As the famed choreographer Merce Cunningham once said about one of his events, it was “not so much an evening of dances as the experience of dance”. Behind London’s Southbank Centre in a stylish building not even a year old, esteemed ballet company Rambert recently held a series of four dance “events” inspired by Cunningham’s work, the last of which was performed in July 2014.
A feast for all the senses, the event featured costumes and sets based on artworks by the internationally renowned painter Gerhard Richter, and music composed and performed live by Radiohead drummer Philip Selway, Adem Ilhan, and Quinta (Katherine Mann).
Set in two separate studios inside Rambert’s new rehearsal space, the event allowed audiences to roam from one room to another. The musicians also rotated between both spaces, incorporating a visual element to the music.
Central to their performance was a Xylosynth by Wernick (a MIDI mallet percussion controller) that Selway had purchased specifically for this project.
“We just wanted to be able to generate quite a large sound between the three of us,” says Selway. “So it came down to deconstructing a lot of samples and then playing them as a piece. It’s an extension of putting a piece together on an MPC.”
Acoustic instruments were often played with unconventional twist, including bowing a vibraphone and adding metal objects to a piano’s soundboard. Unseen but definitely heard were on-the-fly manipulations of the live music using Ableton Live.
“From the outset, when I was initially talking to Jeannie Steele, former Cunningham dancer and Rambert event director and choreographer who staged the event she wanted to have the whole experience integrated so that the musicians would be there as part of the whole performance rather than being hidden away in an orchestra pit or something like that,” explains Selway.
“She wanted it to be – as Cunningham events have always been – a different experience for people coming to this particular event. That sense of being able to get up that close to dancers, or to be able to move around and see what the musicians are actually doing… it broke down the normal performance barriers I think, and it just made for a very immersive experience.”
It also had all the makings of a technical nightmare: not only were there two live sound events happening simultaneously, they were on two different floors of the building.
Fortunately for the event’s sound designer and engineer Gavin McComb (who regularly tours with Radiohead), Rambert’s new home has been designed and built with a state of the art technical infrastructure that connects 3 of the 5 studios to a central control room with viewing windows to two of the studios making the sound design easier to achieve technically.
“The control room is very interesting; although it’s in the centre of the building, it’s fed by natural light from both studios on either side, so you can see the outside through the studios, it makes for a very ergonomic environment, when working in the control room,” says Jonathan Clarence, Rambert’s sound engineer. “There’s five studios altogether. Three of the studios have patch panels in the walls that include Ethernet, video, microphone tie lines and speakers lines, and they all run back to the central control room. You can patch anything you want from one room to another that enables a great deal of technical flexibility and control over the studios.”
With an excellent base on which to design his sound system, McComb turned to an Allen & Heath iLive setup “not only because he’s fairly familiar with it and it’s very compact, but also because he realised it was going to be one of those interactive performances where the musicians needed some control over the sound themselves as well as being able to monitor what’s going on,” explains Allen & Heath product manager Léon Phillips.
“He could see a way of using our ME-1 personal listening stations with our regular iLive system to provide something which they could rehearse with off-site, and then bring it in and tie it into the building’s infrastructure.”
The ME personal mixing system comprised a ME-U hub and several ME-1s, which Selway (pictured, right, bowing a vibraphone with Adem Ilhan and Quinta) says “gave us the versatility between the two rooms and the hands-on control of all the different musical stations around the performance area and that was brilliant. Generally when you’re performing, if you’re on stage you would have a very different musical experience from what is going on in the auditorium, whereas this one, because we’re right in the middle of the performance area, we were able to just lose ourselves in what was coming back from the PA.
“Musically, I think we had a very similar experience to the audience but there were points where we would need to hone in on certain details and that actually, that system was brilliant for it. It really eased a lot of potential technical headaches that could’ve come with that setup.”
Perhaps the only people not moving around the space were McComb, Clarence and Alan Russell, music technology technician for Selway. The iLive’s compact footprint and remote control capabilities allowed them the option to contemplate being part of the performance, but as Clarence explains, “because the performances are really close, and there’s a lot of interaction between the musicians and the dancers, if we were in the room we would be an intrusion”.
“The dancers are sometimes less than three feet away, so if you had another technician in the studios it would distract from what they are trying to achieve. That’s why this (system) works quite well.”
Remote control of the live sound was made possible using an iLive-R72 rackmount surface, PL6 controller and the iLive MixPad app. All the sources and zoning, EQ, delays and SFX were handled by Allen & Heath’s Dante-enabled iDR-32 MixRack.
The Cunnigham events weren’t the first public performances to be held at the new Rambert space. After the ceiling collapse at the Apollo Theatre, the building hosted a touring version of The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time.
Yet despite its brilliant technical infrastructure, there was never any intention to turn the new facility into a performance venue. This makes the success of pulling off a complex show like this that much sweeter for Clarence: “This is the first time they’re really using the studios in such a complex way and we are really pleased with the buildings design and technical infrastructure that has served us really well. We have been blown away, like wow, this has really happened, great sound equipment, fantastic music and an excellent sound design by Gavin McComb. That’s how it worked.”