"Maëstro": the art of making water dance

May 5, 2016

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Would you like to control the fountain in the Place des Festivals? Well, your wish is about to come true! From May 5 to 29, thanks to the Maëstro installation, you can conduct an orchestra on well-known classical pieces. Just pick up the special baton – and go! The more enthusiastic you are, the livelier the fountain’s water jets will be. Do you have what it takes to lead the fountain in a poetic dance?

We met the designers and co-artistic directors of ATOMIC3, Félix Dagenais and Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun, who filled us in on some of the details of their participatory installation, returning to the Quartier des Spectacles for a second year.

How did Maëstro come into being?

Félix Dagenais : In 2013, the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership approached us to design a control system for the fountain in the Place des Festivals. The idea was to allow partners, such as musicians, to use the system and interact with the fountains.

Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun : We designed a prototype in which the jets were controlled by the keys of a piano or the intensity of a voice. The louder the voice was, the higher the jet sprayed. It was fun! The Partnership saw potential in it, and in 2014 asked us to design an installation based on this system.

What led you to the orchestra conductor concept?

F.D. : The piano idea was interesting, but there was a delay between playing the keyboard and the action of the fountain, which is controlled by a pump. It isn’t possible to have an instant reaction from the pump system. We wanted people to have a greater sense of control over it. So we came up with the conductor idea.

L.-X.G.-L. : Through our research, we came across a video of a 5-year-old who seemed to be conducting a piece by Wagner with incredible energy. That’s what we wanted people to live. We wanted people to be able to express themselves and have as much fun as that little boy.

How does Maëstro work?

F.D. : Holding a baton fitted with sensors, the participant stands behind a podium, which is equipped with a camera. The camera recognizes the gestures and transmits the information to the fountain control system; this is what allows the conductor to interact with the jets. The more expressive their motions, the higher the water shoots and the louder the music plays.

L.-X.G.-L. : Each piece of classical music is associated with a fountain sequence. The central jets are very important, they are the orchestra. The surrounding jets, north and south of the square, act like the chorus and provide musical punctuation. For “Les Toréadors”, from Bizet’s Carmen, for example, we separated the jets into two groups that respond to the rhythm of the music. People truly have the impression of controlling an orchestra of water jets!

What surprised you about last year’s first edition of the installation?

F.D. : We were stunned to see how enthusiastically people took on the role of conductor when they stepped up to the podium. They really got into it and it was so nice to see. And many children had fun and were exposed to classical music. It was very gratifying to see that they instinctively knew how to use the installation.

L.-X.G.-L. : We also realized that the installation is enjoyable not only for the people holding the baton but for those who are just watching. Even if you don’t step up to the podium, you can still fully appreciate the show.

Did the public’s enthusiasm inspire you? Have you made any changes to the installation this year?

F.D. : Absolutely! We’ve kept enriching the experience. We’ve pushed the interactivity a little further by isolating the fountain’s central jet. To make it shoot as high as possible – 10 metres – the participant has to sustain a certain level of intensity. There is also a carpet people jump on to add musical punctuation, like surprise cymbal crashes and corresponding water jets.

L.-X.G.-L. : We’ve also added a new piece to the musical selections: Offenbach’s Can-Can joins the existing repertoire of Toreador by Bizet, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers. These are all pieces that people know well, so everybody can participate by moving to the music.

What challenges have you faced along the way?

L.-X.G.-L. : Working with the fountain does come with plenty of challenges. Managing the responsiveness of the jets while creating an interesting experience for the public is quite a feat! Several ideas had to be set aside because the delay between action and reaction was too long. You have to live with constraints and turn them to your advantage. That’s where we get creative.

F.D. : The big challenge with an interactive installation is to deal with the level of participation of each user. That’s why we decided to have three levels of difficulty this year. The on-site coordinator for Maëstro can adjust the level depending on the user. So everyone, even little kids, can feel fully in control of the water jets.

May 5 to 26
Place des Festivals