Dan Jones: Symphony for the Sky

By Mary L. Holden
October 12, 2011

Published in the fall 2011 issue of MyLIFE Magazine

Here’s a quiz with an answer that might surprise you: Dan Jones is (a) a composer (b) a mathematician (c) an artist (d) an enhancer of ice cream delivery systems. (Yes, you read that last choice right. To be specific, it’s a collection of seven ice cream trucks that play music in counterpoint and “sing” to one another.)

Dan Jones of Bristol, England, wears all four of those hats. He’s an award-winning composer of music for film, theater and public art who sees music as an accessory to storytelling. He studied the mathematics of fractal music as a college student at Oxford and wrote a software program on his Atari 1040 ST to generate it. He’s an appreciator of the logistics of sound vibrations and how people react to them, especially through film, television and, well, objects such as ice cream trucks and hot air balloons.

Ice cream treats can be more delicious when delivered from vehicles playing one of Jones’ compositions, “Urban Counterpoint: Music For Seven Ice Cream Vans.” That idea came to him in 2000, but music from these trucks went rolling through the streets of Blackpool, England, in August 2011. If you weren’t there, you can watch it at youtube.com/watch?v=qiTnp3B4I4s. You’ll wish you could buy a Fudgesicle from one of them through your computer screen.

Creating music is one thing, but Dan Jones designs it, the way architects design buildings. He works from several angles: story, setting, atmosphere, audience, technology. A Renaissance man of sound, he received an Emmy nomination for the score and title theme he wrote for the PBS series “Any Human Heart.” Jones won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award and the Ivor Novello Best Television Score for that work, too. He has written music for several feature films and many television shows in England. With music as his ticket, Jones travels a world in which his understanding of the meaning of sound benefits others in some unusual ways. The ice cream van project was one for the streets. Then, his neighbor in Bristol, artist Luke Jerram, helped launch Jones’ music 500 feet into the air. Using hot air balloons.

Jerram and Jones started out by co-creating part of their neighborhood. They lived in houses opposite one another. Knowing of Jones’ ice cream van composition, Jerram was further inspired by an early-morning call to prayer during a trip to Tunisia. Jerram thought that hearing sounds while on the edge of sleep helps sculpt dreams. And so it happened that these two neighbors co-created a public space art installation project named Sky Orchestra, meant to be launched at dawn or dusk.

Seven hot air balloons, a number of algorithmically balanced music notes, 14 automobile hi-fi speakers on battery power, a series of MP3 players with alarm clocks used to time the playing of all 14 individual segments of music and the human ability to hear while asleep are all factors in the art of Sky Orchestra. The installation has traveled over cities in Australia, Canada, Switzerland and England since October 2003.

The first city to get the gift of Sky Orchestra was Bristol, Jerram’s hometown. As the balloons passed over neighborhoods full of people and animals who were either still asleep or just waking, ambient sounds of rich and significant, yet gentle and beautiful, melodies cascaded into the residents’ spaces, filled their ears, played with their dreams or sent them to their windows and doors to greet the fine art of floating music. One observer left his shower to run outside, look up and enjoy the show!

See a video and hear the music of the Sky Orchestra over Bristol in May 2011 on the Internet at youtube.com/watch?v=x-dFc70b20U.

Knowing that the music for Sky Orchestra had to be “gentle, as for dawn, and restrained in tone because it was unsolicited,” Jones said, “I also had to write the music around the sound system. There are 14 channels, two speakers per balloon, and each speaker plays a unique portion of the score. Putting it all together felt like doing a Sudoku puzzle. I usually work from a studio to make sounds for theatres, not for open air.” There are no natural acoustics in open sky, so Jones had to figure out how to get the music to be “acoustically perfect.” He described the placement of sound into open sky as “a big musical playroom!”

There were seven vans and seven balloons. Jones explains, “Odd numbers create the right logistical balance for each composition. They produce their own symphony. Five is too few; nine is too many.” Seven items also fit the budget.

Sound, to Jones, is “a subtle and beautiful art form.” He spoke of the technology of surround sound, explaining that with this technology—that is five or seven microphones, each in a different placement within the source—the space of a live room full of sound is captured through getting the timing right for each note. The human brain works like a stopwatch to listen and figure out what instrument starts as another one stops, then it puts it all together.

Jones credits his experience in film. “I learned so much in film about sound. How it embraces and includes each member of the audience. I want people to feel they are a part of the story being told. Theatre begs the audience to suspend belief and then to make a leap of faith.” In his most recent project, Jones goes a step further by seating people in a dark theater for an hour’s length of time and playing specially designed scores “to let them develop landscapes created by music in their own imaginations.”

To see a piece of art, like it and be able to subsequently envision it when you are elsewhere is a gift of the human brain. To listen to music and be able to subsequently enhear it in your mind’s ear is a similar gift. Those who were fortunate to live in one of the cities where the balloons of Sky Orchestra gave a performance might envision and enhear the experience for the rest of their lives.

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