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How the chaos of rain at WomAdelaide caused 'Chorus'

Photo: Roy Riley Inside Out festival Dorset 2016

Chorus has been set up in thirty-two different locations across three continents since it’s first scratch performance at Oxford Castle in November 2012. The Chorus composition has been replayed hundreds of times, so many I can’t actually count them, and it’s a piece I’m very proud of.

It’s genesis comes from my earlier work Siren which itself emerged out of an even earlier piece called The Theremin Lesson. The five tripods with rotating arms with loudspeakers at each end that I made for The Theremin Lesson as part of a series of sound machines for a disused textile mill became the sixteen, then twenty-nine tripods of Siren, first presented in the former US air force base at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. Siren was my first internationally successful work touring to twenty-eight countries and counting, winning awards along the way. One of these gigs was at WomAdelaide 2010 in Australia. This was planned as an outdoor setting within the amazing botanical gardens in Adelaide as part of the Womad festival there. However, Siren was, and still is of course, designed as an indoor work. When I visited the site the year before, my first question, being English, was:

‘What happens if it rains...?’

The answer was straightforward:

‘It never rains in Adelaide during Womad, Ray...’

Siren has bare, open circuit boards mounted on the top of metal arms powered by mains voltage controllers. Water is a bit of an issue. However, I’m loath to say no to a gig, especially one at my personal favourite festival, the amazing Womad. In the end it turned out that I couldn’t travel to the festival, so I sent my trusted team of Harry Dawes, Stavroula Kounadea, producer Simon Chatterton and, flown in from the states, Mike Rugnetta to set up and present the work. I have to confess I felt a slight sense of trepidation as I bade them farewell.

The reports I received were in the following order:

  1. It’s really hot. There are parrots. The botanical gardens are worried about us sticking metal in the ground (fair enough). Womad is amazing.

  2. Whitney Houston is staying in the same hotel as us!

  3. It’s going really well. All set up and ready to go.

  4. The sky has opened, and a tropical downpour of biblical proportions has hit the site.

  5. Everything is soaking. Chaos reigns. First performance cancelled.

  6. Circuit boards being dried using hairdryers. Plastic pots covering transformers.

  7. Up and running! Unfortunately our gig coincided with Ravi Shankar’s last ever performance...

Siren is an indoor performance. But what emerged from this ordeal by Adelaidean rain storm was that a version of Siren, built for the outdoors, could work in that context. Over the following two years I developed, working with designer/maker Charlie Camm of Scenetec, a single prototype outdoor tripod. Five meters tall, built of aluminium, battery powered with waterproof speakers and sound generators in waterproof containers. When the prototype arrived, I didn’t have a ladder tall enough to get to the top of it! I also needed at least three people to help erect the tripod in the first place. With scale comes a need for an increased resource.

After we’d witnessed the first one in action we (myself and Simon) decided that five tripods would give us a reasonable sense of the potential of the work, so Charlie made us five tripods and after experimenting with having the sound generator located on the top of the arm to avoid the need for slip rings I found a cheap source of slip rings from China so the sound could be transmitted across the moving axle with negligible deterioration.

The Arts Council of England funded the full version of fifteen tripods and we went into tripod production, with Charlie Camm making the structures and myself and a team from the Corn Exchange and 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Space in Newbury putting the whole thing together, making cable looms, building sound generators and fitting loudspeakers.

Over the years I have constantly tweaked the composition, changing elements and refining the structure. We have got very good at putting up and taking down the tripods including in some challenging circumstances like avoiding trams and tram wires in Marseilles. And over the years it has been in some incredible locations. As well as some spectacular city locations like Hong Kong and Seoul it has been on the top of the cliffs on Portland Bill with a full moon at night, and in the ruins of a Norman Castle on the top of Kendal hill. The responses I have received have also been extraordinary, though not always in a good way. One of the facets of working in the outdoors, in public space is that you are, to some extent, a visitor, a guest, maybe even an intruder into someone else’s space. People tell you, often in no uncertain terms, exactly what they think! For example, an Australian man came up to me in Hong Kong during a performance of Chorus and asked me if this is what they play to inmates in Guantanamo Bay....

I’ve also had many amazing responses, too many to recount, but one of the best bits of feedback I ever received came from a young man who was a group of people who had been drinking all day. We were setting up Chorus in a lively public square in Deptford, London. This group clearly ‘owned’ this space. Periodically fights would break out. I feared the worst. But when Chorus was performed, they calmed down. Sat and listened. At the end of the day the young man came up to me and said:

‘I get it now, it’s about a space for thinking, a space for imagination.’

I couldn’t have put it better myself.


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