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Sheffield Modern: The Making of 'In C'

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Neil Carribine

Claire Thornley and Stewart Campbell discuss how they designed and realised the groundbreaking performance of Terry Riley's 'In C' that opened the inaugural Sheffield Modern Festival this October.

[Claire Thornley] The idea for 'Sheffield Modern: In C' was sparked early in 2018 while Stewart and I were having a brew and I was talking through our plans to hold a festival that celebrated Sheffield's post-war architecture.

The Arts Tower is a true modernist icon. Its defining feature is of course its paternoster lift, one of only two operating lifts of its kind in the UK and the tallest in Europe with continuously moving open carriages. We had wanted to include the Arts Tower in our festival somehow, but without Stewart's input we would never have dreamed up the idea of a concert.

The Arts Tower is a true modernist icon

[Stewart Campbell] Musically, it was important to me to incorporate the lift into the actual performance. Doing an Arts Tower concert without referencing the lift didn't quite seem right. Whilst weighing up a few options, each created specific physical challenges. How do musicians see and hear each other to keep a musical performance together? What's the role of the audience? Where and how do they engage?

I fixated on doing Terry Riley's 'In C' fairly quickly. The piece was attractive because it could be played by any instrument, meaning lots of different people could take part. 'In C' is made up of 53 musical fragments. Players move through these in turn, repeating them as many times as they like. Critically, the work allows for musicians to play different fragments simultaneously, which meant a musician in one compartment could legitimately be expected to play different musical material to others in adjacent ones. This meant a cohesive performance became possible because musicians didn't have to be in the same place at the same time, within reason.

Before sharing the concept with anyone, I visited the Arts Tower once a week for about a month, jumped on the lift, did the loop and listened to various recordings on my headphones to get a sense of what it could feel like. There were lots of ways to make it happen, but I liked the idea of audiences being in one place, with sights, sounds and personalities moving around them. The experience would be different for every person on every floor and it created interesting opportunities for sporadic musical dialogue between instruments in different compartments.

Instrumentation was a challenge. Larger instruments physically didn't fit in compartments and even moderate-sized ones wouldn't be safe for musicians to play, embark and disembark. Restricting the performance to smaller instruments would have created a pretty thin texture and wouldn't exploit the possibilities of the sound world 'In C' has the potential to produce.

The paternoster lift is both incredibly rare and incredibly delicate

It was decided to have multiple orchestras to counter this, a static one on the floor with bigger instruments, including the famous repeating octave Cs upon which the performance hinges, and a rotating one in compartments. Once I firmed up the concept, I approached Platform 4 to deliver the performance and recruit participants. They're an amazing quartet of musicians I've worked with before, with an eye for interesting projects. Fortunately, they didn't think it was too crazy and agreed to be involved.

[Claire] The paternoster lift is both incredibly rare and incredibly delicate, and the University goes to great lengths to keep it in working order, so understandably the number of health and safety challenges were significant. But the Estates and Facilities Management staff at the University were amazingly helpful and worked alongside us to ensure everything ran smoothly. Without their support the concert wouldn't have been possible. It was such a privilege to work with this beautiful building and it was the best launch event for Sheffield Modern we could have wished for. I'm not sure we'll ever top it.

Stewart Campbell is former Director of Concerts at the University of Sheffield and is now a freelance artistic director and creative industries consultant.

Claire Thornley is a Director of Eleven Design, Our Favourite Places and Sheffield Modern.

Next article in issue 129

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