Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Festivals 2011: Going out with a bang

Every year in Edinburgh the Festivals season is brought to a dramatic and loud climax with the Edinburgh International Festival’s fireworks concert. The last week of August is usually filled with people trying to figure out when exactly it’s happening, having spent the preceding weeks either immersed in or hiding from the festivities...

2009 Edinburgh International Festival Fireworks

I’ve viewed these displays of pyrotechnic excess every year since they started (I shan’t mention when that was but I was young enough to fall asleep during the concert because it was past my bedtime) and have been completely spoiled. Having one of the world’s largest and most impressive sets of explosive devices hanging overhead once a year, getting better all the time, means that anything in a back garden on November 5th is about as exciting as lighting a dicky gas hob.

2010 EIF Fireworks
2010 Edinburgh International Festival Fireworks

This sort of thing doesn't come cheap. Word on the street - well, internet - suggests that there are to be around £1million of fireworks set off this year. To cover this expense, over the years the event has been sponsored by Glenlivet (who commissioned Carl Davis to compose the ‘Glenlivet Fireworks Music’, which I remember singing at school and miss dearly) and latterly the Bank of Scotland. This year Virgin Money are the sponsors - having opened offices in the city centre they're throwing money at all sorts of things this year - and the EIF invited people to come up and tour the preparations for this year's event.

Fireworks prep

I thought I would be clever and take the spare camera so I wouldn't have to fumble with lenses but in the post-Festival haze I then left the main camera at home so was left fumbling nonetheless. Tsk.

Fireworks prep

Once through the inner gate of Edinburgh Castle the outer wall is layered about eight feet deep with racks of explosives and wires running between them like a pasta chef's mad dream.

Fireworks prep

In days of yore the fireworks were triggered manually in time to the music, using little boxes like these. Unfortunately, some of the music at the concerts can be a bit too fast for mere humans to keep time with. So why not use computers? Well, it's tricky to syc up a preprogrammed computer with a human orchestra and conductor; an unexpected pause and the whole thing would come apart. The solution? Most of the fireworks are still set off by hand but where there are fast sections there will be a computer-controlled subsection.

Fireworks prep
Preset fireworks, one array of many across the Castle

I was suprised to hear that the fireworks themselves, as well as the trigger mechanisms, are imported from all over the world; although apparently the famous waterfall - pretty much the biggest display of its sort - is British made. The devices are certainly varied in appearance, what I could see of them. Many were covered in plastic, presumably to protect them from the rain, making it look like an exiting trip to IKEA for wrapping paper.

Fireworks prep

The Castle was swarming with efficient-looking people tending to their charges, wiring things together, poring over plans and never far away from a fire extinguisher!

Fireworks prep

Sadly there had been some sort of miscommunication which meant that we had to get out by 6pm, when the Castle closes, and the tour was truncated. We were given a very brief look at the breakdown of this year's display on our way...

Fireworks prep

... passing some very serious-looking first aid kit...

Fireworks prep

... pausing to admire the artistry of the setup, which takes a week of intensive labour for such a brief climax...

Fireworks prep

... chuckling at the covers for the cannons, which I suspect could take a certain amount of explosive without damage...

Fireworks prep

... and then it was over, and we just had to get through Arcade Fire's soundcheck without harm.

Arcade Fire

Many thanks to the people at the Edinburgh International Festival for organising the tour which was fascinating if brief. Maybe next year I'll manage to get a better, longer look...

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