Toothy’s Travels – Edinburgh: Behind the scenes at the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert

Every year the Edinburgh International Festival ends with a spectacular fireworks concert, which involves a concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the Ross Theatre in Princes Street Gardens, set against the backdrop of a fantastic fireworks display timed to the music and launched from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle.  This year’s Fireworks Concert is this Sunday evening (4th September) at 21:00.  This year, the event has a new sponsor in the form of Virgin Money, and in order to increase awareness of this, yesterday evening they organised a little behind-the-scenes tour of the firework preparations for interested Edinburgh bloggers.

Now, I realise that fireworks are a bit of a departure from the norm on what is primarily a food blog, but… uhm, hello, fireworks are awesome, of course I wanted to see behind the scenes!  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it was really rather interesting, particularly since I know absolutely nothing about fireworks, except that they’re pretty and can be dangerous.  The little tour was given by Keith Webb, the Project Director for Pyrovision who are responsible for putting together the display which involves over 100,000 fireworks (uhm, wow!).  Here he is showing us the set-up for a wave of fireworks that will make up a grand total of around 7 seconds of the 45-minute show.

What I found very interesting to learn about was the huge role of technology in the firework display.  Now, my grasp of electronics isn’t exactly fabulous, so here’s the disclaimer: whilst I took notes, I might be using totally the wrong terminology, but hopefully you’ll understand what I’m trying to talk about.  Keith explained that alternating fireworks on the frame above are on different circuits, in case something goes wrong, so that at least half the fireworks will still be able to go off for the show.  I’d never realised how much technology and electronics are involved in modern firework displays.  It totally makes sense, but I guess I’d never really thought about it – I may or may not have had a vague mental image of people running around with hand-lighters to light the fuses on the fireworks, kind of like you see in cartoons.  Like I said, I’d never really thought about it…

Every single firework in the entire display is set off by an electric match (I didn’t even know that such things existed) which is connected to a cable, which is ultimately connected to and controlled by a computer.  It’s totally mind-blowing, particularly when you consider that there are over 100,000 fireworks, plus spares, just in case.  That is one heck of a lot of cabling.  Obviously, there have been lots of technological advances since the Firework Concert first started, and the control of the display has moved from human fingers pressing buttons (or lighting fuses) to the use of computers to programme the display.  Keith explained that one of the huge advantages conferred by the use of computers is that it allows them to time the fireworks much more closely to the tempo of the music, particularly when the music reaches a tempo faster than a human would be able to press all the firework buttons.  Amazing!  Of course, this make it sound really easy – programme the fireworks, sit back and relax as they all go off in time to the music – but of course, the fireworks are timed to a live show and the tempo of the music depends on the conductor down in Princes St Gardens.  Therein lies the challenge – continuously monitoring and altering the tempo of the programmed display to match that of the music that the display is accompanying.

As well as monitoring the live music, the technicians (professional pyromaniacs?  Not really sure what their official job title would be) also keep an eye out on the weather and if the wind speed picks up too much (we’re in Scotland, so obviously that would never happen), they can cut off the really big fireworks from the display programme, in order to keep the display as safe as possible for the public.  As I briefly mentioned, there are plenty of spare fireworks and a lot of redundancy is built into the whole system and display, in case of technical failures and malfunctions, to ensure that the show still happens regardless.

I think Keith had planned to show us the apparatus to set up the firework cascade that comes down the North wall of the Castle, but sadly we ran out of time.  The cascade is by far the most expensive part of the whole display, but also the most popular (it is so impressive to see the sparks fall from the Castle’s ramparts and down the sheer cliff), and the timing of the cascade within the concert is a closely guarded secret.  We’ll have to wait until Sunday evening to find out when it will happen…

Which brings me onto my final note – the concert itself.  This year, the Edinburgh International Festival was celebrating the wealth and diversity of Asian cultures, and the Fireworks Concert pieces have been chosen along this theme (you can find the listing here).  Even though the Fireworks Concert happens every year, I can’t help but feel that the long history of fireworks in Asia (and I think particularly China) makes this event a particularly fitting end to the Festival this year.  Perhaps even more apt that most of the fireworks come from China (apparently it’s more cost-effective, but I’m sure they also produce really good fireworks.  They’ve been making them since the 7th century, so that’s quite a lot of practice!).

Setting up all the fireworks requires about 15 people, with an additional four on the night of the concert, supported by additional staff from the Castle.  I take my hat off to all of them for A) being able to understand all the cables and B) being able to put together such an impressive event, and look forward to an exciting Fireworks Concert on Sunday evening!  If you’re in or near Edinburgh, I strongly recommend that you try to watch the event – whilst access to Princes St Gardens is ticketed, I believe watching from Princes St is completely free, and if you’re watching from elsewhere in Edinburgh, I think that the concert is broadcast on local radio so that you can enjoy the music, too.

Thank you to Virgin Money for this wonderfully eye-opening behind the scenes tour!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Toothy’s Travels – Edinburgh: Behind the scenes at the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert

  1. Pingback: Toothy’s Travels – Edinburgh: The Virgin Money Fireworks Concert | Sharky Oven Gloves

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