Monday, 20 August 2012

It's Because I'm A Londoner: Olympic Projections on Parliament - 1908

When The Projection Studio asked me if I wanted to be involved with the Houses Of Parliament Olympic son et lumiere, I knew that I did. I have made sound pieces for many places but none for my home city before.

The piece itself has a first section in two parts. The first part is a creative visual & sound piece centred on the 1908 London Olympics.

Original audio material from 1908 is a rather limited resource. I had to rely on other types of research material to create a section which used soundscape techniques as the principle guide. 1908 then was to have great depth of layered sound, and no part of it was anything that wouldn't have been heard in 1908, from Edwardian trams to the Thames boat sirens through to music, instruments & early 20th century amplification technology!

To add human voice to the 1908 Olympics, I tracked down Patrick Stevenson, the great-grandson of the 1908 Olympics central Toastmaster, William Knightsmith. It is Knightsmith you see in probably one of the most iconic photographs of the London 1908 Olympics, with his enormous megaphone. Knightsmith is something of a toastmaster legend, adopting the red coat to wear when working to avoid being confused with waiters. A favourite of the Royal Family, he also was toastmaster for many occasions for them. With the Olympics taking place at Shepherd’s Bush and Knightsmith living nearby he was first and most obvious choice to keep the Royal Family informed as to the stadium activities.

Knightsmith’s presence highlights a critical fact – there were no public address systems as we understand them now. White City Stadium was still a full sized stadium though, so the presence of men with megaphones were essential to convey messages and crowd announcements.
The importance of this is highlighted in a section from Conan Doyle’s report from the Marathon, another text used in this section, where he describes the audience around him only being able to identify the winning swimmers by the hoisting of the relevant national flag!

Text announcements accompanying the photographs seen in the piece came from research I carried out from the official reports of the 1908 Olympics. Patrick Stevenson recorded the announcements, playing the role of his great-grandfather for the London 2012 Olympics. This had a certain ring of appropriateness around it for all involved and I was glad that I was able to find him and learn so much more from him, so my thanks go out to him.

This article shows Knightsmith and his megaphone with Patrick.

Onto megaphones.
This is the most unique aspect of the 1908 piece and is the biggest indicator of just how different a time it was. We are used to electrical technology of every kind. Acoustic amplification is surprisingly efficient but has a sound all of its own. The sound of a large aluminium megaphone was replicated by listening, in situ, to Patrick speaking through a real, 2ft long one he owned.
I analysed those recordings carefully and found that amplification took place so efficiently that he needed to be recorded a small distance away. From there I could hear how the metal affected his voice and found the best way to create that was after recording, where I could control any resonant frequencies of the metal cone to my advantage. It took a while to get that absolutely right. When heard on the embankment, it sounded precisely as if he was announcing to the crowd there.

I mentioned Conan Doyle earlier and indeed, he has a longer standing connection to British Athletics and the Olympics than many may realise, as Peter Lovesey has made clear in this article from the Journal Of Olympic History. For the 1908 Olympics, Conan Doyle wrote an enduring piece reporting the 1908 Marathon, the most iconic event of that Olympics. 
We approached Neil Oliver to ask if he would be willing to play the part of Conan Doyle and read out the key excerpts from this piece. Conan Doyle's report is a wonderful document which describes the feeling and atmosphere of what it felt like to be there, on that day, amongst that crowd and to watch Dorando Pietri stagger across the line only to subsequently be disqualified. The British love of the underdog was very much in evidence from Conan Doyle’s report as the British loved Dorando more for trying and then losing his medal than it ever thought again of the actual winner of that race!
Neil Oliver, as an historian, archaeologist and TV presenter was excellent to work with on this piece, which is both history and written artefact. We recorded Neil speaking Conan Doyle's words and he gave it a knowledgable sincerity that gave the soundscape even more weight.
In addition, the Conan Doyle report describes more than just the race, but also other events that day. This was one of most colourful texts to read through for the detail of his descriptions but also the feeling of being in the stadium, moment by moment.

Music choice was equally fascinating and included popular music of 1908 along with pieces played at the Olympics. Again, even in the absence of any 21st century amplification, the crowd still needed to be entertained. The Victorians and Edwardians were rather musically sophisticated and the brass and military band live music phenomenon of the 19th century was also present at the 1908 Olympics too. I found a program listing the music to be performed by a military band at the occasion of the gymnastics final. One of those pieces was chosen for inclusion along with the only original related recorded material I could find, a recording of "Take Me On The Flip-Flap" sung by the music hall star Ella Retford. 
The 1908 Olympics took place within the Franco-British Exhibition. The White City Stadium was built for that purpose. The main public interest initially was in the Exhibition, not the Olympics! The song commemorates the most popular part of the exhibition, the Flip Flap, a ride not dissimilar to the London Eye in principle. 
It makes verbal reference to the Olympic athletes too in one of the written verses as well as describing the multiple ways you could get to Shepherd's Bush by public transport.
The kind permission of Windyridge Records to allow us to include their transferred Retford recording was much appreciated and very generous indeed. The preservation of very early recordings is something I am enthusiastic about and it is companies such as Windyridge that help to keep such music alive and accessible to us.

That then was 1908. 
Other parts to follow!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Olympics Projection on the Houses Of Parliament, London

I am happy to announce that this project has been up and running throughout the Olympics and will still do so until its conclusion, every 15 minutes from 9.30pm on every night of the Olympics, finishing each evening as Big Ben rings in midnight.

Before I talk about the creation of it, I'll use this post to provide a brief overview for those who are interested. Fantastic photographs of the projected images of great athletes such as Usain Bolt, Jonathan Edwards and Cathy Freeman can be seen in various places on the internet right now but some people who haven't got down to the Thames Embankment yet to see it have been asking me what the bigger picture is about the show as a piece.

This projection show is actually 14 minutes long so there is a lot more to see down onsite!
To hear it you need to watch from the other side of the river, on the embankment next St Thomas' Hospital. There's not long left to see it so get there now!

The piece looks at London's history and connection with the Olympics during our previous hostings in 1908 and 1948. It moves onto some of the great Olympic moments and the athletes involved, names that are now part of Olympic history. Finally, the focus moves to Team GB, looking at and hearing some of our greatest British moments and again, so many athletes whom we have been proud of and moved to tears by.

This project is probably one of the most in depth research paths I have ever undertaken for any project. It has at its core a focus on motivation borne out of human endeavour and that is the point I wanted the sound to express, and each part expresses this in different ways.
I was brought onto the project by The Projection Studio, who were working on this through the Iconic Spectaculars program commissioned by the GLA and Mayor of London.

My next post will start to look at what is behind it all and why.