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Arts Mixtape

Philip W. Sandstrom

Philip Sandstrom delves into lighting's psychedelic past as he interviews Joshua White of the famed Joshua Light Show, known for ground breaking expressive light shows that first appeared in the 1960’s at the Filmore East, a live music venue, on 2nd Avenue in New York’s east village that is long gone. He made an art of this special type of improvised lighting manipulation that served as a visualization of live music. Harking back to his original techniques, White sheds some illumination onto the workings of his Light Show team and talks about how this team of improvising lighting manipulators will create designs of the moment, in a collaboration with the improvisatory musical artists featured in six unique shows at the Skirball Theater this September, 2012.

JLSguitar by Linder,Genz; courtesyTransmediale.

Philip Sandstrom: What’s the origin of this show, how did you come up with the idea to work with these people; composers and lighting artists?

Joshua White: Well actually this show has been put together by the Skirball people as a package; it’s a Skirball presentation. We work with the independent producer, Tommy Kreigsman; he put us all together. I personally did not work on the line-up (musician/composers on the program). I am familiar with most of the musicians and had some specific requests. So I didn’t actually book the show with the exception of recommending Evelyn Glennie, the percussionist, that was the dream person that we wanted to work with.

PS: So how were these artists booked?

JW: I can’t tell you how it was all booked but I can tell you why it’s this particular group of artists (on these programs). All of them will improvise within a structure that they’re most comfortable with. Which, of course, is exactly what the light show does. So rather than backing someone up, which is what we didn’t want to do, we tried to find bands that we could share the experience with. Does that mean that the light show is in anyway more important to the music? I never feel that it is, but the light show is a significant contribution to your (the audiences) experience. Everyone is there to play, it (the shows) will be nonstop music and lights from the beginning to the end.

PS: Tell me about the lighting artists that you work with? For your (Hayden) planetarium show, last year, I saw a number of different and unique lighting artists at work. How did you choose the lighting artist for this show and are they “schooled” by you? Do they come into a show like this with their own vocabulary?

JW: Well, they are “schooled” by me and they come in with their own experiences. They each do many things. We come together every so often about twice a year and perform a full-tilt analog light show in the proper environment. This show that we’re doing here (at the Skirball) is not designed to go out on the road and tour. If a Joshua Light Show went out on the road it would be a completely different kind of light show; a different configuration and done differently. We have a core group of people who are not always all there. They all have something else that they do, they have their own art and then they come to do the Joshua Light Show. We all work with each other.

The Joshua Light Show is a big physical thing, the analog show, (these are physically created lighting manipulations that do not use any digital e.g. computer imagery, what is see is light altered by physical objects, such as oil, water, glass, lensing, color filters, prisms, etc). It’s just physically big, the equipment is big, it’s heavy, it’s wet, it’s messy but it’s beautiful. It’s unique in the fact that its performed live. It’s absolutely live. It’s completely improvised but it’s not made up; just improvised. We have control of the equipment, we know what we are doing, we listen, and we make light.

PS: Do you get the music material from these composer/musicians ahead of time so you can practice certain visual approaches to the music?

JW: We make ourselves familiar with their music by simply listening to it. So the composer/musicians are artists that I am familiar with. By the time we do the show everyone (on my team) will have listened to a significant number of tracks of all the music artists; so we know what to expect. One evening is percussive another evening is more string/bass instruments. What’s important for us is to gather our (lighting) instruments together and make them so they are infinitely flexible. If there’s a piece of music that we’re very familiar with we may rehearse that but it’s more knowing what’s going on, like a guitar passage or a synthizier passage. The only question we ask the music artist is “how does it begin” and “how does it end”; so we don’t get caught.

We found that when we’re doing these one off performances that it’s a waste of time to try to rehearse “to” the music. We want to know “about” the music. The Light Show is abstract, we’re not going to put up inappropriate imagery or do things for the sake of do it, everything is a direct reflection of what we’re feeling at the moment.

PS: I got my email telling me about the show from Alyson Denny, is she someone who has worked with you for quite awhile?

JW: She is a hard core member of the Light Show and performs with us often. She’s performing four of the liquid projections or the “wet show” as we say in our business. She was one of the two people performing the “wet show” at the planetarium last year.

PS: By the “wet show” that’s a certain variation of what the Joshua Light Show is, would you go into more detail?

JW: It’s a continuingly interesting problem because people don’t actually know what a light show is. You see it then you know what it is. Everyone remembers the liquid part of the light show, because it’s so beautiful with it’s multi-translucent colors that move behind the (music) artist on a screen. The particular style of the Joshua Light Show is that we work on a screen the sits behind the (music) artist. What people remember and are most vivid are the liquid effects but we do a lot of “lumia” which is based on the work of the artist Thomas Wilfred where everything is reflected. The images are all reflected off of surfaces; we work with pure colors, and we work with projectors where a color is dropped into a slide and it floats around. They (this equipment) all involve very careful handling. You can’t just throw a bunch of stuff and project it, you have to have some sense of what will work and what won’t work.

A stick is stuck up through a mirror, a curve with a hole in the center.

PS: In the planetarium show you used multi-color rods, like in the promo picture. Could you tell us a little about that device?

JW: That would be one of what we what we call a pure-light effect. Pure light effects are incredibly unsubtle; it’s a very powerful light bulb on the end of a stick. Over that is a tube which is made up of colored material. That stick is stuck up through a mirror, a curve with a hole in the center. What happens is as you move the light up and down it finds a different focal point makes it an effect. Normally we don’t do it out where people can see it but at the planetarium we were right in the center of the room. What you’ll see at Skirball; you’ll see it but you won’t see the light source (because they will be behind a big screen). One of the reasons that this effect works is because it’s so fast, the light goes on and goes off, and we’re moving it so before it can register what it is it’s already gone.

That’s very much what we like to do anyway, so that everything goes by and we don’t keep repeating the same motif; it’s always a little different.

PS: How has the Joshua Light Show evolved?

JW: My passion in life, is throwing light around. The Joshua Light Show is all about throwing light around or shining a flashlight through a glass of water is a light show. The light show, in the world that I practice it in, involves a framing device. What you are actually projecting it on. At the planetarium we were out in the open, it is a very unusual space. We found that at the planetarium, if we adapted to its different qualities and limitation we could actually produce something spectacular. Normally we are behind a large screen, you can’t see us you can only see the light we make. It’s all about the effects that we can make with objects like mirrored bowls and the like. It’s no different than a jazz musician using a plumber’s plunger so he can mute. We have a million subtle little things at our disposal. I’ve spent most of my life just developing those ideas and the people that I work with have just taken it further.

PW: Are you going to document each show?

JW: It’s all in the moment but we are going to document it, especially what happens backstage, which is the most difficult part. Now days with digital technology, you can easily document what’s happening on the screen, this time I’d like to have the ability to document the things backstage because I’d like to have some photographs to show how it’s done; it’s no secret. But it’s just hard to explain it; you have to see it.

PS: So, Skirball is everything from the back?

JW: Skirball is a traditional stage, a very nice 800 seat theater, there will be a 35’ wide by 22’ high screen (behind the composer/musicians) and everything we do will be behind the screen. The screen frames it out, this is a concept that I developed and this is typically how the show was done at the Filmore (theater, in the east village that is no more). Which is were all these ideas originated where we were the regular, every weekend light show for two years. You develop a comfort level and you just get better, we just got better. And that’s what happens with the light show, we just get better, because we’re going to do five performance (at the Skirball). So the first one will be good and the last one will be unbelievable.

PS: I’m going to the Saturday, Sept 15th, Terry Riley show…

JW: That was a tough get, he had to be convinced. His work is very abstract and he improvises which is a great combination. We love it when people (musicians) just relax and improvise. Or sit down relax and play really long sets. We’ll go wherever they want to go.

PS: Do you use the same team for every show?

JW: I don’t go around changing them, we have a core group but everyone isn’t always available at the same time. Two people for the core group will not be there but we’re bringing some other people in. We also bring people up, if you work with us for a certain number of shows your sort of a member anyway.

PS: Does everyone bring their own kit? Their own materials? Lighting tools?

JW: No, no, we keep everything. It’s all in boxes, with Seth Kirby and Ana Matronic, they live in Bushwick and it’s all kept in their garage; then it rolls in (to the venue) and we got to work.

Featuring the Joshua light show team and composer/musicians, Dame Evelyn Glennie & Zeena Parkins (9.13) @7:30p; Terry & Gyan Riley (9.14 @7:30p); John Zorn, Lou Reed, Bill Laswell & Milford Graves (9.14 @ 10p); Ben Goldwasser & Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT (9.15 @ 7:30p & 10p); and, in partnership with globalFEST, Debo Band & Forro in the Dark (9.16 @ 7:30p)

SEPTEMBER 13-16, 2012
NYU Skirball Center
Tickets for each performance are $20-$68 and may be purchased online at www.nyuskirball.org or by phone at 212.352.3101 or 866.811.4111.

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