AN INNOVATIVE sound and light spectacular will mark the start of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival on Friday – and in a radical departure for the opening event, it is completely free of charge.

The Harmonium Project will not only cast a spotlight on the city’s Usher Hall but will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, a group of amateur singers from all walks of life.

Along with the Scottish National Orchestra they will perform the choral work Harmonium while the facade of the venue is transformed by a series of projected artworks which will provide a digital representation of the experience singing has on the human mind and body.

This spectacle has been created by 59 Productions, the multi-award winning artists behind the video design of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games as well as the record-breaking David Bowie Is exhibition and the recent Tony Award-winning theatre production An American in Paris.

The company has been working with Edinburgh University in order to use scientific data from the singers to create the projected artworks.

The aim is to combine technology and art to stunning effect in a celebration of the science of singing and a tribute to those, like the Chorus members, who take part in the arts.

The festival’s only constant performing element, the Chorus has given many outstanding concerts with conductors, orchestras and soloists from around the world.

Festival director Fergus Linehan said: “Participating in the arts is a huge area of national growth and enthusiasm. The Festival Chorus has been leading the way in showing how individuals who do it for the love of singing can be absolutely world class when they work together. I am incredibly proud of its contribution to the festival, and I look forward to kicking off the celebrations of its 50th anniversary in spectacular style and in a way in which everyone can share.”


THE Harmonium Project began when festival organisers asked 59 Productions to create a brand new artwork to open the 2015 Festival based on John Adams’ Harmonium. The piece is around 35 minutes long, and sets to music three poems (one by John Donne, two by Emily Dickinson) for large chorus and orchestra.

“We wanted to create something incredibly celebratory, which could really open up the Usher Hall, a venue where so many fantastic concerts take place during the Festival and throughout the year,” said 59 Productions creative director, Richard Slaney. “We realised that the building itself might sometimes go unnoticed as people pass by on Lothian Road. With these initial ideas our plans began to come together: to create a large-scale event, transforming Usher Hall through projections, and filling Festival Square with the sound of the orchestra and chorus.”

He added: “We quickly decided against anything too literal in our interpretation – it would have been easy to broadcast the performance onto the hall like a big TV-type outdoor event, but we felt that it would be more interesting to represent the chorus and performers in unexpected ways, whilst creating animations drawn from the repetitive, hypnotic nature of the music.

“At around the same time the possibility of a collaboration with Edinburgh University came about, and at an initial meeting we were quickly excited by the possibility of capturing different information about the singers in the chorus, finding out what happens when they perform and using visualisations of this data to accompany the music.”

The company began working with experts from the Centre for Design Informatics at the university to capture different data from members of the Chorus while they sang, such as heart rate, eye movement and brain activity.

“We wanted to look at what it means to be a singer in a chorus and what it physically means to sing in a group in this way. We also filmed the singers and occasionally during the piece faces will emerge from the building as a part of the projections.

“We filmed with infra-red cameras rather than with conventional cameras which meant that we could capture both the video of what we’re seeing as well as recording the depth information of the face of the person singing.”

For the past three months a team of animators from the company have been creating visuals that interpret this data, combine them with ideas taken from the poems and then are timed to follow the musical ideas in Adams’ score before being mapped on to the facade of the Usher Hall.

“It’s been some task, but we hope that the combination of scientific data, spectacular visuals, beautiful music and great performers creates something new,” said Stanley. “Ultimately we want to celebrate the festival and the city and hope that we can create a show that has the spirit of celebration and innovation that is the hallmark of so many of the works created for Edinburgh International Festival.”

Spanish soprano Maria Liendo Zaccara is one of those volunteers whose physiology is the basis for the artwork 59 Productions creates.

“I was aware that singing is hard work and exercise, but now I know that three hours of rehearsal burns up 255 calories – so that is a good excuse for the glass of wine afterwards,” she said.

It is hoped the project will lead to other collaborations.

“The University is committed to developing the creative and performing arts through digital means,” said Professor Dorothy Miell, vice-principal and head of Humanities and Social Science at the University. “Working with the Edinburgh International Festival allows us to share our expertise with wonderful artists and an audience equally interested in the new.

“Harmonium will showcase exciting aspects of our world class work in the digital arts to a broader audience, and pave the way for further research.”