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The Process of Illumination

by Jefferson Waful on April 02, 2014

Chris Kuroda complements Phish

“To me, that just made my stomach drop a little bit,” says Dave Matthews Band LD Fenton Williams of Brightman’s slow-moving audience lights. “It’s kind of like the moment you go down the big drop on a rollercoaster, seeing them move across the room. The lights would start lower on you, at your knees, and come up to your face and then go over you. And it would be like, ‘Wow, what just happened?’”

Williams was also fascinated by the fast movements that he was discovering with new fixtures. “I don’t ride motorcycles,” he says. “I’m not a real fast person to begin with, but I think it was like this new toy and it was so exciting to take a mirrored light and see how quickly you could take a beam from the stage to the people in the balcony in—bam—just one cue.”

Around the same time that Phish and Dave Matthews Band graduated from theaters to larger venues, both light shows were rapidly growing in size. This was very fortunate timing, as huge advances in moving light technology coincided with both bands’ surges in popularity and arguably helped to fuel it. However, the digital moving light consoles were still very primitive in those days, so Williams was forced to run several at once. “At one point, I may have had six controllers stacked together. I think they could only control up to six lights each. You kind of get used to your timings based on how quickly things can react and how the board is set up.”

Changing light boards was a bit of a challenge as Williams, like many lighting designers, runs his show as if he is “playing” the light board as an instrument. Switching the layout of faders and buttons can affect muscle memory, causing more thought and less creativity. Switching consoles is the equivalent of a piano player performing the same songs with the keys laid out in a different configuration.

Like most art forms, the goal of improv- isational lighting is to get to a mental space where you’re not thinking. This can be difficult when sophisticated technology is at your fingertips. “I find that when I improvise the best, my brain is not even a part of it,” says Kuroda. “[Phish guitarist] Trey Anastasio and I have an expression which comes from the movie The Last Samurai, which is: ‘Too many mind.’ If either of us have a bad set, we’ll meet in the dressing room and go, ‘too many mind.’ Pull your brain out of it and just sort of let it happen without thinking about it too much.

Like Kuroda, Paul Hoffman, Widespread Panic’s LD, played drums at an early age and approaches lighting from a similar frame of mind. “At some point, playing the drum kit becomes less about consciously hitting this cymbal or that drum, but more of a flow and feel of muscle movements, like a dance,” he says. “That’s where I’m trying to get with the console. When the band is playing, I want to disconnect from the programmer in me and become more of a lighting musician.”

Both Hoffman and Williams have embraced technological advances and their shows now include new visual elements such as LED video walls, and in the case
of Williams, automated moving trusses. Kuroda has incorporated the use of pyrotechnics, lasers and video in his recent work with Justin Bieber, but says with Phish, there has been a conscious decision to avoid the extra bells and whistles. “There have been several meetings and discussions over the years about trying to keep it pure with Phish,” he says. “Make it all about the music. Don’t give too much sensory overload. I mean, we do have sensory overload with Phish, but we don’t need extra elements of sensory overload. The way [the band] feels is that you create your own images in your head of what that song represents to you. You don’t need a video image telling you something like, ‘This song equals tree.’”

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