China, 7th century. A discovery: tubes of bamboo, filled with saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and palm oil, explode when lit. Honey was also used, and garlic. These devices were used to ward off evil spirits, and plague. Leading, in the 9th century, to the invention of gunpowder. The idea eventually travelled to Europe. Roger Bacon, in his Opus Maius of 1267 wrote: ‘From the violence of that salt called saltpeter (together with sulfur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder), so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, that it exceeds the roar of strong thunder; the flash is brighter than the most brilliant lightning.’ The Liber Ignium of 1300 is full of recipes for incendiary devices.
Fireworks – naughty, dangerous, loud, unpredictable - seem as if they should be counter-cultural, but mostly they’ve been used for mainstream and establishment celebrations - King James 1’s escape from an anarchist plot in 1605, the end of the War of Austrian succession in 1749. For this occasion, Georg Handel wrote Music for the Royal Fireworks, employing a stonking band of twenty-four oboes, twelve bassoons, nine natural trumpets, nine natural horns, three pairs of timpani, three side drums. The rehearsal of the music in Vauxhall Gardens a few days before attracted ten thousand-odd people, causing a three-hour traffic jam on London Bridge. The event itself was not a success. The weather was rainy; despite the size of the band, the music couldn’t compete with the sound of the fireworks; and one of the two pavilions built specially for the event caught fire.
Music for fireworks or no music? I’m for no music – part of the joy of fireworks is their unpredictability. There’s a glorious tension in the pauses between the explosions, and most music tends to undermine that tension.
But. Tom Ryser, theatre director, and I, invited to create an event for the opening of Linz09, a year-long cultural festival, decide to make Raketensymphonie, a conversation between voices and fireworks – the solo voices of my choir The Shout and a large chorus of local people, with fireworks by a local company Steyrfire.
We quickly realise: no possibility of a dress rehearsal! We try to mitigate this problem by doing a preliminary test of some of the fireworks during the summer before the event. Tom and I arrive in Linz to discover that the city council has forbidden a night-time test on grounds of noise, so it has been scheduled for mid-morning. It is a bright sunny day. Idiotically, we go through with the test. I am assigned the button which fires off the big rockets, and I have to admit that it is an exhilarating job, even in the daytime. (So it is probably a good thing that I’m not Kim Jong-un.) Needless to say, the explosions are more or less invisible. The test is utterly unproductive; we learn nothing. One of the city newspapers gets hold of the story: Linz09 is burning taxpayers’ money. Ouch. The festival will not be starting for several months, and already the organizers are pariahs.
The event itself is less problematic. It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re on the River Danube, which is grand here, probably two hundred metres wide. The audience is on one side, the fireworks and the singers on the other. The singing has to be massively amplified, but they’re good at this kind of thing in Linz – they’ve been putting on large-scale events on the river for many years. The sound engineer tells us it would have been cheaper to have given each member of the audience – 130,000 people – headphones.
A grandiose, rather Handelian choral opening with whistling fireworks, which play a tune. The conversation begins: the singers call; the rockets are silent; the singers complain, call again; the rockets reply; and so on. The chorus sings a lament; the fireworks are muted, almost sombre, blues and greens. There is an armada of underwater fireworks that look like sperm. There are glorious slow fireworks, with parachutes, which drift through the sky burning gently, like airborne candles. There is a kilometer-long wall of Catherine Wheels (my favourite firework) which set light to each other. And of course, a big ending, with chorus singing their socks off and a monumental barrage of rockets.
Oh yes…..what to eat at a fireworks display? Chillies, surely, unpredictable chillies, some mild, some hot, some incendiary. You line them up without labeling them, and take pot luck. Most simply, and honouring Guy Fawkes’s Spanish affiliations - he fought for the Spaniards in the Eighty Years War (Eighty Years! War!), calling himself Guido Fawkes – Padrón Peppers from Galicia, a staple of many tapas menus. Most are mild, some are hot. Mysteriously a plate of peppers from the same bush will vary. And you can’t tell whether a particular pepper will be mild or hot till you’ve eaten it. Be afraid! Enjoy!
Words by Orlando Gough