Ingenuity Cleveland’s Temple of Tesla features the Tesla Orchestra
Ingenuity Cleveland’s Temple of Tesla features the Tesla Orchestra performing music with lightning bolts.
The Cleveland-based Tesla Orchestra is a high-voltage fusion of music, technology and theatre. Through their Open Spark Project they invited composers and musicians to submit original pieces that would then be played on lightning. The best of the submissions will be performed on June 11th. To say the least, it sounds and looks like it’ll be a wildly intense experience.
As Ian Charnas of the Tesla Orchestra explained, “This is a rare opportunity to hear music written specifically for tesla coils and also to experience it within the Cleveland Masonic Performing Arts Center which is an amazing venue. In fact, it is one of the only venues that was large enough to accommodate the indoor lightning show we’ll be giving the crowd.”
“He’s completely covered in metal and there’s a 7-metre no-go zone around him”, one of the Ars Electronica technical support told me as I waited to see the Tesla Orchestra perform yesterday evening at the festival’s opening night. “I saw him at rehearsal,” he continued, referring to the orchestra’s conductor and director Ian Charnas. “He was amazing. It’s the blitz, it plays the music.”
Electricity was in the air as we waited for Charnas to appear, tantalised by two Tesla coils, exuding potential from atop a cement grandstand that forms part of the Ars Electronica Centre. This stylishly modern, glass-panelled building on the banks of the River Danube is surrounded by parks and 17th century buildings. It’s normally a place of relaxed tranquillity. But last night that peace was shattered as the centre throbbed with techno bass beats, its walls flashing green, blue and pink in time with the music.
Suddenly, a figure came into view between the coils. Carrying two rods, a masked man dressed in chain mail, over which he wore a sleeveless white tailcoat, raised his arms aloft, and the concert began. The world’s two largest Tesla coils, pumping out a whopping 26 kilowatts of energy, shot lighting out at the rods, grounding through his suit.
In the performance Tesla coils generate a massive voltage, creating lightning directed by a pre-composed musical score. Charnas stands between the coils, protected by his chain-mail suit, which conducts the electricity to the ground without electrocuting him. “Each lightning bolt could kill me,” he told me, “but thanks to the Faraday effect I’m shielded in a full body metal suit and my little body stays at zero volts potential.”
In fact, last night the back of Charnas’s mask caught fire during the performance of the Croatian Rhapsody – though the team were careful to hide the fact from the audience, by simply bringing the performance of the song to a slightly abrupt end. The greatest danger, though, is falling onto the primary coil – a big copper tube. “My suit would short out the primary and the metal on my suit would explode,” Charnas calmly explained.
A similar set-up to the “fighting wizards” that are the Lords of Lightning, in the case of the Tesla Orchestra the lightning is controlled by the music. Composing for a Tesla coil is fun, says Charnas “You hit a key on a keyboard and a 3-metre-long spark shoots out of a Tesla coil,” he enthused.
It’s such fun that the orchestra decided to share the joy. Charnas set up the Open Spark project, where he invited musicians to submit pieces that would work well when orchestrated by lightning bolts. Last year’s project drew in US DJ Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis). His “This is the remix”, which featured at last night’s show, mixes up familiar riffs from Jackson Five’s “I want you back” and INXS’s “I need you tonight”. Another piece came from Gameboy Music Club, who had performed earlier that night. The group play tunes composed from music found on these iconic gaming devices, producing surprisingly melodious results.
The Ars Electronica crowd are hard to please though, and the orchestra’s performance yielded mixed results with the audience. One film curator loved the idea behind the performance. “Conceptually it’s fascinating,” he told me. Yet there were others, who admired the idea of the show but were more critical of its execution. When I happened upon technological researcher Christian Walden in the bar after the show, he told me he was underwhelmed: “It’s more technological showcase than artistic expression,” he said. “You could get so much more out of it.”