an early stage.The workshops we’ve done with Snape Maltings, Suffolk, have been massively rewarding, working with children and young adults with varying levels of ability, as well as with schools like The Charles Dickens School, based in Thanet, where all their work was finally presented to friends and relatives as projections.I’ve likewise helped with mapping projects for The Guildhall School students, including beneath Tower Bridgeand the beautiful Waddesden Manor
Right up to the lockdown, I’ve been working on a couple of live music projects that both use the visuals to compliment the music. With the Blues Chronicles, we are showing 20 short films introducing artists prior to the band performing them, and at the Jazz café I am responsible for the bespoke visuals behind Stompy’s Playground, who have assembled an outstanding 5 piece string ensemble to lovingly recreate the themes and compositions from classic Studio Ghibli films.
Phil: Talk us through the process: you turn up at a venue, you’ve got an empty stage, a massive screen, a couple of hours before rehearsal and cases of kit…
Keith: The process follows a similar pattern at each venue. After managing to get all the equipment onto site it is the connectivity of the system I initially focus on. All the power and signal cables are run between all the equipment, with the appropriate control cables. Once this has been completed, we can fire up the system and check each component is working and they are talking correctly to each other. However many times I do this, there is always a moment when you see all the equipment powered up and running correctly and you can relax, take a deep breath and get ready for the calibration.
With the work on your projects, we have been working mostly in theatres, who have been sympathetic to the projections. With the house lights turned down, the calibration of the control and projectors starts, usually with the projections, ensuring we’re hitting the correct surfaces with the correct projectors, then stitching them together to complete the final product. The control element is refined from this point onwards and put through its paces during rehearsals. Unfortunately, the nature of rehearsals means there is a lot of starts and stops, which is not always helpful for the visual element, but allows us to push the system to the limit. The doors then generally open, and the next time we see the visuals is when the orchestra start the piece.
Phil: How nerve-wracking was it, live-synching visuals to classical music in front of audiences of hundreds of people?
Keith:Sometimes the nervousness starts before we reach the venue! Once we have the final material, and it has been played successfully on our machines, then initial nerves subside. Usually I have been provided with the music prior to the event, so I can rehearse and familiarise myself with both the music and the visuals. That said, the sound of the different orchestras and venues, along with the different conducting styles, did create totally different landscapes to work within.
Phil: What does it feel like when the synch between the sound and image is perfect?
Keith: It’s like covering your body with honey, then allowing the bees to lick it off over the next few hours.*
*For the record, Keith is also a bee-keeper. If you were thinking this is just a rather colourful turn of phrase… it may not be.
Phil: What does it feel like when it doesn’t go to plan mid-performance, and how do you get it back on track?
Keith: At first I was afraid, I was petrified – kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong, and I grew strong and I learned how to get along…*
*For the record, Keith can also be very silly.
Phil: What were your favourite events you worked on as part of these European projects?
Keith: The first event is always exciting, as it usually when a lot of talk and convoluted explanations are realised by all those involved – the visual artists see their visual projected for the first time, the orchestra see the visuals for the first time. Working with you and your team, then Milhaud in 2013 has great memories, along with the bonus of Mr Brubeck’s performance alongside ours. It’s hard to choose a favourite event from the projects, each venue offered its own challenges to a greater or lesser extent, but at all these venues we were always made welcome and I think the orchestra staff and their crews really helped make these events very special. The most enjoyable element was being exposed to Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde and Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet – prior to these projects I was unfamiliar with them both.
Phil: For me, one of the great pleasures of working on these projects was sitting in during the rehearsals and getting to know the musicians and their music. How about you?
Keith: I totally agree. Although we became very familiar with the La Création du monde and Romeo and Juliet, so we get to hear these performed by the orchestras, but then we get the additional bonus of the pieces of music that are being performed alongside, such as Strauss’s Don Quixote, Verdi’s Requiem – and we mustn’t forget The Snowman in Zilina*
*We were out in Zilinia in December to screen La creation du monde. We were on a double-bill of live-synch performances that included the Christmas classic, The Snowman. There is so much more Keith could tell you about this trip, not least because we drove there from the UK, but what happens on tour, stays on tour, right?
Phil: In light of Covid 19, how do you see the future of your industry? Any big ideas?
Keith: I think in the near future interactive projections and immersive installations may be an area that could be worth investigating. With all the hardware safely away from the virus, it may make it a more practical solution for many users.
Phil: It’s high-time we had another adventure in light and sound! What are we going to do next?
Keith: I think we better get the egg and toffee hammer out!*
*I’m not going to explain this reference either, which has nothing to do with a) projection-mapping or b) bee-keeping, but in someway associates with the culminative effect of two people sitting in a car together for hours on end on their way to-and-from Slovakia.
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