The Photophonic Experiment

photophonic.jpgElectric light orchestra
Light bulbs. Biscuits. A 10,000-volt charge. The only thing you won’t find making music at a Photophonic Experiment gig is guitars and pianos, says Maddy Costa.

Maddy Costa
Friday, October 20, 2006
The Guardian

Ceinws in north Wales is the kind of tiny, bucolic town where nothing unusual is supposed to happen. And possibly it didn’t before Mark Anderson moved in. A sound-artist, instrument-maker and pyrotechnic with the performance group Blissbody, he has a workshop opposite the village pub that appears perfectly innocent from the outside, but inside could pass for a laboratory from a Frankenstein movie. Glass tubes and dangerous-looking electrical contraptions clutter the floor. Wires coil across a table. A standing lamp looms in the corner. “Watch this,” says Anderson, as excited as a five-year-old setting fire to a box of tissues. He points a mysterious black cone at the lamp and turns a dimmer switch to activate the bulb. Slowly, the lamp illuminates, and a sound fills the room: a low buzz at first, but growing painfully high-pitched as the light reaches full brightness. This really is white noise.

Remarkably, what Anderson is demonstrating isn’t an instrument of torture but a “photo-synth”, a device that converts light into sound. It’s a key element of the Photophonic Experiment, a bizarre, potentially fascinating collaboration between Anderson and like-minded musicians Pram and Kirsten Reynolds that tours the UK from next week. And if the people of Ceinws think Anderson is odd, they should hear what his associates get up to.

Pram may look like a conventional band, but they’ve spent the past 15 years using anything from a home-made theremin to toys and kitchen whisks to bring layers of strangeness to their music. Reynolds, meanwhile, is one half of Project Dark, a sound-art duo who have performed DJ sets using seven-inch singles constructed from biscuits and chunks of carpet, and turntables powered by fireworks.

It was when Reynolds began investigating whether it was possible for a stylus to receive visual information from a record, rather than touching it to produce sound, that the photo-synth was born. She and Anderson – who have worked together on several group projects – are full of such peculiar ideas. It makes you wonder whether they ever think what they do is plain bonkers. “Sort of,” Reynolds admits, “but you have to not worry about it, because if you always thought, ‘It’s too silly,’ you’d never do anything.”

For Anderson, avoiding seriousness is crucial. “It’s very difficult for me, when I come to the workshop, not to rewire things, not to mend things, but to explore them in a playful way,” he says. “Children do this naturally, but you lose the ability as you get older.”

For this reason, Anderson has deliberately not acquired more electrical knowledge than he needs to. He and Reynolds rely on the expertise of Graham Calvert, Blissbody’s electronics engineer, and Mike Harrison, an “obsessive maker of weird, dangerous things” (his mind-boggling website,, indicates just how weird), to help them bring their designs to life. Harrison meanwhile is responsible for another centrepiece of the Photophonic show: the spark-o-phone, a kind of tilted xylophone that cracks and flashes as a 10,000-volt charge jumps between its eight glass tubes. He also helped Anderson create his first Jacob’s ladder, a glass vase containing two metal rods, between which an electric charge will flame and purr seductively as it climbs from bottom to top. Some day, Anderson hopes, he’ll have an entire orchestra of these babies.

Of course, such sounds won’t be music to everyone’s ears. Anderson and Reynolds are aware that what they do could come across as mere noise, and are keen to avoid that reaction. Besides, Anderson says with a laugh, “we value our hearing. I don’t mind a certain amount of grrrrawwwwl noise as long as it’s not intense. In terms of the Photophonic sound spectrum, we want it to range from something that can be quiet and subtle, to something that roars like an electric storm.”

For Reynolds, such contrast is essential if they’re to hold an audience’s attention. “I hate shows that are an hour of exactly the same sound, because after a while it’s almost like it’s not there, it may as well be silence,” she says. Her aim with the Photophonic Experiment is to “display all the ways you can think of sound as music, from it being almost noise to it being very organised and totally in tune”.

And the emphasis, unusually, is on “display”. “Although Photophonic is a sound piece,” says Anderson, “Kirsten and I want to make it visually interesting, so that if you’re sitting in the audience you have a reason to listen to what is potentially an unpleasant sound.” Anderson’s collection of fluorescent tubes is a case in point: the sound of these lamps coming to life is hardly attractive, yet when Anderson controls the amount of electricity they receive, they crackle and flash beautifully, and make you feel that you’re witnessing the most dazzling of lightning displays.

Then there is the set of tiny flashing toys that Anderson and Reynolds use with the photo-synth to create a series of snarls and whirrs. On stage, they’ll have a video camera trained on them, and pictures of the multicoloured lights will be magnified on a big screen. “It’s not just glittery for the sake of it – the presentation is integral,” says Reynolds. “It’s not a DJ with a video playing, it’s not a soundtrack to a film, it’s not a visual to music: it’s something that makes both together.”

The drawback of instruments that respond to light is that they are susceptible to sources other than those intended by the musicians. Anderson, who usually works on outdoor projects (“I find it quite disorientating being in a theatre for hours,” he says, “I actually prefer being up a tree in the pouring rain.”), was shocked to discover that safety regulations prohibit complete blackout in theatres. What worries him is that the photo-synth will pick up light from around the auditorium and he and Reynolds will find themselves “playing the exit signs rather than our instruments”.

Nor is it the only logistical nightmare threatening the Photophonic Experiment. The array of instruments is so complex that setting up the show can take several hours – three, says Reynolds optimistically; more like six, thinks Anderson. The instruments are fiendishly temperamental, too. “It’s not like a piano, where you’re completely in charge,” says Reynolds. “The machines almost have a personality: you have to be quite intuitive with them, because they’re never going to do exactly the same things twice.”

That’s why, after weeks of debate, the collaborators settled on calling their show an experiment. “We’re not quite sure how all this will happen and work together, and each night will be different,” says Anderson. He and Reynolds may be controlling the spark-o-phone, the Jacob’s ladders and the photo-synths, but even they feel that they are participating in something wholly mysterious. Chances are, their audiences will agree.

The Photophonic Experiment is at the MAC, Birmingham (0121-440 3838), on October 28, then tours.

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