Not content to nab the starry likes of Juliette Binoche and Sufjan Stevens for his inaugural programme as EIF director, Fergus Linehan's set himself a big, unpredictable challenge for his first August in charge. As the Festival marks its new, earlier start date – bringing it in line with the Fringe – it opens this Friday with The Harmonium Project, a free outdoor visual spectacle at the Usher Hall.
'I often think that the Usher Hall is a building that architecturally should have a big square in front of it,' Fergus Linehan tells me, a week before his first EIF programme kicks off. 'It should be almost cathedral-like with a huge open public space. But it isn't, it’s got this incredibly narrow space in front of it and then a very busy road, so no one really looks at that building and it’s actually very beautiful. That space in front of the Usher Hall is probably the least touched by the festival of anywhere in Edinburgh. And I love that.'
It won't be that way on the first Friday of the Festival, when The Harmonium Project will transform the outside of the Usher Hall into a canvas of moving images celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Since its foundation in 1965, the chorus has featured some of Scotland's best amateur singers, performing alongside the world's most respected musicians (this year, they perform at the opening concert, alongside the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles).
The section of Lothian Road opposite the Hall will be closed to traffic, allowing spectators to occupy a makeshift version of the square that Linehan thinks the building so deserves. But what exactly will they see there? Essentially, The Harmonium Project is a complex musical science experiment, a collaboration between the International Festival and 59 Productions, working with the Centre for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh.
59 have just won a Tony Award for their video work on Broadway show An American in Paris, but the company – whose aim is to push the boundaries of technology within the arts – are no strangers to Edinburgh. In 2006, they designed the video set for the phenomenally successful Black Watch and since then have worked on War Horse, on the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and Lighting the Sails, an installation at the Sydney Opera House, which is where Linehan first worked alongside them.
Model set up of the project. Credit: 59 Productions 'This is kind of a unique project for us,' admits 59's Richard Slaney, who co-created The Harmonium Project with Linehan, 'and we do some really crazy projects. It happens once, and hopefully it will be fantastic and the audience will love it. We don’t get to revise it or change it, like a theatre show running for a few weeks. This is a one-time-only extravaganza.'
The animations projected on to the hall on Friday have been inspired by data captured through EEG scans of brain activity on willing volunteers from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. 'They were listening and they weren’t negative, but they were definitely cautious about it. They are still pretty cautious about it,' Linehan laughs.
Slaney explains further: 'We wanted to show off how amazing the music season within the festival is. Coming up with a way of showing what happens inside the hall was part of the brief, so we took that very literally, I guess. Fergus introduced us to the Informatics Department at the University of Edinburgh, who came up with loads of ideas, like "we could capture this particular bit of data about what their finger does, what their pulse does, what their brain does when they’re singing, what their eyes are doing, reading music", and those kinds of things. We could then take that as raw data and translate that into the visual material.'
The data capture process started in mid-April and 59 have been working on the visuals in their London studio, projecting the animation on to a miniature 3D-printed Usher Hall. The 35-minute show that they're creating will be set to Harmonium by contemporary American composer John Adams, and a recording of that choral work by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus will be played on the night. And whether it rains or not, The Harmonium Project looks set to be a show that the city won't forget in a hurry.
'The thing I love about 59 is they’re very rigorous but they’ve got a great kind of popular sensibility as well,' says Linehan. 'Because once you step outside onto the street, you know, the colours have to really pop and you really need to understand the dynamic of speaking to a big crowd. It’s a different type of vernacular and they just really get that. The process they have is very rigorous but the final results generally speak to everyone.'
'I can’t wait to see it on the hall,' adds Slaney, 'because, you know, when you’re working on a model half-a-metre wide you have to sort of stop and remember that this hall is huge! And it’s going to be really bright [and] be a big impact thing, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’m most excited for the chorus to see it. For better or worse, I think their feedback is going to mean an awful lot to us, to see if they think we’ve interpreted their performance in the right way. That’s the most intriguing thing for me, to know what they make of it. We’ll find out Friday night.'
The Harmonium Project is a free outdoor event marking the opening of the 2015 Festival and the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Created by 59 Productions, the event combines John Adams’s mesmerising choral work Harmonium with a series of spectacular animations, projected onto the outside of the Usher…