‘Pigeon house’ to be surprise hit at festival

Marshall beneath the Adam Dome where the 7 August performance will take place. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

Marshall beneath the Adam Dome where the 7 August performance will take place. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

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IT was once notoriously derided as “the most magnificent pigeon house in Europe” when money ran out for its completion.

But Enlightenment-era architect Robert Adam’s grand creation at the end of Princes Street in Edinburgh has since stood the test of time as one of the world’s oldest purpose-built archives.

There is a real resurgence of interest in choirs

Deb Marshall, sound artist

Now 241 years after work began on General Register House, it is set to get a starring role in the world’s biggest arts festival – in one of the most unusual shows of the summer.

The building, which is home to Scotland’s family research centre, will play host to a one-off show by a specially assembled choir of singers, performing a piece being specially created “in response” to the building’s 
architecture.

An audience of just 50 people will be allowed to take in the free, but ticketed, event which will be part of the Edinburgh Art Festival programme.

The plans have been drawn up just months after it emerged the future of the building was in doubt over a long-term plan to relocate the nation’s records to a storage facility on the outskirts of the city.

Edinburgh-based sound artist Deb Marshall has handpicked a dozen amateur singers who are already regularly rehearsing at her home, drawing inspiration from ancient Scottish laments, Gaelic psalm-singing and even tribal chanting.

She plans to reflect changes in western society’s approach to singing, the growth in popularity of community choirs and the increasing interest in genealogy in her project, Trace.

Ms Marshall, who will take part in the performance herself, said: “Although I studied sculpture, I’ve gravitated towards using sound in my work. I’ve always been interested in the power of it to work in spaces and alter the feelings we have about them.

“Western culture is now really tied up with the whole idea of the performers and the 
audience.

“There is generally a division and we think of singing as something that is rather perfectly done.

“But I do think it is a really interesting phenomenon that, while people used to sing in churches or at home and don’t really do that anymore, there is a real resurgence of interest in choirs at the moment.

Staff at the National Records of Scotland have agreed to allow a one-off lunchtime performance to be staged on 7 August.

Audience members will be allowed to wander freely around the “Adam Dome,” the centrepiece of the building – proposed as part of the original vision for Edinburgh’s New Town in 1752, to provide suitable accommodation for the nation’s archives.

Adam, one of the most celebrated architects of the era, was brought in to design the building and work started in 1774, but that ground to a halt five years later after protracted delays and soaring costs.

For six years, it remained an empty shell, during which time the publisher and bookseller William Creech made his infamous “pigeon house” comparison.

However, a final grant of £15,000, bringing the total cost up to £29,000, ensured the project was able to open to the public in 1788.

Tim Ellis, chief executive of the National Records of Scotland, said: “We’re looking forward to hearing how this acoustic vocal performance responds to the impressive space and acoustics of the ‘Adam Dome’ in General Register House.”

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