AUSTRALIA: The premier of new multi-media work en massesaw image, recorded music and live performance come together through an ingenious application of production technology.
Described as part concert, part film and part installation, the mixed media experience en masse took top billing at the recent Adelaide Festival 2010. Inviting references to the installation work of Brian Eno and the films made to accompany Phillip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi trilogy, en masse uses 12 screens and a sound system that surrounds a small audience seated on cushions inside a spherical space to build its enveloping audio-visual ambience.
Set up in Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre, the production is the work of British experimental filmmaker Marc Silver and Australian recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey. A pioneer film director, he reckons to use digital video ‘as a means of telling stories that otherwise would not be heard’. In 1999, he made a film on the anti-globalisation movement for the BBC called Global Protest, going on to direct films for other broadcasters including one on the Burning Man festival’s philosophical roots and an experimental documentary about indigenous people’s views on colonialism screened on Maori TV.
Co-founding a small creative agency called yeastCulture, he has collaborated with music artists as diverse as Faithless, Nitin Sawhney, The Beastie Boys and Michael Nyman, as well as working with the Cirque du Soleil on projects involving directing music videos, visual albums, animation and VJing. Extending his work to exploit emergent media, he is now creatively directing projects that use iPhone apps and websites, alongside video installations, album covers and live concerts.’
For en masse, he says he wanted to create ‘something that alludes to the themes of my past work – the impact of globalisation, individualism, consumerism – without overtly dealing with them. I was also considering how people find peace in a world of apparent chaos. Without answering this specifically, the behaviour of the birds hints at solutions.’
He describes the visual approach of the production to be the antithesis of editing for TV and film, where ‘the cuts tell the story’. ‘The shots have been held for a long time to allow you to lose yourself in the image,’ he says. ‘The lack of cuts in this piece redefines the relationship between the viewer and the image allowing, I think, for much more reflection. The images were shot over a period of two weeks, at sunrise and sunset, in two different locations. A lot of time has gone into grading the footage so it looks and feels as one, so that it flows.’
The result is an immersive experience for the audience, which is surrounded by ‘dream-like’ images projected onto the screens encircling while Genevieve Lacey’s solo recorder performance plays around them against a pre-recorded electroacoustic soundscape. ‘The space itself is as important as the sound and image,’ says Ms Lacey. ‘We wanted it to be comfortable rather than rigid, we wanted it to be at odds with the world outside. The piece is the space, the sound, the image, all the collaborators and you, working en masse.’
The show can be run in two versions – live, where she performs alongside the backdrop, or a fully-automated ‘install’ version, where the audiovisual content is played back unattended.
‘We wanted to make a world that would hold you, yet one that also gives you space,’ explains Ms Lacey of the viewing-listening experience. ‘The music was born of a series of improvisations, caught one day in a studio. Six sound artists responded to these sounds, creating enough material for a lifetime’s worth of pieces. Lawrence [English, a media artist, composer and curator based in Australia] and I remixed a work from this vast catalogue – the electroacoustic track that plays in duo with the footage. The sounds that you hear are new. They come originally from simple wooden pipes. When I play live with these computer-altered sounds, you hear both the transformation and the source. My voice is a way of making the electroacoustic world human again.’
In order to meet the production’s audio requirements, Melbourne-based specialist production company Trafficlight devised an 8.2-channel surround-sound system based around a Yamaha DM1000VCM digital mixing console, Audinate’s Dante protocol and Steinberg’s Nuendo 4 software for live mixing and multitrack editing/playback. The soundscape is played out over a system of Nexo PS Series loudspeakers and Nexo NXamp amplifiers.
Jim Atkins, audio designer and operator for the show, has a working relationship with Lacey that spans 10 years, and has included both live and studio-based projects. For this event, he worked with Trafficlight managing director, Michael Jankie.
Playback of the pre-recorded audio used a Carillon Core PC running Nuendo 4 software and Dante Virtual Soundcard in the rehearsal phase. Once complete, show-ready WAV files were transferred to a single Mac Mini running Dante Virtual Soundcard for live playback. The Mac Mini also cues the show’s 12 video sends, processed via three Mac Pro machines – four outputs per machine.
Using Audinate’s Dante Virtual Soundcard software (an ASIO driver which turns any PC or Mac into a Dante-enabled device), Dante Controller (which allows users to set up and manage the Dante network), and a Gigabit Ethernet switch, the 10 audio tracks are sent via Cat5 to a Dante-MY16-AUD expansion card installed in the DM1000VCM mixer, without the need for an external audio interface.
‘It seems pretty much idiot-proof,’ Mr Atkins says of the plug-and-play nature of the Yamaha-Dante setup – which required little or no use of the support documentation to get up and running. ‘The whole networking was really easy to set up because it auto-seeks, so you’re not going through network protocols to make the computers talk to each other. It finds itself, it finds all its buddies and it just goes.’
The ease of the transition from the PC-based Nuendo pre-production set-up and the Mac Mini set-up used for the public performance, was part of Dante’s appeal: ‘You could be drawing stuff from different sources and different hard drives,’ Mr Atkins recalls. ‘One’s a Mac, one’s a PC, and Dante didn’t care. It just did what it was told. There are no format issues, and there are no platform issues.’
Similarly, the functionality and compactness of the console, along with its onboard EQ, dynamics and effects processing, made it a sound choice: ‘The DM1000 is perfect for this,’ says Mr Atkins, who pre-programmed the console files offsite using Yamaha Studio Manager v2 software. ‘It’s rock solid, works forever, has built-in processing and a compact footprint. It just sounds good.’
Mr Jankie also points out that, from an operational and budgetary standpoint, the Dante format was also a smart choice for the show: ‘Although it’s an important major festival show, all these sort of productions do have a budget,’ he stresses. ‘It’s an audience of 60 people, not an audience of 1,000 or 2,000. Having Dante as a reliable and cheap option was really valuable. It’s about finding a solution that is perfect in terms of its quality, but has the budget sensitivities to be able to be affordable by theatrical performances and similar live entertainment.’
‘Otherwise, we would’ve had to have another interface, and a whole bunch of wiring issues,’ Mr Atkins offers, explaining how the Yamaha-Dante solution eliminated the extra expense and hassle of other network protocols which incorporate an external USB or FireWire audio interface.
The Nexo loudspeaker and amplifier system for the production was also important to its delivery. In addition to the set-up’s PS8 speakers and RS15 subwoofers, the show predominantly uses Nexo NXAmp amplifiers, which were developed via collaborative research with Yamaha. ‘It’s the way your attention is drawn to the sound because it’s so precise,’ Mr Atkins explains, listing compactness, precision and accuracy as the major advantages of the Nexo output system.
The Yamaha-Dante solution is likely to play a part in future productions. ‘For sure,’ says Mr Atkins. ‘The cost advantages, the reduction of physical connections – this fixes all those issues.’
‘Absolutely,’ Mr Jankie agrees. ‘It’s just been so easy – you don’t have to run any of the analogue cabling into any of the analogue-to-digital, digital-to-analogue, backwards, forwards. It could all just run into a network switch.’
Reviewing the success of the show’s world premiere in Adelaide, Mr Jankie anticipates touring the en masse production in 2010 and beyond. ‘There’s talk of it doing other festivals in Australia, and then hopefully overseas,’ he says. ‘So there’s every expectation that the show has an international touring life,’ he states.