Interview: Harmonium Project


A brand spanking new, one-off live event, to celebrate 50 years of the EIF and the Festival Chorus – producer Jo Walsh talks us through what was involved.

Image of Interview: Harmonium Project

In celebration of both the opening of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus turning 50 this year, the organisers have teamed up with 59 Productions and the Centre for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh in order to bring off something really special – a collaborative performance of music, art, animation and huge amounts of biological data. It’s called the Harmonium Project and it’s due to open not only the EIF but the Fringe as well (rarely do their start dates align.) We caught up with producer Jo Walsh to find out just how much work it’s taken…

The set-up behind the Harmonium Project is intriguing – can you explain how the initial idea to do something like this came about?

It was devised by Fergus Linehan [the recently arrived EIF artistic director]. He’s very keen on cross-discipline projects, and he wanted to create a free event that was all-inclusive, and that could celebrate the opening of the [Edinburgh International] Festival, as well as the 50th anniversary of the EIF Chorus. And because our dates are aligned with the Fringe this year, it’s also to mark the start of the festival season in Edinburgh as a whole! The city can get overwhelmed with everything that goes on in August, so it’ll be really nice to have a big, outdoor, very visual event to kick it all off.

Can you tell me about how the School of Informatics have been involved? What kind of things have they been creating?

The Centre for Design [and] Informatics at the University of Edinburgh have been facilitating the collection of data for us. So we’ve been working with Chorus members and collecting biometric data while they’ve been practising. We’ve been doing lots of different tests with them; recording their heartbeats as they sing, doing an ultrasound on one of the singer’s throats – we’ve even had a couple of them do brain-wave scans and EEG’s when they were listening to the piece – so you can see how their brains react when they’re listening to the music. And there was a bit where we actually tracked a few of them for a couple of weeks! So we’ve GPS data of them moving around Edinburgh, and then seeing them all come together for a performance with the Chorus… so there are lots of different layers to the data we’ve collected.

So the Project is exploring the physicality of singing?

Yeah, because there’s that phenomenon – when people sing together, their heart beats sync – so we are looking at the physicality of it, the coming together and the community of singing, and that’s a really nice way to honour the EIF Chorus as well. It’s a voluntary thing [chorus membership], so the idea of all these individuals coming together, [that] was an important thing to celebrate.

What’s been your role in bringing the performance together?

I’ve been brought in by the EIF to produce Harmonium; to facilitate the various data tests, give an overview of proceedings to the EIF, report back to Fergus, and make sure we’ve addressed any concerns or problems that have arisen. We’ve got an amazing technical team here too, who have been putting in licences and looking at all the practicalities of bringing something like this to the public. And we’ve also been working very closely with the Sheraton, as there are two rooms in [the hotel] that we’re going to stuff with projectors!

So it’s been quite a collaborative effort all round?

Absolutely. I think, without the participation of all of our partners and the support of Edinburgh Council… It’s an incredibly ambitious project and without the support of everyone, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Who was it who chose the music?

Fergus. He’s worked with 59 Productions and then, in discussions with them, they came up with Harmonium, by John Adams.

I must admit, I don’t know the piece at all – how would you describe it?

It’s quite… what’s the best way to describe it? I think it’s incredibly beautiful. I wouldn’t say it was a traditional piece of choral music – if someone was to say to me “it’s a choral piece”, I would worry it would be a little dull, or boring, or would feel “dusty”, if you know what I mean. But it’s quite a modern piece – the harmonies of the chorus are extremely powerful. At some parts it gets really loud, and it’s quite overwhelming. I’ve only ever heard it in rehearsal, so hearing it with the orchestra [the Royal Scottish National Orchestra] will be really impressive.

Have you worked on anything this large-scale before in your career?

I’ve worked on a variety of cross-discipline art forms, so that’s what interested me with Harmonium. I’ve worked at Manchester International Festival before, I’ve worked at National Theatre of Scotland, but this is the largest outdoor project that I’ve personally worked on! Digital art is definitely the up-and-coming form that everyone’s trying to discover and explore. We had a small presentation to all of our collaborators the other day, with small sections of the animation, and at the end, everyone was just thrilled. Because I think, this is really ambitious, but in the end, I think it’s going to hit those ambitions – a really beautiful, very well thought-through piece of work.

How is the animation looking?

It’s really beautiful, though we’ve only seen a few snippets of it. They’ve been careful not to make it too literal – when they’ve done, for example, 3D body filming, where you can see the movement of the body as someone sings – we’ve got a few images of heads, but they aren’t actually photos of the Chorus members. They’ve taken different elements of – sometimes quite literal movements, to brainwaves, to heartbeats of different chorus members – and stitched them all together into something that’s very conceptual. It’s not a static thing, it’s very fluid – different images morph into one another. I think it’s going to be quite magical.

Was it important for the EIF to make sure Harmonium was free?

Absolutely. It’s a really important opportunity to gather the public, visitors and people from Edinburgh, to have a moment and to celebrate the Festival and the Chorus.

And of course it’s taking place on one of Edinburgh’s most impressive buildings, the Usher Hall?

Exactly – and really celebrating that building too, because it’s such an important part of the city. So the idea of a free spectacle was really important. It’s always felt to me, working on it from the very beginning and even hearing the idea… the concept of it has been so spot-on and ambitious, and often you don’t get that.

Ambitious and intimate, with all the data that’s been used.

Absolutely, and a one-off as well. A large body of people on one space, looking at one building, all at the same time, surrounded by this beautiful music. Hopefully, it’ll be quite spectacular.

The Harmonium Project is @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Fri 7 Aug 2015 @ 22:30