FOR A WORLD PREMIER ONE should expect the unexpected; but for the opening presentation of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) this was decidedly peculiar. “It's called Snogging Harold Wilson,” says composer Barry Russell. Snogging is a British colloquialism for kissing, Harold Wilson is a former Prime Minister (now dead); not the most obvious conjunction for a modern opera, peculiar is certainly the word. “It's a bit of fun really,” continues Russell, “it'll be over in twenty minutes and you'll enjoy it.”

Russell's “bit of fun” involved local suppliers Yorkshire Audio (sound) and Innovations (lighting) in some fairly arduous tasks, not least the servicing of an opera — 30-piece orchestra, 35-voice choir, plus associated soloists — outdoors on a wintry November evening high in the Pennines mountains. “The content is quite typical of what we present for the whole festival,” says Tim Garbutt of TGEvents, production manager for HCMF. “Russell is a local composer and a festival regular. He could be very challenging in the early days.”

The festival, now in its 27th year, is the ninth largest of this type in the world and features music by such luminaries as Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Sir Harrison Birtwhistle; this is not music for the faint hearted. “This is cutting edge musically; I've seen Russell stand up and shout and walk out on performances, so about five years ago we decided to confront him, ‘You have a go then.’ And he has.”

Russell's opera draws upon Huddersfield's local folklore: set in the town square, it tells the tale of building top statues that in the darkness of the night chase one another amorously around the rooftops. “To bring it to life he's put soloists in the buildings around the square,” explains Bob Collinson of Yorkshire Audio. “It's our job to move the sound around as the soloists exchange sung dialogue.”

Collinson had recently invested in a new PA system, “just in time to put it out in the rain and snow,” he says with true Yorkshire gruff. “We have four stacks of d&b C4s to the corners of the square and a pair of C4 Tops at each solo position. I've brought in Roland Higham, a theatre specialist, to deal with shifting the focus of the sound image around with the vocals.” Higham drew upon his knowledge of the Haas Effect — a manipulation of sound levels and delays — to “move” the sound around using BSS Soundweb for control. “Simple enough to do,” he says with breathless understatement, “but not when there's no rehearsal and I've no idea when any particular soloist is going to be singing.” Higham gave each soloist strict instructions to remain silent during the performance, other than when they were scored to sing, so he could leave their microphones open throughout, “but I still had to wing it, picking up on them as they opened their mouths and pushing the sound to come from their location.”

Lighting was similarly obscure, as LD Andy Pygott was forced onto some real-time creative lighting. “Obviously I've got lighting in strategic places around the square,” Pygott explains. “Mainly, Martin Mac 250s and some ETC Source Four Zooms, which I can use to pick up the soloists as I hear them, and I've also got some Selecon 1200W fresnels and 2.5kW Studio Due City Colours for the buildings. But the truth is I just have to see what works best as I have no idea what is going to occur.”

The opening presentation is quite different from the more demure settings of the festival proper, as Garbutt explains. “The festival started because of a local man, Richard Steinitz, a lecturer at Huddersfield University, a man well into new music. He started off staging a few concerts, and then set about badgering the city council to support it. Now it's a self-driven festival: over 70 events in ten days at six main venues, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, St. Georges, the Town Hall, St. Paul's, St. Thomas', the Library, plus the Hub.” This year's festival is typical, as it features 23 world premieres, 35 UK premieres, and four new pieces commissioned by the Festival. Challenging to say the least.

“We use all our own crew,” explains Garbutt. “The venues do have house crews and one or two do assist, but the shows call for specialist skills and we tend to have to bring them in. We frequently do production work for Opera North and get to meet many specialized crew people through that work. Opera North tends to be dark when the festival runs so we steal them all, which is very convenient. That work keeps everyone in touch with the various skill sets. We are looking for people with more than one skill, someone who can do sound and rigging, for example.”

Garbutt also sub-hires in most of the equipment for much the same reason. “Performers are looking for very specific things not in regular demand for the venues here,” he says. As such vendors are widespread, generators come locally from TM Newburns, while national supplier Allsafe provides security. “For lighting we stick with Innovation; the lighting demands tend to be quite minimalist, but for sound we call upon The Warehouse based in Scotland. They also provide much of the equipment for the renowned Edinburgh Festival and have just the right gear and experience for us.”

The Warehouse's Ian Gibson revealed that many of the demands are not dissimilar to those experienced by Collinson for the outdoor opera. “We bring enough gear to cover three big concerts. Fortunately, the schedule is such that only once do two major performances collide during the ten days, so myself and Matt Padden my assistant are able to cover it all, shifting things around between the venues; but it can be a struggle,” Gibson says. “We know what's required well in advance, most are very detailed in their demands; quasi-quadraphonic, as was used for the opening concert, is commonplace. Many of these composers write with spatial aspects in the music score.

“Although this is ‘classical’ for want of a better term, the music and the way it's intended to be presented can be quite robust. As such, we bring a real range of microphones, Shure 57s and 58s nestle alongside expensive Neumann's and DPAs. Desks are also varied: Soundcraft, Midas, Mackie, Yamaha, we bring them all. With speaker systems, it's simpler. Contemporary music is quite a small world, and they all tend to specify the same thing: d&b systems, which is largely why Warehouse is here, because we're a UK dealer.” Gibson, it should be noted, was a soundman for HCMF for several years before Warehouse recruited him into their business, apparently a shrewd move by them.

“That said, they can still be quite fussy; an Austrian company at this year's festival specified F1220s, d&b's top of the line classical music speaker and very expensive. Outside the leading concert halls of Europe, I don't know anyone who's got them,” Gibson says. “We persuaded them that d&b's new Q System had incredible fidelity and would be a suitable substitute; they heard it and loved it. From our point of view, the way all this stuff is engineered as a system, well, it means we can take any part and use it with any other part, and fulfil all their demands. When fidelity is the be all and end all, that's a blessing.”

Garbutt has developed a very practical and efficient solution to managing this oddly demanding event with the minimum number of personnel. “We do produce a handbook for each of the venues, for all the crews to use. So, wherever they are placed — and they will work several different venues over the course of the festival — that book details van delivery schedules with equipment, event agendas, props needed, who's mixing sound, the performer's stage manager (if they've got one),” he explains. “Things like power details are generally already sorted before the festival opens. More obscurely, we even detail what size pebbles go in a piano for a certain performance and a specific saxophone mouthpiece (there are only two of these available in the whole of the UK apparently) for one unique performance. Adam, my assistant, and I carry identical files on all the events and venues as a double reference, so if a stage crew member calls in with a question we can all refer to the same page. This works exceedingly well, especially when you're dealing with performers from all over the world, many of whom don't speak English.”

Which is the one challenge to which all the suppliers, producers, and stagehands referred. “The hardest thing is learning to understand the European, or Chinese, or whatever way of doing things,” says Garbutt. “We had some Tibetan monks here one year. They came with Chinese Government officials. This was before the Chinese started to unfreeze relations with the West. They wanted an IkoBema? It turned out to be a data projector. That's typical; I have built up a lexicon of foreign technical expressions.” Maybe he'll publish it one day; there's certainly a wealth of unique experience here to draw upon.

HCMF may be a musical event of restricted appeal, but it's rich in innovation and really stretches the production teams. Besides, the festival turned over $800,000 this year and is reviewed in no less than The New York Times. Not bad for a retiring industrial town high in the hills of Bronte country.

Steve Moles is a failed lampie who toured the world for 20 years, including crew bossing Live Aid London 1985.