The Bristol Proms is (or maybe are?) a relatively new thing. Thanks to this new thing, on 29 July at Bristol Old Vic I heard some wonderful choral harmony from the Erebus Ensemble.

Best of all, while there I heard about another event two days later, also featuring the name Erebus. So I was sold on that idea.

Under the general theme of “Pure Music, Pure Technology”, Watershed was to host an event called ‘Hack the Choir’. I’ll quote the flyers and website:

Hack the Choir micro residency

What happens to a performer’s heart rate when they sing?

How does a conductor communicate during a piece?

This two-day micro-residency will bring together Bristol Proms Artists in Residence The Erebus Ensemble with technologists David Haylock and Stefan Goodchild, for a series of open experiments in this space.

Drop in to Watershed bar during the two days to watch the adventure unfold, or join us at the public sharing, where you will hear about the process and experience early-stage experiments around how new technologies might augment the performance of sacred choral music.

I was anyway planning to do some writing in Watershed’s café that day, so I heard the choir rehearsing. The sounds floated through the cafe, inspiring but never encroaching; a perfect soundtrack.

One small detail on the website was incorrect but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment. This choir, of teenagers, was actually the Erebus Youth Ensemble. The funding for the project came through late, so they had been recruited and rehearsed in a very short time; two or three weeks, I believe. But my goodness, they were good, despite the limited rehearsal time.

So there was no way I’d have missed the “public sharing” at 5:00. It was billed as “not a performance but a progress report on the project.”

A technical team combining Watershed’s Pervasive Music Studio, the Old Vic, and I think from HP too, all under the Bristol Proms umbrella, had wired up the singers. As far as I recall they were monitoring heart rate and vocal pitch; also the conductor’s hand and eye movements. Some other stuff too, I believe, but my note-taking ability was clearly not up to the task.

I don’t think they told us what had happened to pulse rates. That interests me particularly, because studies have shown that the heart-rates of professional actors, when delivering a monologue, can get so high they are matched only by test pilots.

The team said there’s evidence of growing synchronization between the pulses of singers, as each piece progresses, to within a few milliseconds. As for the communication aspect, they got the conductor to wear a ‘Google Glass’ and we could see on a screen where she was looking at any one time. Spooky! That gave us half of the eye-contact that’s doubtless part of a conductor’s bag of tricks.

The singing would have sent me away happy on its own. But the presentations by the technical team were tied together neatly by Clare Reddington, Director of Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio. As she promised, short clips of what we saw can be found on Clare’s YouTube channel:  https://www.youtube.com/user/clarered.

All in all, a fascinating and memorable hour; I shall be following up for more info, which Clare Reddington has promised me will be available soon.

In summary:

Innovative and intriguing; very Watershed


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