Edinburgh’s Hogmanay: Niteworks to send off 2017 with a bang

Niteworks in concert. Picture: Julie Broadfoot
Niteworks in concert. Picture: Julie Broadfoot
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Niteworks and Dan Jones will soundtrack the Hogmanay fireworks live at midnight on 31 December

This year, however, they’ve faced one of their biggest creative challenges to date. At the behest of Stuart Nisbet, the musical director for Edinburgh’s annual Hogmanay event in Princes Street Gardens, the four-piece have been tasked with creating a nine-minute live soundtrack for the midnight fireworks display. It’s the first time a soundscape has been commissioned for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay festivities, and forms part of Nisbet and Co’s mission to compete with rival events in the likes of London, New York, Sydney and Tokyo.

According to Niteworks bagpiper and keyboardist Allan MacDonald, Nisbet presented them with a specific, albeit malleable, brief.

“He said, ‘Try and make it sound like the sound of Scotland tomorrow.’ I guess that basically fits our sound anyway, but originally I planned not to use any of our music. The initial idea I had was to replay a lot of the old Scottish classics from the last 40 years, things like Simple Minds, Deacon Blue, Runrig and what have you. But that would’ve been problematic with licencing and getting permission, so we ended up going down the road of using stuff by ourselves and Dan Jones.”

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An award-winning sound designer and film/television composer, Jones’ numerous live event credits include the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Paralympics. Working closely alongside Niteworks and acclaimed firework designers Titanium, Jones has added new symphonic elements to the band’s carefully chosen selections from their own back catalogue.

“When I heard Niteworks’ music, I recognised that we could go back to their mixes and do more work shaping them together as a team,” he explains. “We wanted to get away from the idea of doing a medley, which is what a lot of other New Year firework displays do around the world. We wanted to create something with real shape to it, something with a beginning, middle and an end.”

“The Niteworks material is so beautiful,” he enthuses, “this mix of vocals, authentic instrumentation and this incredibly modern electronica. What I brought to the mix was an orchestra to give it that symphonic landscape, an epic, rousing quality that befits the occasion.”

Every successful marriage of fireworks and music is utterly dependent on shifting dynamics and precise choreography. “The timing has been worked out to the nth degree,” says Jones, “but I will probably still be giving birth to kittens at 11:59 on Hogmanay.”

The suite consists of several original Niteworks songs, including “Beul na h-Oidhche” (Gaelic for “the beginning of the night”) and “Maraiche”, featuring guest vocals from Scottish folk singer Kathleen MacInnes. So how did the band choose which songs to blend into one continuous piece?

“It was a case of going through a bunch of different versions,” says MacDonald. “Nine minutes is a fairly long time, so initially when I was doing some research into other [New Year] videos, it was just solid energy the whole way through. But I think that, unless it’s done amazingly well, that can quite quickly get tiring, so it needs to ebb and flow a bit with the atmosphere. You want to peak right after the bells, then you want a bit of a dip, then bring it back in. So it was really a case of once we’d thought about that, we put together some proposed tracks and worked with Dan to get the final choices.”

Titanium director Toby Alloway, who has overseen Edinburgh’s Hogmanay fireworks since 2009, presented Niteworks and Jones with a particularly striking challenge.

“He asked for a sequence with just drums,” Jones recalls. “He wanted to work with pure rhythm, which I thought was really interesting. So we came up with a section which is a kind of drum battle, which together with the fireworks is this extraordinary study in visual rhythm.”

As Alloway explains, “You can have a great musical work, but it wouldn’t necessarily be fantastic for fireworks. So the biggest challenge was creating something that’s exciting for the live audience while sounding uniquely Scottish. The firework choreography has to be intricate, and something the audience expects to see at a massive international show like Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. ”

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As for the logistics of designing their display, Alloway and his team got to work as soon as the piece was delivered. “It’s the same as if you were choreographing a dance routine,” he explains. “We’re trying to make fireworks dance in a variety of different styles, with different colour palettes. You need to create all of those moments in the soundtrack before you’ve even started designing the firework display. The soundtrack is the backbone.”

This isn’t the first time that Niteworks have performed live at Hogmanay, but they’ve never attempted anything on this epic scale before. MacDonald says that the prestige of this special event hooked their interest immediately, despite their waning interest in playing Hogmanay concerts.

“It was funny when Stuart called originally to book us,” he says, “as we’d actually said ‘No more gigs on Hogmanay’, because they’re not always the most enjoyable. There’s always very high expectations, but we’d jokingly said to each other, ‘Well, if Edinburgh calls, we’ll do it.’ The next thing we knew Stuart was on the phone. If we weren’t doing this at Hogmanay, we definitely wouldn’t be playing another gig!”