Sion, Castles of Light
Thursday, 4 October 2001
The last time a son et lumière was staged in Sion, Switzerland, was 1961, but that didn’t mean the concept couldn’t be re-kindled. "This was a test project funded by the City, with the support of some local sponsorship," explained lighting designer Andy Doig. "They simply wanted to know if it was feasible and realistic to resurrect what had been an annual event."

Well they certainly had a stunning location, as the photograph reveals: two castles sit atop adjacent peaks and strategically dominate the valley that leads now to the modern city of Sion. Striking in their position, the impregnable nature of good castle design left Doig with a big problem. "Although the castles are just 500 metres apart as the crow flies, commuting between them takes a tortuous drive of several kilometres down one mountain and up the other." Which is exactly what Doig had to contemplate.

"I had originally been approached by the Concepteur, Christophe Gruyard (a local classical composer) and his collaborator Bernard Moix (an architect) earlier in the year. The composition was to be a narrated tale in the medieval tradition, a fairytale if you like, and they’d wanted to use projected images, but frankly there wasn’t the budget." Doig came up with a lighting concept that involved using movement within and around the two castles and their surroundings to evoke the dynamics of the story. "The difficulty was getting the lights in position - a helicopter was the only practical solution." And by good fortune this did not turn out as expensive as you might imagine. Because of nearby ski-slopes, the local airfield, just 3km away, already had a rescue helicopter on station. During the off-season, which is when the son et lumière was to be staged, the City had already contracted the helicopter for restoration work on the church that lay within one of the castles. A few extra trips in the same locale was very affordable.

Two other elements kept the costs under control. "Power was largely already in place. The Swiss generator SER had laid in cables years ago for the old festival, they just needed to refresh some of the lines, and run out feeds to us. For the more remote light positions, we were also lucky. Right where I wanted one was a huge subterranean reservoir, used to feed a hydroelectric plant some kilometres away. SER simply cut their own service supply at that point and gave it to us. Astonishingly, Doig lit the entire event with just 16 lights - 12 4.2kW Skylights (Skylight were the contracting lighting company used by Doig), two 3kW Syncrolites, and a pair of Robert Juliat 1.2kW profiles.

"Getting the lights in place was tricky, even with the helicopter. Some of the locations were out on the edge, with a sheer drop beyond, and of course, being an outdoor show, it rained throughout the load-in, so it was extra slippery. Add in the down draft of the helicopter and it could get pretty hairy."

Sound was provided under sponsorship by Bose, installed by a local company, and run by Gruyard. "The whole thing was on DAT with Timecode, so once I’d programmed everything I just needed to link in with my Jands Echelon for the show, the only live part being the spoken intro and outro each night."

Doig has lit many a large project in his time, notably Salisbury Cathedral and Canary Wharf, but he cites Sion as "infinitely the best site I’ve ever had to work. There is almost no ambient local light and huge mountains towering either side block nearly all of the minimal light that came from the city proper. And the environmental effects were fantastic. For the pyramid of beams over the castles, I had focused the beams to meet approximately four kilometres up, but one night the cloud base was down below 500 metres. It gave two things, the first being moisture in the air as effective as any hazer I’ve used. And by blocking the beams so low, the perception was that the beams were now parallel, as if ringing the castles with vertical bars. Frankly, th

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