Anna Meredith on Five Telegrams: 'It's not just a piece that looks backwards, it definitely still feels current to where we are at now'

This article is from 2018

Anna Meredith on Five Telegrams: 'It's not just a piece that looks backwards, it definitely still feels current to where we are at now'

credit: 59 Productions

After the success of last year's opening event, the Edinburgh International Festival once again kicks things off with an epic large-scale spectacle

In the year that we mark the centenary of the First World War, communities around the UK and beyond have been actively contemplating the impact and significance of the Great War, engaging with various cultural events and activities to look back at the stories and lives of those affected. With the centenary firmly in mind, this year's Edinburgh International Festival aims to connect future generations with the past, opening with an epic outdoor performance created by composer Anna Meredith and 59 Productions, in a co-commission between the Festival, 14-18 NOW (the UK's arts programme for the First World War centenary), and BBC Proms.

Featuring large-scale illuminations and projections on the Usher Hall and a new work for orchestra and chorus, Five Telegrams will kick off the city's world-renowned festival season, while offering residents and visitors the chance to reflect on the thousands of young lives lost in the First World War.

'This year's opening event has in some ways taken a different form to previous years because of the nature of the co-commission, and the subject matter we chose to explore.' Richard Slaney, Managing Director of 59 Productions, explains. 'We were also conscious of re-visiting the Usher Hall having worked there on Harmonium in 2015 and wanted to make sure that we had really clear ideas at the heart of the work, even if the themes are heavily abstracted both visually and musically.'

Anna Meredith on Five Telegrams: 'It's not just a piece that looks backwards, it definitely still feels current to where we are at now'

Richard Slaney

The success of the International Festival's Harmonium Project in 2015 and Deep Time in 2016, alongside last year's 70th anniversary digital commission Bloom, has resulted in the opening event becoming a staple in the city's annual festival celebrations. But as Slaney notes, Five Telegrams takes a distinct approach.

'Working directly with Anna has been a really fun way to collaborate, as previously we've either responded to a musical work (e.g. Harmonium) or made a soundtrack to our imagery (as in Deep Time). This year we've been working closely from the start of the process, and Anna has been gracious enough to take our ideas and requests into her composition. We've also extended our partnerships for this project – working with young designers from Edinburgh College of Art on costumes for the performance, as well as working with our commissioners at 14-18 NOW to research the First World War thematic ideas.'

In an addition to the designers taking part in the event, Five Telegrams has been co-designed by young people in celebration of Scotland's Year of Young People.

'There are a lot of young performers who are adding the live element to the event.' Anna Meredith notes. 'I don't want to say too much about it because I think it will be a nice moment in the piece but I do think it's important because many are the same age as the soldiers would have been at the time. On a practical level, to have something that's live is really good – it's not just a recording, its living.'

The five movements of the performance are inspired by ideas of communication, exploring pertinent themes that draw parallels with contemporary culture including censorship, propaganda and reconciliation.

'We were trying to find a way into this huge, very delicate and complex subject to try and reflect the centenary in a way that felt current and relevant to us both.' Meredith explains when asked about her interaction with the five central movements. 'We had these five themes of 'spin' – the idea of news, hype and exaggeration; field postcards – little postcards that soldiers sent back from the front that were very controlled; redaction – where things were stripped back and removed, literally cut out or changed; codes – the idea of multiple overlapping number systems to try and make sense of numerical systems; and armistice – this idea of how the end of the war was communicated and the heavy, weary feeling of the end of the war as opposed to flag-waving celebration.'

Anna Meredith on Five Telegrams: 'It's not just a piece that looks backwards, it definitely still feels current to where we are at now'

Anna Meredith / credit: Kate Bones

'We didn't want to get too tied into the idea of commemoration or memorial around the centenary, and we also wanted to make a piece that felt contemporary.' Slaney continues. 'Anna's music doesn't sound like Vaughan Williams, or Holst, and neither should our imagery be sepia-toned, or built around poppies or other war motifs. A focus on communication came early on in the project, as we found out more about the different types of technologies and methodologies that were being invented and used at that time. We also felt that by focusing on the mechanism, not so much the message, we could make a piece that wasn't overly sentimental – which is not to say that it's not emotional – it really is!'

Five Telegrams will close Lothian Road on Fri 3 Aug, with audiences able to catch the show from a dedicated arena in Festival Square. Both Slaney and Meredith are hopeful that this year's opening event, with its live performance element and inclusion of hundreds of local young people, will give spectators a moment to pause and think about how events of the past connect to our present.

'I think some of it is quite bold musically and visually,' Meredith says, 'and I hope that people will enjoy it but there is definitely space in the piece for things to think about, that are provocative, and that still raise questions about our society today. It's not just a piece that looks backwards, it definitely still feels current to where we are at now.'

'I hope that audiences will have a great experience first and foremost!' Slaney adds. 'It's an opening night, and we want to create something spectacular. But the themes underlying it are poignant and tragic even one hundred years on, and I hope that people take that away.'

The Standard Life Aberdeen Opening Event: Five Telegrams, Fri 3 Aug, 10.30pm. Tickets available Mon 2 Jul at

Standard Life Aberdeen Opening Event: Five Telegrams

This free outdoor digital performance marks the opening of the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival and is in celebration of Scotland's Year of Young People and the centenary of the end of the Great War. An orchestral score by Scottish composer, producer and performer Anna Meredith will accompany the piece, which is…