The Musicality of Light

Posted on March 5, 2019
Artist: Burhan G | Photo: Jens Wognsen

Artist: Burhan G | Photo: Jens Wognsen

Many people play music when they work out to keep their bodies in sync with their exercise routine. For Danish lighting designer Theis Wermuth, listening to music is a form of exercise in and of itself; one that revolves around creative, rather than physical, fitness. Taking the time to absorb music in all of its nuances is essential to keeping his ears, heart and soul in touch with the work of the artists he lights, says Wermuth, owner of Denmark’s Create This design studio.

In Wermuth’s view, lighting should not merely reflect the mood of a song, it should also become embedded in the music, moving with each note as surely as the strings of a guitar or base vibrate to make their melodious sounds. This movement may not always take the form of pan and tilt changes in a fixture’s orientation. At times it may involve more subtle shifts in color or intensity. Always though, it is the music that dictates the direction of his lighting design.

The musicality of Wermuth’s work was very apparent to us when we saw his lighting for Danish Music Association’s Artist of the Year Alex Vargas last fall. Impressed with the way his design harmonized with his client’s performance, we asked him to share some insights on the marriage between music and light.

Artist Nephew | Photo Morten Rygaard

Artist Nephew | Photo Morten Rygaard

When discussing your work for Alex Vargas with us, you referred to your lighting as an “extra band member.” Can you tell us what you meant by that?
“I want the lights to be part of the show with the music. It makes no sense to make lights for the sake of the lights – it has to be for the music! The lights should play along with the music. If the music makes a ‘blip blop’ sound – the lights should embrace that sound. This way the visual aspect of the show gets more stressed.”

Does light have to move to the music to reflect it, or are there other ways for lighting to be in the moment with music through things like color and intensity level?
“I think that any effect or feature of a light can be used to reflect the music. It is about visualizing what you hear. It could be a gobo rotating only to a specific sound for just a few seconds. Or shutter blades moving back and forth. It is all about knowing the fixtures you work with and understanding the music in detail.”

Before you design do you spend a lot of time listening to your clients’ music?
“I spend a lot of time listening to my clients’ music. This is a process that starts when the client initially approaches me. I need to make sure the music gives me something that I can turn into light. I need to be able to visualize in my head what I want to do with this music.

If I don’t feel the music in a way that gives me any inspiration, I cannot work for the potential client. To do so would not make either of us happy. In the past I have turned offers of a tour down because I wasn’t inspired by the music. If I create uninspired lights for a show it is a lose- lose situation. The artist isn’t happy and neither am I.”

When you do listen to your client’s music as a lighting designer, is it different than listening as a fan?
“I think so. I rarely listen to the lyrics in the beginning. I have to see the music in a bigger picture and sense the feeling of the music. I listen to how the music builds up through intro, verse, and chorus, etcetera.”

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to weave music and light together?
“I think the biggest challenge is to actually get what I hear and see in my head programmed into a console. Sometimes it takes 40 cues to visualize a musical section of 5-10 seconds.”

Are there certain types of music that are easier or more difficult for you to reflect in light than others?
“Generally no. But of course, a very sensitive song without big markings in the music is a lot faster to program. But there might be small sounds or twists that can be visualized – without taking focus from a quiet moment.”

When you are busking a show what sort of things do you listen for in music as you work your console?
“I rarely busk a show live. I build my shows up in cue lists, so preparation is everything to me. Then I listen, after changes in the music, to a specific guitar or keyboard sound. And of course breaks or marks. For me there is no difference in programming a timecode show and a ‘handheld’ show. I program shows the same way. I only do timecode shows if I have an operator on a tour/show. If I do the tour/ show myself, I don’t use timecode.”

Sometimes lightshows don’t blend very well with the music. What do you think the most common reason for this failure is?
“I think the main reason for that is either not understanding the music. Or not enough preparation. If you understand the music and prepare, things tend to fall into place naturally. This flow is the beauty of music.”

Theis Wermuth

Theis Wermuth