The 76-metre radio telescope at Jodrell Bank detects cosmic radio waves. But the music of the spheres wasn’t the only tune heard when the Bluedot festival saw the Pixies, Alt-J and a host of musicians and scientists perform beneath the huge telescope.
Bluedot is an annual festival dedicated to music, science and technology, with a range of bands, films, talks and wacky installations spread across the weekend. It takes place at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, home of the giant Lovell telescope. It’s like a British Burning Man, and it’s an absolute blast.
I went to the festival to see if science, music and sunshine add up to the perfect formula.
Arriving at the leafy Jodrell Bank site, I’m immediately drawn in by the friendly crowd. Mums in Starfleet uniform and dads dressed as Jedi dance with their kids. A whole family wanders past in astronaut suits. NASA logos are everywhere, mixed in with Lego Space insignia. There are as many silver jumpsuits and elaborately glittered outfits in the crowd as there are on stage. On Sunday, bartenders across the site spontaneously make themselves elaborate tinfoil hats.
Among the faces proudly displayed on T-shirts are Einstein, David Attenborough and Jeremy Corbyn, though I quickly give up googling the equations, references and jokes proudly worn by smiling nerds.
On Sunday morning, we bite the bullet and get in the queue for the Luminarium, a sort of bouncy castle on acid. It’s a huge inflatable alien spaceship filled with different chambers lit in exotic but calming colours. Kids bounce off the walls — literally — while grown-ups relax in rubbery vestibules.
If you need shade from the glorious sun, you can wander into the woods and explore the gardens of Jodrell Bank, which are themselves laid out in patterns teaching you about the movement of the planets.
At night, a fire installation with periodic bursts of flame lights up the woods late-night chats. In another field, huge inflatable blue balls hum with ambient noise when you hug them.
Like headliners Leftfield and Orbital, many acts employ synths and all kinds of electronic equipment — and many, many drummers — to make the weirdest of noises.
I’m something of a sceptic when it comes to dance acts performing live, but then on Saturday night I saw Soulwax. The Belgian electro stormers exploded into life with a dazzling blast of white light revealing three hyper-kinetic drummers and a bank of controls straight out of mission control. The pounding drums, all-white uniforms and spiralling electro thrum fired the late-night crowd into orbit. It’s like a disco on the Death Star.
On it like radiophonic
As I stroll through the freshly opened site on the blazingly sunny Saturday morning, I hear a loud electronic pulse echoing across the site. A good portion of the crowd probably clocked the sinister sound as the opening pulse of dance act Orbital’s version of the “Doctor Who” theme, reverberating from an early-morning main stage soundcheck. Performing the legendary tune to the delighted crowd later that night, Orbital were joined on stage by former members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the music and sound effects department that in the 1960s and 1970s.
We quickly get used to hearing the “Who” theme. There are a number of “Who”-themed panels and talks, while the traditionally dressed Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band wander the site leading dancing fans in lively Bollywood versions of classic sci-fi themes also including the Star Wars cantina music, “Blake’s 7” and “Thunderbirds”.
And the influence of the Radiophonic Workshop is felt across the bill: Hannah Peel and Tubular Brass performed a swirling concept album combining epic “2001”-style brass with ethereal electro, directly inspired by the work of BBC pioneers synth pioneers Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. They then played the whole of Tubular Bells, because why not?
There are one or two bands with guitars and drums for the more traditional among the crowd. The Pixies deliver a solid if perfunctory performance in the rain, given an otherworldly tint by the giant upturned radio telescope looming beyond the stage. Ezra Furman dons a black dress slit to the thigh for a rollicking mid-afternoon set slicked with easy sleazy ’50s sax, while Warpaint’s enigmatic shimmer slow-burns in Saturday’s lengthening shadows.
Other highlights include the colourfully be-robed psych-rock doomsday cult Girl Sweat Pleasure Temple Ritual Band. Anna Meredith recruits a cello, tuba and clarinet for a swirling, pulsing mid-afternoon miasma. And Dream Wife’s last-gang-in-town bubblegum punk smiles sweetly in the gleam of a strawberry-stained switchblade.
If that’s not enough, you might even learn something. There’s a packed programme of science talks and workshops taking in everything from space travel to climate change to building robots and understanding hay fever, presented by seriously smart folk like dark-energy expert Professor Sarah Bridle, spaceflight engineer Vinita Marwaha Madill and polar researcher Dame Jane Francis.
Well put together
It’s a slick festival. There are loads of toilets and plenty of bars with chatty, friendly staff. Food and drink trucks range from burgers to mouthwatering wood-fired pizzas to tea and cake, washed down with beverages from real ale to fine Argentine wine.
You exchange your plastic beaker for a fresh one every time you go to the bar, and at the end you swap for a souvenir festival beaker that’s yours to take home. As a result this is one of the cleanest festival sites I’ve ever seen.
You can make a note of the stuff you want to see in the slickly made app and get handy reminders just before each one. There’s a stand to charge your phone for £8 a pop or £20 for the weekend, which made me wince but hey, that beautifully lit telescope ain’t gonna Instagram itself.
Among the incredibly friendly crowd there are loads of music and science fans enjoying the show in wheelchairs. All ages are here. And the balance between genders (of all flavours) is refreshing both in the crowd and on stage. If you have a daughter who’s into science, technology, music or generally being a badass, bring her to Bluedot. The stages are full of female musicians and scientists delivering masterclasses in everything from dark matter to punk rock strutting.
Lack of diversity is a problem in STEM and it’s heartening to see initiatives like Rocket Women involved with Bluedot.
Above it all is the reassuring presence of the Lovell Telescope, an ear permanently cocked to the unknown, a symbol of our thirst for knowledge. It’s the perfect setting for Bluedot, a celebration of science, music, positivity and possibility.
Bluedot 2018 will take place between 20-22 July 2018.
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