Underappreciated Arts: Visuals and Lighting in Electronic Music
Visuals have always played a strong role in the way music is construed.
Whether that’s through album artwork with iconic album covers like The Beatle’s Abbey Road, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or Nirvana’s Nevermind, or through music videos, photography and lighting, art has undeniably become integral to music.
Looking then at electronic music, it’s interesting to consider the relationship between music and visuals within this realm. Considering how much has been covered on elements of electronic music including reviews of singles and albums, event coverage, articles and more, it’s interesting to see that in comparison, little has been covered on lighting and visuals. This short article aims to highlight some of the people behind these arts, specifically within the electronic realm.
Electronic music has arguably been slower in curating ‘live’ physical images than other genres, perhaps due to the improvised nature of DJing. However, lighting has always featured heavily since the warehouse raves of the late 80s and early 90s which saw the heavy use of strobes to create different moods and atmospheres:
My own experience of acid house past to present is having a great DJ, uplifting spirit, a good basement or warehouse underground space in the darkness with strobe lights and the crowd – as one, celebrating the 303 sound (Danny Rampling)
For the acid house generation lighting was included in a formula which created an undeniable connection between those on the floor, a togetherness for the ravers. Still important today, I spoke to lighting engineer Chris Jennings–who has provided lighting for the likes of HAAi, Horse Meat Disco and Jasper James–to learn more about the art of lighting. For Jennings a regular shift can be over eight hours requiring concentration and dexterity to keep the lighting timed and harmonious with the music:
Lighting should complement the music that’s at the gig and enhance the overall experience, you don’t go to a music event to watch some lights flicker, but if they flicker in the right way it can certainly add to the night. If the music is slower and floatier, the slower and softer the lighting, and if the music is faster and heavier, the faster and flashier the lighting. Some examples: If there's a break in a song, or there's a 'put your hands in the air' moment I like to throw some static beams from the stage shining above the audience. For the middle of a techno set that just chugs along without many breaks, I like to constantly and repetitively punch lights to the beat, or move beams in repetitive 'snaps' or 'folds'. For a drum and bass drop I might decide to keep it dark for the build-up, then whack out a bright and disorientating strobe on the drop.
What then is exciting about lighting within electronic music is the opportunity for exploration and the ability to be able to change and adapt within not only genres, as Jennings pointed out above, but sub-genres as well.
Lighting: Chris Jennings (The Tuesday Club)
Yet, perhaps people are starting to go to the gigs to “watch some lights flicker”, not quite in the form of lighting but working somewhere between traditional artwork and the latter: visuals.
While other genres have adopted what I will refer to as ‘visuals’ – the projection of images in a live setting – for a long time, the use of visuals in electronic music is relatively new but also relatively complex.
For artists like Jon Hopkins visuals are integral to the experience of his performance, both in a live setting and in music videos where he uses imagery to "transmit a very particular feeling with each piece". In such cases to take away the visuals could completely invert the song's meaning. Indeed, without the collaboration between Blink Industries and himself, who created the album artwork and video footage for his fifth studio album – specifically Stephen McNally, Alex Grigg, Elliott Dear and Robert Hunter – Singularity wouldn’t have carried the same impact. When finding the visual element he "[responds] to a sense of calm and clarity, or something more stochastic or frenetic, and [finds] a visual analogue or companion for it". It does not necessarily have to follow a traditional narrative but is "more about following the thread of ideas through forms and shapes", something the artists help to tease out of him.
Where Hopkin's visuals are created beforehand and are carefully timed so that the visuals and music are delicately intertwined, there is a movement which is much more spontaneous bubbling under the surface, driven by a desire to explore the intersections between the arts and the sciences.
Figures like New York based Ezra Miller, who is currently collaborating with Objekt, curate visuals in a live setting, with Miller creating images from a live camera feed which is then manipulated to produce an image – a process which is "replicating natural elements, [with] blurs and slow bleeding colour effects that resemble fluids which behave chaotically".
But if you also look on a smaller, local scale visuals are taking an impact. In Nottingham, Matt Woodham aka. “Multimodal” plays a key role in the Wigflex events and has become integral to Nottingham's scene providing projections for the likes of Young Marco and Wolf Muller, as well as creating an interactive piece for the University of Nottingham, inspired by a students research into galaxies and their evolution, indicating the diversity of visuals across science and art fields.
A particularly pioneering project, saw Multimodal take over Nottingham Contemporary with a project inspired by "non-linear dynamics of systems found in nature, such as weather patterns" and provides a perfect example of how science and art collide. The project saw 3000 LEDS "embedded within custom-built surfaces and suspended sculptures which were layered with projection-mapped generative visuals, creating a vivid backdrop for the performers". Here the focus shifts away from that which is pre-recorded and sculpted to that which is spontaneous, mirroring the improvised nature of DJing in which DJs must adapt with the crowd to provide what they want. By incorporating visuals which are generated in real time through live audio input, the images fit accordingly to what is being played at the time rather than pre-created imagery which brings no meaning to the tracks, creating a new layer which complements rather than takes away from what is there.
Travel two hours North from Nottingham and you can find Izzy Bolt’s collective VAM (visuals, art and music) who are working at the heart of Manchester’s underground scene. The collective, started by Izzy, created an environment where she and her friends could collaborate and experiment with visuals. Being a DJ and a VJ (visual jockey) Bolt is in a unique position to look at the relationship between visuals and music:
An audio visual performance can really be made or broken by the visuals. I like to see and hear something that complements each other, when you can tell the connection between the image and sound has been thought through really well. This leaves much more of an impact on people’s memories of a performance because there are more stimuli interacting with the brain. People process information differently; some people are visual learners and some are auditory (Izzy Bolt)
Identifying a love for visuals from animation films, it’s interesting to see how Izzy’s experimentation with imagery has taken her from deliberately created animation to random, almost chaotic imagery. This scope for experimentation seems to be precisely what is so exciting about visuals in electronic music – while the imagery is random there is also an order to it, with Izzy noting that visuals that beat match with music create a reaction that works well in a live setting.
Izzy also talked to me about how the process could be reversed. As a producer she "sometimes makes a video before creating music to inspire [her] to think about what what she would want the aesthetic to be as a complete audio visual experience", indicating how art can be as much an inspiration on music, as music can be on art. Indeed, the two seem to come as a mutually exclusive pair, needing each other to ensure the best experience.
Another Manchester group that work closely with VAM, Howl Creative have even ran a workshop aimed at teaching digital art and visual design indicating the rise and importance of visuals within the industry. They are certainly here to stay and are only going to get better, more explorative and more escapist.
Speaking to these artists and collaborators I cannot help but think the importance of art in music is often overlooked with artists not receiving due recognition for not just lighting and visuals, but posters, logos and release artwork, all of which are essential ingredients for what music is today. As I spoke to Izzy Bolt from VAM she highlighted that the “way a concert is organised is always to make the audio the centre of attention. If someone chooses to incorporate a visual element into their live show, maybe they will credit the artist differently, as we do spend hours and hours when preparing visuals for an event. The craft deserves just as much credit in many cases”.
With Objekt rightly commending Ezra Miller in his new tour naming the tour 'Objekt x Ezra Miller' hopefully this will start to take off. But one cannot help but think that those further down in the line will not be credited for their efforts.
Big thanks to Izzy Bolt (VAM) and Chris Jennings (The Tuesday Club) for their contribution to the article.