A quarter of a million volts in Brighton

Robbie Thomson brings XFRMR to the Brighton Festival. And if you are wondering how to pronounce it, you pronounce is transformer, Robbie explains.

Friday, 11th May 2018, 4:54 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 1:17 am

“It’s like an electrical shorthand for transformer, just as there are various abbreviations for transformer, and this is one of them. And I just like the way the letters look together!”

In the piece, visual artist Robbie uses the power of the Tesla coil, the 19th-century invention that first let us see electricity dance.

A pulsing soundtrack reminiscent of afrobeat and ambient electronica – created via laptop and synthesiser – strikes visuals from the Tesla coil, shooting sensational sonic and visual fireworks flaring through the Faraday cage that contains it.

Light fuses with sound in a unique sensory phenomenon, Robbie promises – a show as lively as electricity itself. It will be at The Spire from Wednesday to Sunday, May 16-20 at 7.30pm and 9.30pm.

“The show is basically using a Tesla coil which was an instrument invented by Tesla in about 1890. He had plans to use it for doing long-range transmissions of power, of electric signals and for communication. A transformer can either increase of decrease voltage. You have got a transformer in your phone charger. With the Tesla coil, it can take 240 volts and turn it into a very high voltage, 250,000 volts coming out of it.

“I have had an interest in high-voltage electrical equipment for a long time. I did a project about hydro-electricity in Scotland and how it is changing the whole landscape in generating the power for modern life. I have looked at electrical power in different works that I have done. And I have approached the Tesla coil as really quite a special example of making electricity visual and putting it in a raw physical state. You get the sparks coming out the top which is very spectacular.

“But you are also able to change the output on the coil to create musical tones, depending on the frequency. I knew it was possible. I had seen some examples of it being done, and I wondered if it was possible to create these sounds treating the Tesla coil as more of a musical instrument in its own right. It was about figuring out what is possible and how you might manipulate the tones to make a melody.

“It is an acoustic instrument. If you increase the frequency, you get a higher note. If you decrease the frequency, you get a lower note. And then you can start playing with the length of the note and trying to get a different timbre.”