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Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 08:52 am
Obvious buttons: the Ladytron lighting list

By chance, I discovered a snap of Ladytron's lighting cues list on Flickr. It got me thinking about button-pushing. This is literally a series of instructions to the guy in charge of the lighting board about which buttons to push, and when. But it's also a band attempting to push an audience's buttons.

Why do I find this lighting cue list so depressing? I suppose it's because I know it probably "works", on a Pavlovian level. Ladytron come onstage and perform a song called Black Cat, accompanied by "very fast flashing lights, high impact, high energy, red and white". Our nervous systems respond; it's physiological. We get stoked; we're wired that way. The set segues into Ghosts, which is "flashy, red and white", and then into "Runaway", which is "very flashy, red and blue". There's a standing instruction in capitals at the bottom of the sheet: "NO STATIC WHITE LIGHT AT ALL PLEASE".

Now, my aesthetics, when it comes to stage lighting, are completely the opposite to the ones spelled out here. I really dislike the coloured gel lighting that's become standard at modern rock shows -- a simplified, banalised, flight-cased version of 1960s psychedelic electric ecstasy. Like so much else in pop and rock music, something radical and experimental became, over a forty year span, gradually safe, stale and conservative. It couldn't easily be thrown away, though, because it works. It still pushes buttons out there. It's efficient and effective. That's why I hate it.

Personally, I like the static white lighting Ladytron shun. The Talking Heads Stop Making Sense tour, filmed by Jonathan Demme, had a stern rule: no coloured lights on the performers. It looks great. There's plenty of colour on the screen behind the band, resourceful props like an oversized suit and a domestic lamp being swung about, and a sense of sweaty, funky transcendence that's achieved despite the "making love with the lights on" ambience. I suppose it isn't so much that Talking Heads aren't "pushing buttons" here -- they are. It's just that they've put some thought into making new buttons that do new things.



In purely behavioural terms, though, making new buttons that do new things is a road to nowhere. Confronted with unfamiliar and ambiguous cues, audiences become confused. What does it all mean? How are we supposed to react? Wire's Document and Eyewitness is a great example of originality leaving a rock audience frustrated and perplexed. Punters keen to hear Wire's early punk rock thrash "12XU" got Dada performance art involving dismantled cooking stoves and weird unrecorded material instead. The relationship between stage and stalls deteriorated rapidly, and -- the time-honoured gesture of clichéd rock intolerance -- bottles were thrown.

Ladytron's lighting list made me remember the tensions that often develop on rock tours. You're out on the road with another band, labelmates perhaps, and relations begin to deteriorate when, night after night, you witness something enviable yet depressing: the band pushes really obvious buttons in an entirely calculated way -- repeating Pete Townshend's Gustav Metzger-influenced guitar-smashing routine, for instance. You see it the first time and it looks spontaneous, even if you know it was originally done in, you know, September 1964. By the tenth or twentieth time it looks cynically calculating and formulaic. By now you hate the band. You hate the way they push the same buttons every night, and you hate the way the audience responds. It's all so "successful", and yet it's -- by your lights -- a dismal artistic failure. The audience changes every night, it seems, so that the band doesn't have to. Eventually, to no-one's great surprise, the medium slips from relevance, undermined by its own conservatism.



I was chatting about this last night to Berlin musician friends -- Joe Howe and Jason Forest, Emma and Jen (Carsten Nicolai hovered nearby). We were sitting in the Lustgarten between the Berliner Dom and the Altes Museum, picnicking on the grass in front of a stage where Kyoka was performing a set of her material. Kyoka admirably avoided recognisable beats or melodies, creating unpredictable clusters of abstract sound closer to Stockhausen than trad pop or rock music. Sure, you could say that being non-conventional is, within the microbubble of arty subsidised Berlin music events, the "conventional" thing to do. But it's not a very interesting paradox. "Original" may be relative and contextual, but it still means something.



The little stage on which Kyoka performed was comically incongruous, a rent-a-rock stage dwarfed by the vast facade of the Altes Museum, surmounted by a huge white-bulb ticker display spelling out quirky, arty phrases: "UGLY THING", "POINT TO THE SKY" and "YOU LOOK GORGEOUS". The little stage had the usual sad cluster of gel spots on a rail, lights which flashed incongruously along to Kyoka's daring music in the usual feeble "rock" way, like an elderly clerical worker gamely shaking his arse at the office Christmas party. If the museum facade was unmistakably coming to us from 1822, and the ticker and Kyoka's music felt freshly 2009, the little rock stage and its coloured lights were a portable parody of 1972, singing the body electric with feet of corporate clay.

Afterwards, when the lawn grew dark and the audience had gone, a small cluster of us stood there in the dusk, lit only by the ticker up on the museum facade. Jan Lindenberg noticed a strange glow coming from the empty stage, a sort of optic hum. The coloured lights, extinguished, were still faintly lit. "It looks like a shrine," Jan said.

It was the moment introverts love, the moment when the rock noise and the flashing lights die away, and nobody's pushing our buttons any more. The moment when something can happen. We unhitched our bikes from a railing where a poster marked DIONYSUS hung -- an advert for a forthcoming museum show, Dionysus: Metamorphosis and Ecstasy -- but the moment belonged to Apollo, the wine god's mysterious nemesis.

58CommentReplyFlag

milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 08:52 am (UTC)
poem

brilliant string of words there at the end.
I would like to know the meaning or longer story behind Apollo. And the bikes etc...
It seems like you had to wait til after the show was over and the lights died to catch the magic. And what a night it seemed.
I remember mostly as a teenager it seemed an empty stage was the most inviting place to go, after the show sneak up there and dig around... looking for the magic... never 'finding' anything, but through the searching... through the action, the magic was there.
I too like the white light. And really dont mind other lights but GOD! cant people realize how stupid (I dont need to repeat you) and old they make it???
You did the whole Aki, Momus thing in Chelsea w the white light and it was AMAZING!!! awesome. Loved it. Sonic Youth on an early tour did great strobing white minimal lights, and ah, there were a few others... Brainiac did a crazy single strobe the whole show, crashworship... had an amazing light show the few times I saw them... white strobes ( I guess I react well to the white strobe) and making actual 'fire pits' (made from saltpeter?) in the audience area.... and then had the show shut down... because... you know, there's fires going on inside the building...

ok, so the idea of repeating things past the point of usefulness...
I mean I often think about sex... like how many times are you going to blow a load on someone's face, and be like WOW! thats fantastic... I mean, 20 years later, WOW! you know... so it;s a challenge...
but another way of looking at it is, you're you your entire life... and you have to do something with it, stay interested in you...
you shaved your head over a few weeks back...

a few weeks ago, I had amazing sex... I dont know the girls experience... but, it wasn't during the sex... it was afterwards... I held on to her body for maybe 5 or 10 minutes minutes well my body just buzzed... It felt amazing. I wasn't expecting that... and it wasn't a predictable show. It just happened.

but I dont think I could take that show on the road...


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 09:21 am (UTC)

such a hater, why's your blog always about 'us and them'?

yawn


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 01:21 pm (UTC)

People who care fight. People who yawn sleep.


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hunchentoot
hunchentoot
Joseph C. Krause
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 09:59 am (UTC)

I like the lighting at my local smoke-filled coffeehouse. The stage is just the front of the room, and isn't lit in any particular way. Every once in a while someone will choose to forego any kind of amplification and it allows for a "living room" connection.

Thanks, by the way, for your suggestions months ago of Things To See in Berlin. The hours during which we made it to those neighborhoods didn't always match with what we were trying to see, but we did make it to the magazine shop. A good deal of the time was spent eating talafel in a Turkish neighborhood.


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rhodri
rhodri
Rhodri Marsden
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 10:42 am (UTC)

I always liked Pere Ubu's lighting instructions list (in fact, all David Thomas's protocols make fun reading):

* We are always happy when the lights are simply set, focused, turned on and left alone during the show.
* Overhead lights should be focused on the center mic and bass player positions. We need to read notes.
* Mr Thomas does not like flashing lights. Light scenes can shift but avoid flashing.
* No smoke-machines are to be used during our performance.
* Lighting should be theatrical rather than rockist. We are interested in atmosphere, mood, drama, energy, subtlety, imagination-- not rock cliche. Please do not use patterned gobos. Mr Thomas finds patterned light routines to be particularly offensive.
* Lights should be carefully focused on Mr Thomas and the band & not directed at the audience. Please try to avoid EXCESSIVE backlighting.
* Lights must never fade to black between songs.
* Light comes mostly from above not from below. A handy tip to keep in mind is that the sun is up.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 12:00 pm (UTC)

* Lighting should be theatrical rather than rockist.

Like Mr Thomas, I'm of the generation that was fighting the good fight against rockism. Who's fighting it now? Not these guys, fo' sho':


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 10:49 am (UTC)

Hasn't rock always been a bit of a pantomime? Sure, guitar-smashing is a cliché that should have been put out to pasture years ago, but the argument that it's wrong because "they don't mean it, man" since they do it over and over to different audiences is also pretty meaningless given the pantomime aspect of a rock show. I also disagree that originality "means something" outside context, it's always relative to the conventions within which it is presented. You're sounding like an old rockist in this post, Momus!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 12:06 pm (UTC)

Well, now, I think you're tarnishing the good name of pantomime by comparing it to rock, because pantomime is a repository of bold and proud artificiality. The last rock that dared to be pantomime-like was Glam.

I didn't say that doing something over and over was wrong because "they don't mean it man". It wasn't the inauthenticity of that I was stressing, but the unoriginality. Also, I never said that originality "means something outside context". I said that it means something despite being bound by context and being relative. To say that meaning is determined by context is not to say that meaning is absent.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 11:18 am (UTC)

I went to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the other day at the huge Cineworld in Glasgow. It was in one of the smaller screens, and when I went in (about 15mins early) I was surprised to find that the screen was almost pitch black, with only very dim lights barely illuminating the central bank of stairs. People were already in there, but I could only really tell this because I could hear their voices.

Anyway, after slowly making my way up the stairs I found a seat. It struck me sitting there how I'd never really experienced anything quite like this before; it was comic and sublime in equal measure; the romantic lynchian atmosphere of the auditorium, occasionally punctuated by someone coming in and having to negotiate the darkness. It was almost worth the ticket price alone just to experience this moment of things-not-being-as-they-should-be. This was perhaps the crux of it for me: this shouldn't be happening, but it is.

We are experts at working things out now, delineating things. I've started reading a book by Peter Fuller ("Art and Psychoanalysis") and he appears to be trying to work out whether our appreciation of certain timeless artworks has a material basis; in other words, whether its down to certain unchanging factors that relate to our nature. I'm sure Steven Pinker wrote something similar in "The Blank Slate"; both seem to think that certain art appeals because we are genetically hard-wired to appreciate it. So, to a large extent, aesthetics is just about pushing the right buttons.

Perhaps this is the kind of thinking that, consciously or not, informs our choice of lighting. If it works, don't fix it?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC)

This is the point Casey Spooner's thinking had reached when I interviewed him in my Fakeways: Manhattan Folk documentary (available in full for free at Ubu Web). He was very calculatedly studying "how to make things exciting" by making them fast or slow, using choreography and make-up and lighting. His big inspiration at the time was Bollywood, which certainly knows how to press some buttons.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 11:32 am (UTC)
If a Macca falls in a forest, and there's no-one around

Someone filmed Paul McCartney rehearsing for a recent tour, performing in an empty venue. Close-up, they saw that Macca actually rehearses his thumbs-up signs, and the cupped hand to the ear "I can't hear you". Best of all, he rehearsed pointing to someone in the 'crowd', perhaps with a banner, giving them a kind of "nice one, mate" expression. I wondered if Macca had a range of expressions that he needed to time right - "Nice one, mate", "You all know this one!", "Do I recognise you from somewhere?", "This one starts a bit slow" etc.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 11:39 am (UTC)
Re: If a Macca falls in a forest, and there's no-one around

So spontaneity is the new authenticity? And yet if McCartney were Japanese, I can imagine an admiring Momus post all about the "super-legitimacy" of Macca's concert cues.


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awahlbom
awahlbom
Anders Wahlbom
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)

I thought that picture looked a bit familiar... Glad someone could use it, if nothing else as a discussion starter. :-)

Just out of curiosity, how did you find it?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 01:53 pm (UTC)

Yes, it's your picture, Anders, thank you for the food for thought!

As you probably noticed, I left a comment on your LJ the other day, something about how employees want to become indispensable whereas companies want them to be replaceable. I made this thought into a Facebook status update, and a little discussion began there, and I got curious about what kind of work you did. So I followed your LJ link to your website and discovered it was concert lighting. And somewhere in there was the photo.

I should say that I have nothing against Ladytron per se, they're a good band. And making lighting cue lists is fine -- I do it myself. There was just something about that particular list that gave anyone looking at it a glimpse behind the scenes. It made the artifice look a bit threadbare. It showed a sober Apollo at work behind drunken Dionysus.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)

Since destroying instruments is so conventional, maybe instead someone could dramatically cap off their show by caring for and polishing their instruments.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)

The parallel world in which that happens as a matter of course is so far from our own it's frightening. This is all starting to remind me of my rant about the Japanther Peace Tower show. (Google imomus japanther peace tower).


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC)

Well, I agree. You have to be able to combine the new with the true, the now with the always.


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vogdoid
vogdoid
vogdoid
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)

I feel the same way about musical emotional cues in movies. Leave it out! I watched The Passenger last night...not a perfect movie, but Antonioni has this amazing ability to open up emotional space in a film just using a bit of ambient noise and a lot of no-music.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)

Yes. There's only one thing better than music in films, and that's no-music in films.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
roll that stone

Jesus lord in heaven momus! What's it like to be a genius? Could you describe it, you know, for the rest of us? Does your brain ever get that not-so-fresh feeling?

One thing I have come to adore over the years is the Sisyphusian nature of Click Opera. The way you coax the stone to the summit each day, only to see it slip into the abyss as you near the summit, then rising like a phoenix refreshed the next morning, you begin to push and shove and try again. And we cheer you on, our hearts beat in unison for you, our brave shaman, our fate-bound hero, our beloved man, our momus.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
Re: roll that stone

If you don't like the guy's writing, why do you 1) waste your time reading the whole article; 2) waste your energy getting riled up about it; and 3) waste more time and energy writing some bizarre rant about it?


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 3rd, 2009 04:48 am (UTC)

"By now you hate the band. You hate the way they push the same buttons every night, and you hate the way the audience responds. It's all so "successful", and yet it's -- by your lights -- a dismal artistic failure. The audience changes every night, it seems, so that the band doesn't have to."

Exactly why you will never be, and have never been, a sucessful musician... what you 'hate' is very purpose of a tour itself, to replicate a performance in different places. It's supposed to be the same every night, and the audience should be able to anticipate (generally) the experience. Buying a ticket for a punk rock show and getting Dada sounds like great art, but if you don't understand why it's terrible music, then you don't understand what music is. I'm sure you'll tell me how pedestrian and boring my position is, but the heart of your argument is a confusion between art and music. Why even bother with music, when you're clearly more of an artist?


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 3rd, 2009 06:10 am (UTC)

Challengingly separating 'art' and 'music'. Yawn semantics. 'Generally', parenthetical though it may be, is the key word there. Perfect replication isn't possible nor desired. I think you're too narrowly defining the parameters of variation in performances. Try following a free jazz group for a few shows or something, loosen up. ^_^


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 3rd, 2009 06:33 am (UTC)
Twit Opera

I don't like how other music groups use elaborate lighting. (Which helps to rationalize a lack of my own).


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 3rd, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)

garr that's the thing about a verbal narrative; the lighting cues are made of the same stuff (words) as the content and the spastic dancing and flashing cards with words telling us what to think.

i don't think your storytelling is very modern, is the thing. and maybe really modern is a necessary pitstop on the way to post-modern, alter-modern.

pps, altermodern is really redundant, isn't it, once you see that the post-modern is a 'constant, nascent state of the modern'?

so the twit opera for this post - and every post - should go, here's a thing that happened, here's what i thought, here's some context, here's an ending.


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