THE Brighton Festival brochure is full of striking images, but the one on page 38 truly requires a second glance.

A metal cage surrounds a strange, mushroom-like structure from which bolts of electricity protrude, crackling into the air.

This is XFRMR, Robbie Thompson’s unique show that stimulates at least three of the senses – sometimes you can even smell the electricity at work.

Deconstructing the experience takes some doing, so bear with me. Robbie’s starting point was the Tesla Coil, Nikola Tesla’s 1891 design whose primary function is long-range power transmission. A pleasing side-product of the coil is that it can make electricity dance.

You will probably have seen a recreation of this effect on display at the Science Museum, or any kind of technology expo.

What Robbie was excited by, however, was its potential as a music instrument.

Scientists and musicians have been able to create sounds from the coil before, but they’ve always been flat and lacking in dynamism.

Robbie’s mission was to coax a wider range of tones out of his representation of the coil, to go with the pumping electronica soundtrack he on his laptop.

The way XFRMR actually functions is by Robbie programming waveforms to manipulate the high voltage discharge from the coil.

The end result is, effectively, a show that comprises song and dance – albeit in the most unexpected of ways.

It’s the voltage itself that is grooving and giving off rich musical noises.

“I knew it was possible to alter the frequency of the coil’s output and make new tones,” says Robbie.

“I was interested to see whether I could make something a bit more expansive than what people have previously done with the coil.

“I wanted to get into the nuts and bolts of it and see how it reacted as an instrument.

“For instance, you can make it sound like a snare drum.”

Robbie, a visual artist, admits XFRMR was a process of trial and error but an ultimately rewarding one as he found more and more ways to stimulate the coil.

There were some drawbacks, though, including the difficulty of rehearsing.

“Obviously you need a big metal cage to make it safe, and it doesn’t have a volume control so it can be really loud.”

Robbie has described the coil as a “visceral phenomenon” and it was one of his aims to make sure XFRMR had a certain live, unpredictable thrill to it (within the confines of safety, of course).

The artists has made music for nightclubs before but his creation will be housed in the high-ceilinged Spire at Brighton Festival, a former church.

“It works well in a number of different contexts,” says Robbie, “including sit-down shows and gigs.

Parts of the composition suit different settings – there’s a really good range of music.

“The acoustic of the church will mean it has a lot of reverb [at Brighton Festival]. We performed it in a church last summer in Edinburgh and it really enhanced the sound”.

A knowledge of the exact science behind XFRMR isn’t important to the enjoyment of the show, says Robbie, but many people who have seen it so far have not wasted any time in quizzing him about the technicalities of the piece.

“I’m always happy to talk them through the setup and what’s happening,” he says.

“People seem to be interested in it, but you don’t need to know the ins and outs prior to seeing it.”

You’ll see more straightforward shows at Brighton Festival but it’s safe to say you’ll see nothing more unique – and, yes, electrifying.


The Spire, Wednesday, May 16, to

Sunday 20, 7.30pm and 9.30pm,