“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hands which plays touching one key or another purposely to cause vibrations in the Soul.” – Wassily Kandinsky, 1912/1913
From 1996-2003 I had a band called the Freight Elevator Quartet. We were, as the name suggests, a four-piece, with a cellist, a didgeridoo player, a drum machinist, and yours truly, playing all manner of restored analog synthesizers from the 1960s and 1970s. We performed improvised, long-form sets, often at art openings and warehouse parties. We didn’t have a guitarist, or a drummer, or a regular vocalist. One thing we did have, though, was live, projected visuals, typically driven by my friend and long-time collaborator Mark McNamara, using computer software I’d written to allow the sound of the band to be “visualized” in different ways by affecting pre-rendered animations, appropriated video footage found online, and live feeds taken from wireless cameras.
Very few of the people working as live visualists in New York City in the late ’90s and early ’00s would have experienced the original incarnation of the Joshua Light Show, and a straw poll of friends from that community tells me that many first learned about them from Kerry Brougher, Judith Zilczer, and Jeremy Strick’s Visual Music exhibition or through Video Out, Meredith Finkelstein and Paul Vlachos’ documentary about live A/V performers, both of which served to bring Joshua White and his collaborators back, as it were, into the spotlight around 2005. Liquid light shows were understood as integral to live music in the 1960s and early 1970s. We knew that somebody had to be responsible for the beautiful, impossibly saturated splashes of spherical light suspended above the heads of Janis Joplin and Frank Zappa in those photos and posters, but documentation of how it happened was a little thin on the ground, especially for the “lumia,” Joshua White’s instrumental system of mirrors, mylar, and motors that could fragment and bend light, inspired by Thomas Wilfred’s color organ-driven “eighth fine art” of projected light.
The physical manipulation of light, with gels, oils, lamps, mirrors, and motors, is a visceral (and sometimes literally viscous), material, tactile, bespoke, and gestural art form. There’s no $100 starter kit you can buy at Guitar Center, and even the most psychedelic of presets in VJ software you might download won’t get you anywhere close. Experiencing it can feel like you’re taking part in a ritual out of a mythic past, before our images were video, these immaterial broadcast signals, first analog then digital, electric then computational, sent via wires and through air, a medium you can easily quantify and describe but never directly touch. There seems to be a strange incompatibility between these worlds, as if the liquid light and the scan lines and the pixels, the physical and the analog and the digital, can’t exist in the same space at the same time without some kind of rupture in the fabric of the universe. Josh and his collaborators are virtuoso performers on instruments that you don’t see directly; like the pit orchestra in an opera house, part of the wonder is the suspension of direct origin… the light is somehow, magically just there.
Twenty years ago, I remember thinking about my group’s “multimedia” approach to performance as cannily strategic, addressing all manner of anxieties I had about how we were perceived by the audience. My primary anxiety was, are we interesting to watch? This naïve concern musicians have, that somehow visuals addressed a natural shortcoming of live musical performance as it became increasingly technological, is hilariously reductive and offensive to everyone involved, and one of my favorite things about the Joshua Light Show is that they turn this question on its head. The musicians they perform with are, if anything, at risk of being upstaged by the imagery.
“Working in light is just as difficult as working in steel,” Josh told the New York Times in 1969. This is true, but the structures are every bit as magnificent and well crafted. Keep your eyes open.
R. Luke Dubois, D.M.A., is a composer, artist, and performer who explores the temporal, verbal, and visual structures of cultural and personal ephemera. He is Associate Professor of Integrated Digital Media, Music Technology, and Interactive Telecommunications (NYU Engineering); Music and Performing Arts Professions (NYU Steinhardt); and Interactive Telecommunications (NYU Tisch).