Believe it or not, designing lighting to music is a lot like acting in a play. There has to be motivation relative to an emotion for action to take place. If you ever have a chance to speak with a stage actor, ask them if they memorize their lines or if they learn their lines, develop a character, and then, in working with the other actors in the play, create the motivation and emotional connection necessary to make the dialogue more natural. The better actors will tell you that they do they work a process like the one I described rather than just memorize lines. By working the process, the actor can convince the audience that they are that character and involve them in the show. Go watch Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich in “Death of a Salesman” or Alec Baldwin in “Glengary Glenn Ross” and you will see exactly what I am talking about. These actors preformed these rolls flawlessly, in my opinion, because they not only understood their characters, but understood the motivation and emotion behind their actions.
Creating cues and looks in lighting design is really no different. The lighting should reinforce the mood or action on the stage. This means that no cue should ever happen without the motivation for it to occur and it should help to evoke the emotion that the song is trying to create. If you think about the character development process while you are listening to music, you will start to see the colors that the song should be, and the movements (or lack there of) that should accompany the music you are programming to. Take Marc Brickman’s interpretation of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” from the Pulse tour.Every cue and color makes sense. Not only did he know the music, but it was apparent that he was emotionally attached to it. He may not have had the same attachment as the band, but the design of the song was very personal, and to the audience, it draws them in past just the music.
Not everyone gets to design music they can get deeply emotionally involved in. That is a fact in our industry. This is where the character development process can help you out. I cut my teeth running lights for cover acts on cruise ships. Trust me, I did not love all of the songs that I had to design for. I started out fighting the music and not getting any personal enjoyment out of most of the songs I was designing lights and it was apparent in how the shows looked. Eventually, I figured out that something had to change, and it was me. I had to work out a way to be able to listen to the music and find elements in every song to work cues into. This is where I can honestly say I started to enjoy styles of music past just rock. I found that getting emotionally involved got easier because I was making myself part of the process of character development in so as much as the lighting was a character in of itself. To me this is a big part of the difference between designing a show and just programming a show. You have to listen to the music and not just hear it.
So, give it a try. Listen to the music you are being asked to program to and try to make it your own. Find your meaning and let the lighting design become a dialogue between the lights and the music.