Last year marked a radical change in format for Orkney International Science Festival. Instead of people from different parts of the world travelling to Orkney, they were able to access it from their own homes.
To develop the online format, a technical team took shape, spread out across the north, with Maarten de Vries playing a leading role. No stranger to the festival, Maarten has been a popular speaker over the years on subjects ranging from astronomy to pipe organ and synthesiser music. This time his role was more behind the scenes, setting up systems which enabled the festival events to be livestreamed to YouTube.
I’ve always been a little bit at the cutting edge of using technology. In my work I’ve done a lot with live streaming and video conferencing, so I’m up for the challenge and I just offered my help and experience to the team.”
By team he means a group of around 15 (and growing) mainly volunteers, spread from Portgordon to Orphir, who worked on the project from the end of June 2020. One of the group, Freya Henderson, Orkney’s Virtual Office Assistant, describes her pre-festival self as “a bit of a technophobe”.
Formerly a primary school teacher for 25 years, Freya is a long-term supporter of the Science Festival, having hosted events in class and brought school children along to workshops. One of her favourites was a workshop on the digestive system which had children participating in various activities, including squeezing bags of lentil soup. As a member of the technical team Freya is finding her role similarly hands-on, but more rigidly defined.
Maarten has produced this guide for us (with arrows) which lists the various roles and responsibilities. It is basically the schedule for running through the complete process, and we are just trying to practice it as often as we can, so that when it comes to the actual festival it’s kind of old hat. As long as we stick to the script it works, but any deviation causes everything to fall apart.”
A team to livestream
Around five technical crew members are needed to livestream one speaker session, which gives some indication of the hard work and complexity of life behind the scenes. There were numerous practice sessions, taking from one to two-and-a-half hours, depending on how smoothly things went. And although Freya says she accustomed herself to all the roles, she still read over Maarten’s guidance sheets every night before she went to sleep, just to be sure.
Human error is one thing, but technical problems can be more difficult to guard against, and some of the most consistent problems for the team involved marrying up different operating systems, and situations with unreliable internet signal and crashing computers, but that didn’t stop them forging ahead.
Inspiration for going ahead with the virtual event through livestreaming came from developments with other festival through the spring of 2020. Edinburgh Science Festival, despite the immense blow of having to cancel for April when only weeks away, managed to put together a package of online activity. Further south, the festival How The Light Gets In at Hay-on-Wye, had just enough time to move online in May. Several members of the Orkney group, including Freya and her brother Sweyn, another leading member of the technical team, attended this virtual production which confirmed the possibilities, and worked to follow up with a similar solution for the Orkney Science Festival.
I think it is very important that we all grasp new ways of doing things because I don’t think the world after Covid-19 is going to go back to the way it was, not for some time anyway. If we all want to stay in touch and have nice things happening, we all need to become happier to embrace new technologies.”
A virtual office
No stranger to new challenges, it is only just over two years since Freya set up her own business, Virtual Office Orkney offering to support businesses as a virtual office assistant, with the catalyst of her own experience as a teacher, with increasing amounts of paperwork to complete at the end of a long day.
I know what it feels like when your brain is so exhausted that you cannot concentrate on the paperwork that is important for your business, and I thought I can take that burden off people.”
She now has a number of clients including a tearoom, a joiner, and a web designer, and discovered that many of her skills as a teacher were transferable. Although not trained as a bookkeeper, she is able to do much of the more time-consuming work such as sorting invoices, preparing spreadsheets and documents, offering a business considerable savings in time and money.
Her inside knowledge of the school curriculum is proving invaluable to the science festival and this has given her an opportunity to combine her skills as a teacher with her current professional role. The Festival is building links with several online education providers, including Glasgow University’s STEM Academy, and will be following up in various ways in the spring of 2021. Freya has spent a number of hours looking at science festival activities and making links between them and the Scottish Schools Curriculum for Excellence. This will enable teachers to be able to see clearly how science festival events can aid and enhance classroom learning, to take advantage of the new situation in which all the Festival presentations are continuing to be available on YouTube.
Around the world
YouTube screening through Zoom has enabled Festival events to be accessed from anywhere in the world, and according to Maarten the platform offers endless possibilities with something new to be learned every day.
We pushed the technology and the people involved to the max, and we were really looking at the smoothest way, with the least hassle to achieve our goal. We did a number a number of practice sessions with speakers, and produced guidance for them, and the quality was outstanding.”
Even given a 15-year association with the science festival, taking a lead on the technical side of the event is a shift for Maarten, although certainly not one which is outside his comfort zone. He is perhaps better known for his talks, in partnership with organist George McPhee, in which he demonstrated his lifelong passion for pipe organ and synthesiser music and how he had combined the two by building his own computer software.
Music from synthesisers
There also turned out to be a role last year for his music, which developed in a slightly different direction since he decided five years ago that his job and hobby resulted in too many hours in front of the computer. Around the same time he learned that all the major synthesiser manufacturers of the 70s and 80s were still in operation and that there was a new wave of enthusiasm worldwide for analogue synthesisers.
I say analogue specifically because most synthesisers are using quite simple electronics, non-digitised means of producing audio. You are talking oscillators that are using transistors, capacitors and coils and resistors rather than digital microchips and software to produce the sound.”
These modern synthesisers are as good if not better than their 80s counterparts, says Maarten, and have the added benefit of being much more affordable. So, shoving the computer firmly to one side, he began building a collection of hardware synthesisers, and much of his spare time is now spent jamming in his home studio. He uses the Midi plug-and-play interface which, unlike most software packages, has not been updated since its release in 1981, and is still on version 1.0. Sometimes he records his creations and was recently surprised to find that he had amassed hundreds of recordings. Whittling them down to 14 tracks, which he considered fitted together in quality of tone and atmosphere, he produced an album and uploaded it to Bandcamp.
Titled Deltapodus, a name which surfaced following an afternoon photographing dinosaur footprints at Brother’s Point on the Isle of Skye, the album tracks have a kind of scientific feel to them, and some were included in last year’s Science Festival as the opening and closing music for talks.
Feedback on the album from Bandcamp has been overwhelmingly positive with some comparison to Jean-Michel Jarre and others.
I would say that’s probably right. It is very heavily influenced by the synthesiser classics of the 80s and has a very, very distinct 80s sound to it, but I think I’ve also brought in a lot of my own sound. The tracks are instrumental, very rhythmic, with rumbling basses (the more it shakes your tummy the better) and a lot of interesting, contrasting sounds. That’s the wonderful thing about the synthesiser – it can do such a wide range.”
Full-length tracks are available on Bandcamp.
Tweaking plays a large part in synthesiser music – playing around with the sound to produce exactly what you want. In the same way, the technical team tweaked all systems for optimal performance in the lead up to the Festival and their work ensured the successful delivery of the whole programme online, as can be seen from the numerous YouTube views for each of the many events.