EIF Opening Event: Five Telegrams, Festival Square, Review

Submitted by edg on Mon, 6 Aug '18 2.40am
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Anna Meredith (Composer), 59 Productions (Producers)
Running time

The long wait on our feet was worth it. After the Tattoo fireworks had petered out, the lights slithering over the contours of the Usher Hall slipped away, a roar of relief went up from the quietly patient crowd standing in the breezy Edinburgh night and the Usher Hall seem to melt away before our eyes. Where bricks and mortar stood, rained a dazzling mirage of images.

This was the 4th such piece that 59 Productions have produced to open the Edinburgh International Festival. Similar to previous years, this free event saw a barrage of images projected onto the Usher Hall to a recorded soundtrack written by contemporary composer Anna Meredith and played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

For the first time, the piece was co-commissioned by BBC Proms, 14-18 NOW and Edinburgh International Festival to mark the centenary anniversary of the Armistice. The co-commission also marks Scotland’s Year of Young People, though it’s not obvious how this is reflected in the piece artistically.

The title Five Telegrams is inspired by the communications that were sent home by soldiers at the Front during the First World War and in five movements reflects themes of the war experience that still resonate today.

Anna Meredith’s soundtrack moves from cacophonous pounding drums and overbearing brass of the opening movement “Spin” that you could feel burst through your body, to the softer choral number of the second movement “Field Postcard”.

In a nice touch, members of the Edinburgh Festival chorus, dotted around the crowd, surfaced above the amorphous throng. If you scanned your sniper's eye above the shadowy crowd, you could see individual singers on crates lit up by tiny LED lights cupped in their palms.

"I am... I am..." they repeated in haunting tones, which in the elliptical lines of a multiple choice Field Postcard would suggest "I am alive" as opposed to the terrible words that were later writ large on the Usher Hall "We regret...".

Generally, the visuals and the soundtrack seemed more rudimentary and more abstract than in previous years. Perhaps not surprising given the horror of the “War to End All Wars” there was less of a celebratory tone, more to lament and ruminate on.

Meredith’s percussive orchestration lends itself well to this kind of project. It is more thrashy than Philip Glass, but reminiscent of his style in the way it layers repetitive loops and rhythms.

In spite of the gravitas of the subject, the visuals used at times dazzlingly livid colours. Ideas were formed in shapes - blocks, circles, spirals, squiggles, and stars - with words and objects integrated into the moving collage. In the third movement Redaction, colourful brickwork falls away from the facade, like strips of paper torn off a book, elsewhere you could make out the contours of a map.

I was reminded that this was the era where avant-garde artists responded to the rise of the machine age with hard, angular geometry in their work.

As we moved into Code, Meredith’s cyclical rhythms pounded harder and the brass grew ever more imposing as individual shapes joined together to become ordered columns, marching faster like space invaders, and then spinning furiously and saucer-like.

Towards the end of the last movement, “Armistice”, Meredith’s music built to a point that was so overbearing and the sound system where we were standing grew so loud that members of the audience - self included - had to shield our ears with our hands.

Inevitably comparisons will be made with very different compositions from previous EIF openers. In terms of composition this was more abstract than the tremendous Deep Time projected on the castle a few years ago. The visuals were stunning in their movement and colour, even if at times the meanings were not always immediately apparent.

Perhaps it was the late time (10.30-10.55pm), but the free tickets were easy to come by and nobody wanted to check our tickets at the entrance point. We had a long wait of almost an hour standing for the start of the show. But at least it didn’t rain.

It was good to see that the EIF has managed to co-ordinate its opening event with the opening of the Edinburgh Fringe to create more of a splash for the festival at large. As always this was a memorable event to kick off August festivities.