100 Bassists Recreate the Battle of Copenhagen

Ten-dozen musicians, aerial and aquatic dancers, antique ships and explosives experts join up for a naval spectacular.

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Live Art Installations

Pipaluk Supernova is standing on a dock at Langelinie, on the edge of the Copenhagen harbor. It's 10 p.m. "There are five platforms in front of me," she says on the phone. "There are Polish World War II soldiers laying sandbags on one of them. A bunch of World War II soldiers, actually."

"Real soldiers?" I ask.

"No, dancers dressed as soldiers. On another platform there’s a giant aquarium, and there will be dancers in there as well."

"In scuba gear?" I ask.

"No, in beautiful, flowing dresses."

"So there’s no water in the tank?" I ask.

"No, there’s water. They will be using breathing techniques."

This is a rehearsal, of sorts, for the Battle of Copenhagen, a multimedia spectacular that will occur at the mouth of the harbor on Friday, supported mainly by the Danish Arts Council. Pipaluk Supernova is the choreographer of the seaborne crew of several hundred performers, but in the end, she says, there is plenty of improvisation. "We have the concept, but when it comes down to it, we can really play."

That concept? A musical-historical-pyrotechnic tribute to the eponymous, legendary rout of the Danes by the British Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson in 1801. "We call it the Battle of Copenhagen," composer Andreas Bennetzen says in this recruitment video, "But instead of shooting with guns, we’ll be shooting with double-bass music."

Over 100 upright bass players will set sail Friday evening on the historical ships that usually lie docked along the quay. In a nod to naval tradition, they will be conducted via nine electronic flag signals—each for a different section of sheet music—and Morse code. Only the three soloists will be amplified. The rest will count on the stillness of the night and their power in numbers.

There will also be drag queens, a light show, dancers, and a real Danish reenactment troupe, whose voluntary participation was a pleasant surprise to Supernova. She's drawing loosely on military inspiration, but the reenactors—in accurate, period uniforms—take this history very seriously. "They’re bringing their own cannon in a trailer," she says. "They’re going to shoot at the ships from the other side."

This titanic project began with Bennetzen, a composer and bass player, hoping to write a piece for a large number of bassists. His previous high was 40 basses, in 2005. "One bass on the harbor is beautiful," he says in the video. "But not enough to make headlines." Opportunity knocked in the form of Bass 2012, the third installation of Europe’s largest convention for bass players (previously in Paris, in 2008, and Berlin in 2010).

Supernova was intrigued. Her artistic background is dizzyingly diverse—she trained at Marcel Marceau’s famous mimodrame school in Paris, and lived in New York, San Francisco, and "with Indians in the jungle," before returning to Copenhagen to choreograph elaborate and ambitious performances like 2009’s Submarine Ballet. Her unusual first name is Inuit—she's from Greenland—and her last name she adopted to give a sense of artistic legitimacy to her band, Supernova.

From a brainstorming session for Bennetzen’s piece, the team emerged with the idea of a naval battle. (“OK, we haven’t done that before.”) It seemed obvious that the performance, like previous Live Art Installations projects, ought to take place in situ. “I find very old-fashioned for people to sit in chairs, in a black-box theater,” says Supernova. "Where I’m sitting right now is very historical: Copenhagen harbor where sea battles took place hundreds of years ago. Right in front of me is a crane from 1791." She learned from local historians that there are 7,000 skeletons lying on the bottom of the harbor. "That’s quite fascinating. I had never heard that before."

"I’m big time in favor of reclaiming the city," she says, "in terms of people who live in the city taking responsibility for their city, making the city theirs instead of taking for granted a bunch of rules that prize efficiency over social interaction."

"How long will the performance last?" I ask.

"About one-and-a-half hours."

"A little faster than your average battle."

"A little faster, yeah. But considering the number of double basses, it’s probably enough."

All images courtesy of Live Art Installations.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.