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Susan Rose – The Music of Light

Posted on June 1, 2015
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Light doesn’t make a sound, but it can perform a beautiful duet with music, both on the stage and in a career. Singer, songwriter and widely acclaimed LD Susan Rose is living proof of that. A much in demand programmer and designer whose credits include the likes of Ringo Starr and Hank Williams Jr., Rose has shown an uncanny ability to weave every lighting effect into a musical performance. Go to a concert illuminated by her, and you can’t help but get the feeling that battens and moving heads are as much a part of the performance as guitars and keyboards.

Not surprisingly, Rose, who sees herself as playing an instrument every time she sits down at a lighting console, started out as a musician. After high school she moved to Nashville from her native Orlando with dreams of becoming a country star. She got some gigs with artists like Lee Greenwood and still sings today, but real stardom came on the lighting circuit.

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Starting out in lighting almost by accident, she quickly became eagerly sought after by LDs and tour managers for her extraordinary programming skills. Aside from her left brain musical talents, she also has impressive right brain prowess as a technical whiz, inherited from her father who was a rocket scientist. Combing these dual personalities has given Rose (who actually is a Gemini) a unique two-sided view of the interplay between lighting and music.

After returning home to Pigeon Forge, TN from a tour, Rose graciously agreed to share some of her insights with us. We’ll probably never listen – or look! – at music the same way again. Enjoy.

Ok, let’s start off with a big picture question; in general terms what does light contribute to a musical performance in your view?

“The color and movement that lighting brings to a concert changes the whole experience for audiences. It really brings the music to life. That’s why people come to see as well as to hear a concert. This isn’t to detract from the artists on stage. They are clearly the stars, but lighting supports their performance. Lighting captures music in another dimension – the visual.”

Is this why you see yourself as ‘playing an instrument’ when you’re working the lighting console?

“Oh yes, absolutely! When I’m on tour with the Ringo Star band working the console I’m there bopping and shaking just like it was a keyboard. That’s because I’m feeling the music when I’m working the lights. Some of the guys might rib me about it, but they understand. They appreciate that you have to feel the music and know where it’s going and what it means in terms of timing, color and things of that nature if you’re going to reflect it in light.”

Do you have to like the music to create a good lightshow for it?

“I have a musical background and I like all kinds of music, but no you don’t have to like a particular style of music to do it justice as a lighting designer or programmer. You have to understand it and appreciate what the artist is trying to do, but like it, no.”

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Before you design for a tour do you listen to the artist’s music?

“For sure, I will listen and try to understand it from the artist’s perspective.”

What do you listen for?

“I’ll listen for the timing, where the key points in the music are, what that artist’s intentions are. I’ll also look outside the music at things like what size stage and venue the artist is going to be performing at. Who is the primary audience and things like that.”

Can you elaborate on the part about the audience?

“Sure, if I’m lighting a show at someplace like Dollywood where there are a lot of older people in the audience, I’m not going to use audience blinders.”

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So if you had to describe in detail what you do as a designer to help the audience ‘see’ the music, what would you say?

“The audience sees the music through color and timing. I will design to have certain colors or shades of color appear when the music goes in a certain direction – almost like the rhythm or bass section will.

“Timing is also absolutely important when you are painting music with light. If you want to hit a certain light at a certain point in the song, timing is essential. Even in ballads, when you fade out the lighting as the song winds down, your timing is so important. You want the fade to be behind the artist. The ballad has to end with the focus on the artist not your lighting – and that takes timing. Having a good sense of rhythm is definitely valuable for a lighting designer. I’m not saying it’s absolutely necessary, but it sure helps if you want to make it easy for your audience to see the music in light.”

We’ve heard you sing, so we can vouch that you have an excellent sense of rhythm. Do you have songs that you recorded that really stand out as being representative of you?

“That’s easy! It’s ‘This Is Who I Am.’ It’s about coming to the point in life where you stop worrying about living up to the expectations of others and accept yourself as who you are, which winds up giving you a great sense of peace.”

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When you were elected into the Full Sail University Hall of Fame, you spent some time talking about your mom. Can you tell us about that? Was your mom a big influence?

“Yes she was. She passed away after I was elected to the Full Sail University Hall of Fame, but before I was actually inducted. I dedicated my induction to her and though I was sad that she wasn’t there; I was at peace knowing that she knew of my selection and was proud of me.”

What was your experience like at Full Sail?

“It was great! I was there when it was still small and I went for studio recording. I was always technically oriented, probably from my dad who was a rocket scientist. So as a singer I wanted to learn all that I could about recording studios, with the thought of one day having my own.”

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How did you make the leap from singer to lighting person?

“Like everyone else who moved to Nashville, I went there to become a country music star. Lighting was what I kind of call my ‘accidental career.’ When I moved to Nashville, I got a job running a spotlight at Opryland. Alabama was one of the main acts there my first summer. I was fascinated by their lighting rig. The LD was really cool and helped me learn things. Then when the tour left, the lighting console, which was owned by Opryland stayed in the theme park.

“When new shows came to Opryland, management would ask me to program the lights, since I showed an ability in this area and was somewhat familiar with the console. The following year I was designing for acts that came in without an LD. When they had an LD I did the programming for them. This opened a lot of contacts for me. This led me to Louise Mandrell who needed a lighting designer for her tour.

“So, I toured with Louise and then I took a break from lighting when I got hired as a backup singer for Lee Greenwood. Next thing Louise called and asked me to come back. I thought about it and said ‘ok, I’ll give it a year.’ Well that year turned into 16 wonderful years in lighting. I got good at programming and wrote a Whole Hog 2 reference guide, which led to more and more referrals. In 2003, I got the call to work with Ringo, and have been with him ever since. It’s been a great life!”

How about being a woman in a male dominated lighting tech field did you ever get any flack?

“Oh yeah some at times, but nothing extreme, probably because I never let it bother me. I never went around as a girly girl with all the makeup asking guys to lift boxes for me, but at the same time I never walk around with my guard all up waiting for things to happen. It was just, ‘this is me.’ People respond positively when you approach them that way. I’m doing mentoring of young girls in this business now and that’s my advice to them- stay positive, be focused and be yourself and you’ll find that the lighting industry is a great place to be.”