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Memory & Light, London

How do you immerse visitors in a seamless unity of sound, light, texture and space?

Following our design of the ambisonic listening pavilion Be Open Sound Portal in Trafalgar Square for the tenth anniversary of the London Design Festival (LDF) in 2012, Arup was approached to create another temporary installation for LDF in 2018.

We were asked to respond to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s words:

“I could compare my music to white light, which contains all the colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener”.

Our acoustics, venues and product design teams thought this was a fantastic opportunity to explore the work of one of the most interesting and important living composers and decided to collaborate to design the “Memory & Light” installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

The design evolved into a multi-sensory installation, combining an elongated listening bench with an illuminated transparent screen structure, which allows visitors to sit or lie back and contemplate Pärt’s works in an elaborate setting -a seamless unity of sound, light, colour, form, texture and space.

Project Summary

168individually-controlled LED pixels

30saddle stitched leather panels on bench for maximum hide yield

18thcentury restored music room

Listening bench Listening bench

Creating an immersive listening bench

The listening bench, custom-made by Italian furniture maker Poltrona Frau, is central to the visitors’ experience of Arvo Pärt’s music. It combines a saddle stitched soft grain leather seat with a technical spacer fabric clad to allow the passage of sound, and houses the lighting hardware and audio equipment by Harman Kardon.

By sitting or lying on it, it enables visitors to ‘feel’ the music as well as listen to it, allowing them to contemplate Pärt’s works and feel part of the music.

© Andy Stagg

The figure-of-eight bench shape was designed so that people could listen to the music but not be facing one another. We wanted people to be able to position themselves away from the sound source, or within it, allowing them to experience the music as if they were part of the audience or the musicians. In addition, the material surrounding the bench, is a very high-tech composite material that allows sound to pass through, creating a truly immersive acoustic experience for visitors. ” Stephen Philips Stephen Philips Associate

Interpreting sound through light

"Memory & Light" is designed to evoke a response from all senses; the scent and texture of the leather bench together with the sounds, lights, colours and reflections create a truly magical experience. 

The transparent screen, which represents a physical interpretation of Pärt’s words, was designed to envelop the visitor to fully experience the dialogue between modern design and music. Ed Elbourne, one of our venue design specialists, incorporated innovative lighting design into the screen, with strips of LED lighting subtly up-lighting each Perspex® acrylic fin of the screen. Five colours, presented in an alternating sequence, have been chosen to represent the full colour spectrum and create a beautiful yet gentle modulating vitality in the room.

As someone who designs for both sound and lighting, I found Pärt’s words a very poetic collocation of ideas. If you look at the spectrum of Pärt’s music, you find it has harmonic energies throughout, which are very similar to the light spectra from modern technology LED light sources. These can simulate white light by adding numerous ‘tones of colour’ together. Thus, we felt that a LED-source of white light would be integral to our interpretation of the quote. ” Ed Elbourne Ed Elbourne Consultant, Venues and Acoustics, UK

© Andy Stagg

Responding to a unique setting

The 18th-century Norfolk House Music Room in the British Galleries of the V&A houses the installation. As an intimate music salon designed in 1756 and rescued by the V&A when Norfolk House was being demolished in 1938, it is a testament to beautiful music, design and materials that transcend time. 

The installation was designed for visitors to become part of a dialogue between the beauty of contemporary design, music, and the historic Norfolk House Music Room itself. We wanted it to complement this unique setting and be a response to a very precious interior and pieces of music. As Clare Farrow, Curator of "Memory & Light" states “the installation is, in a wider sense, an expression of innovative design and creativity that does not rule out history”. To which, Stephen Philips, Associate, Product Design, Arup, adds “Exactly. It responds to it”. 

The room acoustic of the Norfolk House Music Room provides a very natural support to the moving work of Arvo Pärt delivered by Harman Kardon’s loudspeakers behind the fins and under the bench. The opportunity to listen to the composer’s voice via headphones adds a new dimension to the experience. ” Ned Crowe profile image Ned Crowe Associate, Acoustics UK

Photo Kaupo Kikkas / Arvo Pärt Centre

About Arvo Pärt

Born in Estonia in September 1935, Arvo Pärt is the most performed contemporary composer in the world, whose life and music represent a drive for freedom and invention, against the odds. His music has a crystalline beauty, for example in “Für Alina” (1976), which introduced his original musical language “tintinnabuli” (from the Latin for “little bells”). He also takes inspiration from medieval Gregorian chant, Renaissance music and the paintings of Giotto. 

The more we listened to the four pieces of music that would accompany the installation, the more we realised the importance of stillness and silence in Pärt’s work. It became clear that, whilst movement of light would be important, it had to be virtually imperceptible. 

“It has been an honour to work with Arup designers Stephen Philips, Ned Crowe and Ed Elbourne on this special project – an opportunity to explore the links between music and design, and to bring to life the words and moving sounds of the most performed living composer in the world. Arup’s imagination and innovation is a wonderful match to the extraordinary work of Arvo Pärt”.

Clare Farrow,
Curator of "Memory & Light"