Robbie Thomson’s Spectacular XFRMR (Transformer)

The Glasgow-based artist on performing live with an electrifying Tesla Coil

Imagine the spectacle of a summer thunderstorm—with its smell of ozone, flashes of lightning and the charge of electricity in the air. What if you could somehow control the power of the lightning and harness it to create an artificial performance that evokes that same awe? Glasgow-based artist Robbie Thomson’s work “XFRMR (Transformer)” does just that. For the sonic performance, Thomson works with a Tesla Coil (a transformer that creates powerful electrical fields), using it as an instrument to create music by synthesizing waveforms that modulate the frequency of the coil’s output. His next performance with the Tesla Coil can be seen in London as part of sonic arts program Sonica on Tour on 6 February 2016. We caught up with the artist to discuss the visceral appeal of the piece—and its rigorous electrical safety precautions.

When did you begin working with the Tesla Coil, and what was it that drew you to it?

I began working with the Tesla Coil for a show called Ecstatic Arc in 2012, which was a robotic theatre show with a musical score. I was planning on building one myself but got lucky and met an electrical engineer called Steve Conner, who is based in Glasgow and builds them in his spare time. It turns out he’s one of the leading Tesla Coil experts in the UK and his designs are really advanced. Steve gave me the technical support, which in turn allowed me a lot more scope to explore the sonic potential of the Coil.

The pure spectacle of the Tesla Coil is really what initially drew me in—it’s such a visceral, violent and beautiful phenomenon to watch

The pure spectacle of the Tesla Coil is really what initially drew me in—it’s such a visceral, violent and beautiful phenomenon to watch and such a harsh, aggressive tone. There’s something quite primordial about creating large arcs of plasma with a machine; the individual arcs only last for a fraction of a second, are constantly changing down to an atomic level and you can smell the ozone created from the discharge. Also the whole history and mythology around Nikola Tesla is fascinating in its own right.

We’re surrounded by electronic devices, so much so that we don’t often think about how they actually work. Why did you choose to make this electricity visible?

We take electricity for granted in our homes and there is a disconnect between the way we consume power and how it’s produced. Seeing electricity up-close in its raw state is a visceral experience and gives us a glimpse of the usually invisible world of forces that exist in everything, from the structure of cells to the microprocessor.

How do you create the audio for the installation—what is the process?

I try and find sounds that work well with the coil. When you feed an audio signal into the coil it can be quite unpredictable, because of the way the signal is modulated, but often this is a good way of finding new sounds and effects. The coil is really good at creating sharp percussive noises and lead tones; it’s not so easy to make gentle sounds! I use Ableton to perform the composition and mix the live Tesla with other synths and samples. For XFRMR I’ve been using the sounds of space weather and electromagnetic fields as a starting point for the music.

The coil seems a difficult material to work with—what safety precautions do you have to use to harness its power?

It can be a bit of a nightmare to rehearse with as the coil has to be housed in a 2x2m steel Faraday cage to shield the electromagnetic radiation it produces; it’s not really a plug-in-and-play kind of set-up! Other issues include the build up of NOx [nitrogen oxides] and ozone gasses if you are in a small room with it, and the fact that it doesn’t really have a volume control. As you can imagine the Health and Safety document that comes with doing a performance is pretty long.

XFRMR is at Hall One, Kings Place (90 York Way, London) on February the 6th.

Second image courtesy of Robbie Thompson, all others courtesy of Tommy Ga Ken Wan