For as long as I can remember I’ve always enjoyed the fireworks at the end of the Edinburgh International Festival. For those of you who have never seen this spectacle it is a 45 minute long firework display during which over 100,000 fireworks will be launched from Edinburgh Castle to accompany the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, playing in the Ross Band Stand in Princes Street Gardens below. This year’s concert is happening on Sunday (4th September) at 9pm – the orchestra’s set list can be found here.
This year Virgin Money took up the sponsorship deal and to promote this fact they organised a behind-the-scenes tour for interested Edinburgh bloggers. Obviously I jumped at the opportunity – it’s not ever day something like this happens – even if I didn’t really know what to expect (or know much about fireworks, for that matter).
We met by the castle gates as they were checking the sound system for Arcade Fire’s castle gig and were taken up to the main entrance road to the cobbled ‘square’ of the castle (the Middle Ward) where we discovered that the public are only separated from the firepower by a fence. It was here that we met up with Keith Webb of Pyro-vision, the mastermind of the whole show. He took us round some of this years preparations, told us some of the difficulties they face and how the show has changed over the years.The first thing you notice, aside from the large amout of fireworks sitting about, is the huge amount of wiring which is lying around. This, Keith informed us, is all to do with the technology that they use to control the show. Obviously in the time the show has been running the techonology has improved enormously – any images of people running along the ramparts with a lighter you have in your head are, sadly, wrong – and these days the show is controlled electronically with each firework being light by an electronic match. The entire show is rigged in two halves (each a mirror image of the other, to the centimetre) and run along the Argyle and North battlements, making them visible from the west right over to the east of the city.
With all this technology, however, they have a multitude of back-ups built in, just in case something doesn’t quite go to plan. Everything is wired up so that even if something is majorly wrong with the launching system only half of the show can be affected, and those of us watching it will have no idea that anything is wrong. They can even isolate some of the larger fireworks so they don’t fire if the weather turns (not that that would ever happen in Scotland…). This computer system allows for fireworks to be launched at a quicker rate than human fingers can push the buttons (especially useful for the passages of music which are just too fast for a person to keep up with) and also enables the end result to be more closely in time with the music. The only downside to all of this is that, unlike many displays, the music is live and so the technicians/pyromaniacs (any idea of the professional name for them?) follow a coded score throughout the concert and have to be prepared to alter the speed of the launch if the conductor has a slow moment.
This is one of three arcs that are going to be on the castle on Sunday night, and like most of the display is custom built for the night. If you look closely you will see all the wiring which links to the computerised launching box on the back; the red and green tags refer to the two systems, so that at least half of it will go off if one lot fails. Somewhat unbelievably, this arc represents only about 7 seconds of the 45 minute show. It’s easy to see why over 100,000 fireworks are needed. One of the most staggering things about this display must be that it is designed by hand – and not computer – with Keith relying on his knowledge of what is availible from around the world and where to get it. Rather fittingly (this year the EIF is drawing its inspiration from the Far East) a lot of the fireworks have come from China, however, different parts are sourced from around the globe.
Sadly our tour was cut slightly short by a member of castle staff telling us that it was closing time just as we were getting to the exciting part – the waterfall. The waterfall – a wide cascade of fireworks, strung between two sets of ramparts and looks like it is floating in the air as it spills down the north face of castle rock – is a highlight of the concert, and each year its location in the show is one of the most closely guarded secrets. Not surprisingly the specifically made centrepiece is also the most expensive part of the show. What you probably don’t know is that some of the matierals used to make it have to be sourced over seas because they are classified as ‘military spec’ in the UK and the only reason for putting it into the show originally was that it had never been done off the castle before.Having seen the preperations it is quite staggereing to think that the company only gets in to the castle the Sunday before and there are only 15 people to set it all up (plus an extra 4 on the night). If you are in Edinburgh on Sunday night I would encourage you to make sure you see the show (the music is also broadcast on local radio); it looks like we are all in for a spectacular show.
Thank you Virgin Money/EIF for a most illuminating tour!