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Extreme gigs: Out back, top of the world and under water

Unusual concerts are not all about the highest, deepest or coldest. As Kevin Hilton discovers in his fourth annual extreme gigs report, they can also involve remote locations, while at the same time drawing in appreciative audiences

Big Red Bash. Photo by Matt Williams.

Extreme activities are no longer confined to rich, well-supported, obsessive or eccentric adventurers. More people than ever now indulge in ‘action sports’ and risky endeavours, and similarly, the concept of extreme gigs is moving beyond one-off performances in harsh or unusual locations with the aim of getting into the record books.

With so many artists appearing in arenas, stadiums and at festivals, there is more pressure on event organisers to come up with something more than the same old venues or a stage in a field next to a campsite.

“To attract audiences festivals have to be special and unique in more ways than just the music bookings,” observes Jim Marthinussen, manager of the Træna Festival in Norway. This event, also known as Trænafestivalen, takes place on the islands of Husøya and Sanna. Husøya is home to around 400 people and is the administration centre of the Træna municipality, 33 nautical miles off the Norwegian coast in the middle of the Arctic Circle. Neighbouring Sanna is notable for its rocky mountains, minimal population (three in 2018) and the imposing Kirkhelleren cave, which hosts many of the performances.

Træna Festival has its roots in a local event for the islanders that ran between 1978 and 1998. It was revived in 2003, since when it has attracted Norwegian and international acts from both the commercial and alternative camps. Marthinussen says the aim is to “bring people into nature and experience music that complements the majestic surroundings”.

Træna Festival.

Artists, festival-goers, crew and equipment have to journey to Husøya by ferry over the Træna fjord. PA is supplied by rental company Trondheim Lyd, which transports the gear from its base in the city of Trondheim in central Norway in an articulated truck. The main system is an Alcons LR28 rig; various brands are used for the other venues.

Cabinets, amps and consoles for the Kirkhelleren shows, along with the technicians, are sent to Sanna on a small freighter; once there everything has to be carried up from the dock to the cave. “All the gear is suitable for outdoor use in the weather we usually have out here,” Marthinussen explains. “It changes from day-to-day, but normally the temperature is 13 to 16 Celsius with either sun or light rain. Sometimes there is a bit of wind but because the concert is inside a cave – the audience sits outside looking in – that’s not usually a problem even though it is 30 metres from floor to ceiling. All cabinets are on the floor, nothing is hanging. We try not to leave marks on nature.”

Aggregate generators have to be used for the Kirkhelleren shows because there is no electricity, which Martinuessen concedes is not green. “We look for other ways to do it but for now this is the only way,” he says. “I hope we’ll have a more environmentally friendly solution in the future. The rest of the festival doesn’t use aggregates because Husøya has clean Norwegian electricity.”

With festivals popping up on every headland in Norway, Martinuessen adds that there is pressure on organisers to offer something different. Visitors get involved by helping bring the PA equipment down from Kirkhelleren to the dock, their only reward being a free boat ride back to Husøya. “In Norway, we call it ‘dugnad’ [voluntary, communal work] and it’s part of the festival’s spirit,” he says. “The islands morph into their own little community with new people coming and living there for three to four days, building and visiting the events.”

At the other end of the world is another festival that creates its own settlement in a remote setting. The Big Red Bash takes place on the edge of the Simpson Desert in the Australian state of Queensland. The three-day event started as a one-off performance by a single artist to support a charity run. It has grown to take advantage of the sand dune known as the Big Red, just outside the small but historically significant outback town of Birdsville (population 140 according to the 2016 census). This provides the stage backdrop, which is lit up spectacularly at night.

“We chose the location for its extreme desert-like landscape and spectacular red sands,” comments festival founder Greg Donovan. “The stage is set below the big red sand dune, which creates a natural amphitheatre. We have close to 10,000 people attending the event each year – the huge camping area sprawls out like an arc across the dry lakebed in the flat between the dunes.” This year’s event is headlined by Aussie pop-rock legends Midnight Oil, who reportedly said, “When we saw the photos, we just couldn’t say no.”

There is an airport at Birdsville but most people get to the festival on approximately 250km of dirt road. A B-double truck (a tractor unit hauling two trailers) is used to transport the PA equipment, which is supplied by DW Sound, based in the town of Nambour on the Sunshine Coast. The FOH system comprises L-Acoustics K2 and DV-DOSC line array cabinets with KS29 subs plus DV-DOSC boxes for rear fills, outfill and delay. This rig, like those at the Træna Festival, is used in extreme conditions but in the conventional way of providing the sound to a large number of people at the same time.

By contrast, the Wet Sounds series of performance events uses sound to deliver a more personalised, almost internalised sensation to its participants. Conceived by Joel Cahen, a sound artist and composer of electronic music based in London, Wet Sounds is what its creator calls an “underwater listening experience”. Shows take place in swimming pools and involve lighting and performance, as well as sound. The project began in 2008 after Cahen had the idea one day while taking a swim. “When you’re above water the environment tells you what is around you, making you aware of the external space,” he explains. “Underwater, there is not that same awareness of the environment but you are more aware of your internal space; your organs and breathing.”

Other extreme gigs have involved water, the most radical being AquaSonic (PSNLive 2016), but Wet Sounds is something else. “It’s a different principle from AquaSonic because with that the performers are in water in special tanks,” he says. “With this, the audience is in the water and I’m not in the limelight. It’s still extreme because what is happening is non-directional. The focus is on the audience’s perception of the music, which happens through bone conduction and sounds like the music is inside your head.”

During performances, Cahen plays on the poolside, while participants can hear the music through either above water loudspeakers (usually d&b audiotechnik or what the local hire company provides) or underwater loudspeakers (sealed, waterproof units designed for synchronised swimming and water polo). These are arranged in a six-channel configuration, with two channels for below water and four for above.

“It’s a music-led event but also includes lighting, video and art,” says Cahen. “People really come for the experience. There are two parts to it – above water and below – but when you’re floating you can hear both. That gives a fuller sense of the composition, but the deeper you go the better it sounds.”

While some playback is involved in the performances, most of the music is played live. Consequently, Cahen says, the experience is different every time. One of the more difficult stagings of Wet Sounds was in a swimming pool in Bergen, Norway. “We didn’t have any set-up time and when it came to putting in the underwater speakers we discovered that the pool was made of metal,” Cahen says. “That killed the sound completely so that it was not very loud. In the end, the arrangement of the speakers in the water had to be changed.”

The most unusual audience to experience Wet Sounds comprised two beluga whales that were being transported from a Shanghai aquarium to an Icelandic whale sanctuary. Recordings of orcas were played to the belugas, which had spent most of their lives in captivity, so they would know what predators sound like.

Wet Sounds is not extreme in the dangerous sense of performing on webbing stretched between two mountain tops or while skydiving, but it does take the concept of performance and staging to extremes. And, as with Trænafestivalen and the Big Red Bash, it is also bringing boundary-breaking experiences to a wider audience.