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Proms 2019

The Royal Albert Hall has become the visual and sonic backdrop for a First Night of the Proms commission featuring spectacular music and visuals that dance across the building, inside and out.

Five Telegrams is the result of a collaboration between composer Anna Meredith and the design company 59 Productions. Together, they've developed a unprecedented, large-scale work that commemorates the end of the Great War 100 years ago.

A free BBC Proms curtain-raiser event on Thursday 12 July saw the Royal Albert Hall transformed by lights, which the broadcast premiere of Five Telegrams takes place during the First Night of the Proms on Friday 13th. We caught up with Anna and Richard Slaney of 59 Productions to get the inside story on this exciting project.

Richard Slaney, managing director of 59 Productions

Isn't what you're doing here a bit… bonkers?

Probably, yes. But the Royal Albert Hall is an iconic building and a great canvas to work with, though it has its challenges. We're projecting lights onto 180 degrees of the Hall; basically everything you can see from the Hyde Park side.

How do you prepare for something like this – have you been stealing into the grounds at dead of night?

We've been working with a miniature, 3D-printed version of the Albert Hall. It's about 80cm wide and therefore slightly more convenient than the real thing. It means we've been able to test everything using two very small projectors, as opposed to the kit we have for the real deal.

People will be met with a barrage of information, colour and music, even in the calmer moments

What kind of kit are we talking here?

There are about 25 projectors on the outside of the Hall and 18 inside. Each one projects 30,000 lumens – that's bright – and there's an additional 30 moving headlights. It's a lot of kit, and a lot of people; every 20 minute slot between 6am Monday and showtime is accounted for.

What will the audience see?

You'll see a series of abstract animations that follow the music. The images aren't literal; you won't see actual war documents, but you'll get a sense of what the themes are. It's likely to feel quite overwhelming, honestly, but that's part of the aim. Some of the piece's themes are quite hard, emotionally speaking. People will be met with a barrage of information, colour and music, even in the calmer moments.

People will be met with a barrage of information, colour and music, even in the calmer moments

What was it like working with Anna on this piece?

It has been a very collaborative process! In the past we've either designed projections for an existing piece of music, or composers have written music for our pictures. But no-one was 'first' here: we didn't write visuals to Anna's music, and she didn't write music to our visuals. It's somewhere in between.

Anna Meredith, composer

Have you done anything like this before?

I've written pieces for ensembles and electronics with visuals before, so it wasn't a totally new experience. But in this case I worked hard with 59 Productions to make sure the music and visuals would be very synced up. We spent a lot of time planning: it definitely wasn't a case of writing music to visuals, or visuals to music.

Why the name – Five Telegrams?

It started when we were looking at the multiple-choice field postcards that soldiers sent home from the war. The rule was that you could only choose or cross-out certain lines. If you wrote anything else, the postcard would be destroyed. It was so sad, so surreal and strange, this way of checking in with people back home to let them know you were still alive. It got me thinking about the other kinds of structures behind wartime communication, and why they were there. Each movement of the piece looks at a different form of communication – from censorship to code.

Has this been a moving experience?

It has been pretty humbling. I feel ashamed of how little I knew about the First World War, and of some of the assumptions I had. Initially, I thought I might be able to find something positive. But actually, it was exhausting, confusing and miscommunicated, with lots of crossed wires and misunderstandings. I tried to be as true to that as I could be.

What does it sound like?

This is the biggest orchestral piece I've ever done. But I try not to think too much about 'genre'; I just try to find the right function of music for what needs to happen. So all five movements are very different: there's no one word to describe the sound or mood of the whole piece.

Five Telegrams by Anna Meredith and 59 Productions is commissioned by BBC Proms, Edinburgh International Festival and 14-18 NOW, in collaboration with the Royal Albert Hall.

An audience of thousands witnessed Five Telegram's music and exterior projections at a live event on 12 July. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, National Youth Choir of Great Britain and conductor Sakari Oramo will perform the live premiere at the First Night of the Proms on Friday 13 July 2018. Listen on BBC Radio 3 from 8pm and watch from 8.30pm on BBC Two.

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