Will Wotan watch in wonder?
Comparing London's Tate Modern or New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to the Sydney Opera House is the acoustic equivalent of Russell Crowe singing in the bathroom, Australia might more easily invade Europe. Yet this is exactly the vaulting ambition of Vivid LIVE. In name a festival of light, music and ideas, Vivid LIVE now in its fifth year at Sydney Opera House, invited German legends Kraftwerk to play eight concerts over four nights in the Joan Sutherland Theatre (JST).
"What Kraftwerk presented combined the profound elements of three dimensional sound and vision, with the ground breaking musical invention of their first eight studio albums," said Jeremy Christian, Acting Technical Manager for the Opera House. "In that sense they fulfilled every obligation of the Vivid remit. While the 3D visual element was a relatively straight forward matter of positioning the necessary projectors and issuing the audience with 3D specs, distilling the essence of their living dynamic three dimensional sound panoramas into our opera hall was an altogether more contentious proposition."
"The great thing was the amount of pre-production devoted to achieving as potent a rendition of the desired 3D environment as possible," explained Steve McMillan, Head of Sound. "We had people in the roof for several weeks laying in cable in preparation. Although it only took two days to bump in all the loudspeakers it was six weeks in pre-production."
The system deployed was similar to that Kraftwerk had used before, but this was not the vast echoing chasms of Tate Modern "At the stage we positioned a left/right system of d&b audiotechnik V-Series: three V12 and five V8 per side with four arrays of six T10 above the proscenium," explained McMillan's systems supervisor Richard Fenton. "We worked out our solution from the first set of ArrayCalc files Ralf Zuleeg sent from d&b Application Support in Germany; this defined the number of loudspeakers and the desired positions. Fortunately for us, Ralf has almost become part of the furniture at the JST; it was Ralf who helped us implement the 3D sound environment that made our presentation of Die Tote Stadt such a success last year; but while Tote was concerned with evoking a true sound image of an orchestra not physically present in the concert hall, the Kraftwerk presentation would exploit the concept of 3D sound in a more playful fashion."
"For the auditorium we placed twenty four T10 loudspeakers in point source mode in two rings, one below and one above the balcony. The lower ring covering the stalls was relatively easy; we already have pole mounts that sling over the lip of the loges down each side of the room. Normally used for lighting, we just added standard d&b pole clamps, job done, though cable routing required time and patience. Upstairs was much harder, what the physical design called for was the T10 boxes to be equally spaced every three metres, we used the ceiling house lighting positions, removing the lamp assembly and lowering a pole through. Sounds easy and at least the light positions do fall every metre so we were able to get the desired three metre spacing, but the T10 had to be mounted to the pole then heaved up and secured (11kgs plus pole) and running the cables to the loudspeakers was another matter." Steve McMillan ran many of them, Fenton being the size of a Wallabies second row forward. "Some places it was barely crawl space between the inner wooden architecture of the room and the concrete shell above," he said. What he didn't mention is the accumulated dust on the top surface of the wooden acoustic shell, the precipitous drops as inner shell mimics the iconic 'sail' design of the concrete outer, and the intense heat radiated by that massive concrete structure, "Yes I did lose a few pounds." He confirmed.
And did all that sweat and dust achieved the desired results? "Most people in the audience got the surround field," said McMillan, "Kraftwerk's sound engineer Serge Graefe and his 3D software assistant Felix Einsiedel achieved great things in terms of fidelity and spatial dynamics, though the audience might not have always recognised it. But the motion inherent in something like Trans Europe Express was pretty unavoidable. The critical music press here loved it, The Guardian from the UK even sent someone here and they said something like 'crystal clear perfect audio,'" (The Guardian sent Brian Richie; what he said was 'The music is crystal clear as it bounces around through multi-diffused speakers' he also said, 'we are subjected to an immersive onslaught of light and sound that comes as close to synaesthesia as legally possible.')
"The producers here also loved it," added Christian. "There are about twenty seats behind the mix position we can't sell because of public access rules and they were pretty much full each night with sound departments from other parts of the building. The Vivid festival organiser Ferguson Lenehan, who goes from here onto the Edinburgh Festival, had nothing but praise. He told me he knew he enjoyed it, but not being a sound geek, 'I didn't know quite why it was so enjoyable'. That's exactly the result we want, for the sound to be unsuspected."
Photographs courtesy of Richard Fenton, Jan Rosenthal, Prudence Upton (in alphabetical order)