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Chorus: 9 years in and still going strong

Chorus. Photo Roy Riley

Chorus has been touring for nearly nine years and may well reach its decade next year. In that time it’s been presented at upwards of 43 different venues and festivals across three continents. And it’s still going strong. Richard Williams, who writes for the Guardian newspaper, came across Chorus in London a few years ago and as he describes:

‘I heard a strange sound and walked towards it. It was coming from half a dozen identical large tubular silver metal structures erected in Giffin Square, each of them a tripod about 15ft tall, all topped with horizontal arms that ended in a speaker horn at both ends. The arms rotated gently, like the horns in a Hammond B3’s Leslie speaker cabinet, while emitting soft sustained sounds that, in combination, made me think of Terry Riley’s all-night organ concerts of the 1970s and of Brian Eno’s Bloom. [...] You could wander between the metal structures, and many people did. As the last of the daylight faded, the little red lights on each horn glowed more distinctly, and the sound took on a magical quality.’

In an Arts Desk review, Thomas H. Green talks about Chorus as a series of:

‘… tripods, each two humans high, with a spinning helicopter head, double-ended by conical horns that emanate a gentle angelic howling or lower end drone-hums. Eyes closed – and being music-geeky about it – this carefully calibrated tonal concerto assails the ears somewhere between US mystic Laraaji’s processed gong experiments and the final ethereal works of Spacemen 3. But this is about the experience. Artist Ray Lee specialises in large-scale outdoor work that bridges installation art and bizarre musical gathering.’

Over the years there have been some memorable occasions from operating it for 12 hours continuously over night at White Night, Melbourne Australia, to finding ourselves in the courtyard of the royal castle in Warsaw where the Chorus tripods had an overnight armed guard. (I’m just guessing, but I imagine that the armed guard wasn’t there for Chorus, but I did feel like the tripods were pretty safe that night….).

One of the most stunning locations involved siting it in the ruined Norman castle high up on the hill at Kendal, with amazing views out towards the Lake district. The iconic long exposure photo of Chorus by Roy Riley (above) was taken on a moonlit night on the top of Portland Bill. It was worth it just to get the photo, but the wind nearly did for the motors with the wiring getting hot and beginning to burn out….

Over the years of touring, I’ve gone from the original set of 14 tripods manufactured by Charlie Camm of Scenetec to having an extra seven tripods made so we could present it in South Korea and the UK simultaneously. I upgraded the speaker construction, getting Didcot Welders to make new aluminium cones for me, in the process improving the sound quality. I’ve constantly tweaked and worked on the composition, making versions for different contexts and experimenting with different sound material. Yet I have consistently returned to the original concept for the composition: pure musical tones; precisely pitched and creating consonant harmonies.

Some of my new additions and upgrades haven’t worked as well as I might have hoped. I recently tried replacing all the sound players in the tripods (top secret, don’t tell anyone, but I use old iPods….) with auto playing WAV sound cards. They were much easier to operate. My team were delighted. No fiddling with recalcitrant iPods, just a flick of a switch and the players started every time. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realise and certainly didn’t expect is that these digital players don’t all play perfectly in tune! So a piece like Chorus which relies on perfect close harmony started to sound a bit out of tune! We tried this for one gig before realising that we had to go back to using multiple iPods. However, I gain some small measure of satisfaction in reusing a technology that is fast becoming redundant for general use.


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