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Lessons In Music

Things I have learned while lighting music gigs:

1.  You can’t have too many fingers.  In theatre, you create a state, make it balanced and beautiful, save it, and move on.  In music, you layer things on top of other things, live, as the band plays, usually without knowing what comes next.  When the spectacular moment stops when you wish you had a chase effect running, you have to try and find it on your LX desk, quickly, in time with the music, from a medley of other options.  Worse: when the music stops, suddenly, you have to disengage all the layers of stuff you’ve got running – again, you rush to the finish line.

2.  It’s possible to listen without hearing.  I’ve done dozens of music gigs now, and I listen very intently whenever I work.  However, ask me to say almost anything about the songs – lyrics, structure, instruments – anything – and the best I can usually come up with is ‘purple’.  Everything is associated visually when I’m working, and on those few occasions when tunes have stuck, it was because the performer was absolutely sensational, or the lighting rig was quite subdued.

3.  No one really spots you getting it right; everyone spots you getting it wrong.  A blackout at the wrong moment, a strobe when you should have stopped, a jump in movement positions – people see the mistakes.  To my great distress, however, people don’t necessarily perceive lighting when it’s either very good, or even when it’s merely averagely bad.  At the good end, great lighting helps transform a music gig into a full-blown experience that lingers in every part of your senses.  At a bad end, it’s disco flashy flashy lighting that makes me almost shake with anger, but people tend not to know enough about lighting to care.  I care.  I care because it should be better, could be better, and because it’s my job.

4.  The music industry works nothing like theatre.  Reps, producers, promoters; it’s a whole foreign language to me.  One which makes theatre look practically sedate.

5.  It’s all about the haze.  People sometimes complain that there’s too much haze (frequently they call it ‘smoke’ but no, smoke is something different…) at music events.  Sometimes they’re right.  Frequently what’s happening is the time-honoured tradition you get in theatre, whereby if an audience member or even musician can see where the haze is coming from, they start coughing and complaining, but if they walk into a venue to find that there’s already a nice blanket of haze in the air, they won’t notice it at all.  Haze makes light shine in the air; it is the difference between singers standing in blobs of light on the floor, or shafts of light that have a three-dimensional solidity to them.  As there is rarely set or scenes to light, the lighting designer needs to find something else to illuminate, and the air is a beautiful choice to run with.

6.  Save your tricks.  With a good moving light, I can control colour, pan and tilt, intensity, the width of the beam; sometimes I can put in textured effects on the beam, or split it with a prism, or spin the split beams to create the effect of multiple shafts of lighting moving in the air.  There’s a lot of things to be done, but actually, once a song has started, you quickly find you’re running out of moves with a limited rig.  It’s embarrassing to reach a musical crescendo and realise that lighting wise, you’ve got no where left to go.

7.  The drummer’s never very well lit.  Which is a shame; but usually they’re in an awkward position.  Sorry.

8.  Dark is good.  For a start, dark can feel intimate and atmospheric.  Perhaps equally as important, dark leaves you a place to go – you can get brighter as the music soars, and darker as it dips.  Changes in intensity is a simple tool, but a powerful one.

9.  You are a slave to your technology.  Give me bad kit and a bad desk, and I will light a pretty poor gig.  Sorry.  In theatre you can sometimes wangle sneaky solutions – but in theatre you have 9 months to 4 weeks in which to scheme.  In music events I’m lucky to get two hours of prep.

10.  I can only concentrate on two things at once.  I can watch the stage and control the lights, or I can control the lights and talk to the noise boys; I cannot watch the stage, control the lights and talk to the noise boys at the same time.  Anyone who tries to talk to me during a busy gig will get my scowly face.