Reservoir 13 Live

A live soundtrack for a novel

Another collaboration with Richard Birkin at Time Travel Opps, developing on the foundations laid in Rubato.

Author Jon McGregor had recently completed his novel Reservoir 13 and wanted to take a different approach to the book readings that accompany promoting a new novel. He was going to make them more dramatic - and accompany them with a soundtrack. Richard had written that soundtrack, and at a reading for Derby Book Festival, performed it live (along with Haiku Salut) as Jon read. But how to take the soundtrack on the road - without any extraneous equipment, and on a tight budget?

The answer came in an adaptation of the underlying systems of Rubato. This time, though, instead of a performer cueing up textual animations on the audience’s phones, Jon would be triggering music cues - and the phones would be playing the audio. Each music track was broken into four or five core stems, which would be distributed evenly amongst connected devices. The audience became a little like an orchestra pit, the soundtrack spread between them. The music was composed such that fractional differences in timing would be atmospheric, rather than critically deal-breaking. To anchor the performance, we made sure Jon’s device would always be playing the most critical ‘stem’ at any point.

And, like Rubato, we’d do it all in the web browser.

The browser is a good platform for this sort of thing at live events. No-one wants to be fussing downloading an app whilst they wait. And we’d like as many audience members to be able to join in as possible; when the only requirement is a recent mobile browser, this makes life a lot easier.

Reservoir 13 definitely pushed the capabilities of the phone browser more than Rubato, though. Wheras Rubato was just triggering animations and sending textual data, Reservoir 13 needed to cue up audio, and play it without the user’s intervention. That proved particularly thorny, as mobile browsers won’t play audio without the user interacting at least once to play the file. Once a user’s chosen to a play a file, we can manipulate it via Javascript to our heart’s content - it’s the initial playback that’s hard, and to play any one of eight cues on demand would require some work. We pulled it off, though we definitely began to find the limitations of this technique.

The other great advantage of it living on the web is that Jon’s free to take it on tour wherever he has a reading. He doesn’t need any special hardware or software - it can just be fired up on demand.

Audience members for Jon’s readings have commented on how atmospheric the music is, really adding to the performance making it something special. That they’re commenting on the atmosphere and the drama, rather than the perceived magic of ‘technology’, makes me feel like we’ve succeeded with this project.

The digital project was supported with funding from Arts Council England.