XFRMR @ Leith Volcano, Edinburgh, 22 Aug
Robbie Thomson's XFRMR is a multi-sensory spectacle, at once formidable and beautiful, terrifying and arresting.
Stepping into the newly refurbished Fringe venue, Leith Volcano, the sunshine and chatter at the pop-up bar give way to a dimly lit church with, at the front and centre, an imposing Faraday cage. The room is hushed as we take in the Tesla coil sat contained behind the cage wires – bathed in red light and accompanied by a low industrial hum, it casts a tense and anticipatory presence.
The venue and XFRMR suit each other well. Both came to light in the second half of the 19th century: St James Episcopal church was built in 1862, and Nikola Tesla's coil was invented in 1891 reminding us that, in spite of its futuristic appearance, the Tesla coil is a relatively old discovery. It uses radio frequencies to produce visible high voltage electricity, which Glasgow-based artist Robbie Thomson has harnessed by feeding it audio signals from his laptop and synthesiser. This provokes the lightning and furious buzzing noise for which the coil is famous, using sound to trigger more audio and visual effects.
Once famous for testing the limits of what can be used as a musical instrument, for making music sound like an imagined sci-fi future, the synthesiser could now also be considered a twentieth-century antique. Paradoxically, these three relics from the past – the church, the coil, and the synthesiser – fuse to show a fresh futuristic side to each. It's as if we're rediscovering the Tesla coil anew.
Thomson’s piece is composed of separate arrangements that increasingly show the musical capabilities of the coil. It can be long and drawn out like bass, rhythmic and pulsing like percussion, or even gentle and melodic like synth. As each segment becomes more refined than the last, it sounds as if Thomson is battling to control the beast. We begin with an amalgamation of deep metallic rumbling and staccato synths into which the coil judders and sparks, sounding like a dystopian soundscape before gradually settling into identifiable dance music rhythms. People in the audience nod their heads when they recognise their favourite electronic genres, from compositions backed by Afrobeat to ambient electronica, simulated by the coil’s regulated squeaks.
Complementing the music is a series of projections onto the cage’s front. Geometric outlines interweave and dissolve against the metal, appearing broken apart on the wires but somehow emerging solid on the church wall behind. This disjunctive quality to the visual effects emphasises the ethereal nature of the coil’s electric bolts – they are controlled and contained by Thomson’s equipment, but also evocative of the natural world’s erratic forces. It comes as no surprise that space weather and electromagnetic fields were key starting points for Thomson’s piece.
This multi-sensory spectacle is incredibly visceral and synaesthetic, not just because sound and sight provoke each other but because we can see how each provokes the same strong emotions. The sound of the coil shrieking is carefully synchronised with the projections to create an overpowering crescendo of sound and light, the image of lightning forks clambering out towards the cage at once formidable and beautiful, terrifying and arresting.