We were looking for the next project to spur on our development of this instrument following the original commission by the Southbank Centre and we had long admired Sonica from afar, so we jumped at the opportunity.
Until this point we had only been required to deliver two pipes and three notes; three very loud, low notes (F0, Bb0 and C1) but nothing beyond that to meet the requirements of the original commission. Naturally though, we had experimented throughout our early development of the instrument and this was a phase we re-entered with gusto following the go ahead from Cryptic. We borrowed a marquee from Sam’s local playing field association and away we went…
Four pipes, four spares
Eight pipes, no spares
Lowpass to chop off any unwanted squeals
Microphone mount to allow for microtonal pitch adjustment
Testing effects of orientation and proximity using the smallest pipe
Testing effects of orientation and proximity using a bigger pipe
During this development phase we moved from a four pipe system to eight pipes, with a set of secondary radiators duplicating the notes of their sister pipes. This added a certain weight to the sound. We also replaced our lowpass filters with something more flexible and expandable, added sprung microphone holders so those visiting the installation could alter the pitch of each pipe microtonally, and we tested the effects of moving the pipes relative to each other. All of this led to some very exciting results.
With everything tested and working, it was time to head to Sunny Glasgow.
Moving to eight pipes – four primary pipes and four secondary radiators – allowed us to fill the vast, cold, leaky warehouse space we were in with basssss. These pipes are big. The installation of them in the Tank Room of Glue Factory required us to heave!
Siliconing the speaker bungs in place
Cryptic crew, making things safe
Two pipes hung
The Glue Factory, filled with our tat…
Testing and tweaking
As ever when installing an instrument of this scale and register, it needs testing in the space itself. Within our test environment – the marquee in Sam’s garden – we were close to operating in a free field, so the exact effects of the space were not fully known. This is to be expected but is nonetheless daunting.
Fortunately, we have come up with a number of enhancements to our control system that allow for subtle tweaking and with some testing and measurement we were able to deliver a series of loud, low notes that interacted nicely in the space – sub one hertz beats and the like! The fact that we didn’t have to deliver any specific pitches provided extra freedom. Our remit in this case was to create an almighty racket in the space provided, which we duly did. It was time to let some people have a go. First up, ourselves and members of the Cryptic team…
Initial user testing
That went well but it was felt that the pitch adjustment might not be sufficiently obvious to some visitors, so some basic instructions were pasted onto the wall. The main issue we found was that with such low frequencies (and secondary radiators) it was sometimes hard to discern where the sound was coming from, and your affect on this. In fact each floor pad triggered the pipe directly above it, but even so this is an aspect we plan to enhance.
A few other challenges were to follow. RAIN! Water oozed through the walls of the building we were in, which was unhelpful. We also let party-goers loose on it one night, only for it to sustain significant damage, despite Sam’s best Shouty Voice. But overall, we are pleased to say it was as reliable as it had proved previously when installed at the Southbank Centre for six weeks.
The last use of the Giant Feedback Organ at Sonica fell to us, for the performance of our specially commissioned piece Octavism.
As Sonica artists-in-residence, we were commissioned to develop a new piece to be performed as part of the festival. This was our first time writing something we would perform using the Giant Feedback Organ; and it was to be accompanied by Sam on doom tuba!
We would go in each day before the installation opened to the public to structure and rehearse the piece. We found certain “sweet spots” in the interaction between the pipes and the tuba and then started to define the different sections of the piece. Beyond that, Octavism was improvised interplay between Sam on tuba and David on Giant Feedback Organ.
The piece lasted about 30 minutes. The performance was well attended and seemed well received. We took a lot from it and hope to build on it – details below.
Oh and we broke a Golden Rule by attempting to document our own performance. We think we just about got away with it.
David performing Octavism
Sam performing Octavism
Note: you will need to use good quality headphones or much larger than average computer speakers to hear the full spectrum of sound in this our first performance of Octavism.
What’s next for the Giant Feedback Organ?
Sonica was central in defining the future trajectory of our Giant Feedback Organ development. It was the first time we had performed with it ourselves …and it felt GOOD! Exploring the scope of the instrument – making it throb, scream and smoke – was a delight and Sam got rather jealous seeing David doing so.
The idea for GFO2.0 was born. Our focus is now on developing a two-player, eight-pipe version, where each player controls four pipes. This will enable us to respond to each other and a more expressive control system will allow us to thoroughly explore the scope of the instrument. We hope that this will ultimately lead to our instrument being played alongside others and to composers writing for it.
Oh, and lastly, we received one of the best reviews of our work to date for our time at Sonica. Michael Begg, writing in the Quietus, said of us:
“Refreshingly free of underpinning critical theory or concept”.