Thursday, July 08, 2010


This is the time of year in which every ex-pat American must think — if even for only a moment — about those low-explosive pyrotechnic devices used for aesthetic and entertainment purposes, about fireworks.   It's been my experience that not a few US composers have a weak spot for the sights and, especially, sounds of gunpowder used in its optimal form.   (And surely, composers of other backgrounds have their own moments around the times of year — New Year's, or national holidays — when fireworks are at play.)  Sometimes even the most cautious among us eagerly abandon caution, risking injury to limb, eye, and — most critically for a musician — ear, for the chance to cause and experience that uniquely painful and pleasurable combination of effects caused by simple chains of combustion.

During my poker-playing days, in the '80s, rounds of cards in Beatty or Pahrump, Nevada were frequently broken up by parking lot rounds of loud and colorful explosives, one of those Nevada pleasures not possible at home in California.  (I'm usually tight with money, but when the poker game was going well, burning up a bit of cash in the form of fireworks seemed perfectly natural: burnt offerings to Fortuna.)  There was a special delight in composing sequences of colors, sounds (whistles, zippers, crackers, and plain booms), as well as gradually escalating the altitudes achieved by arrays of bottle rockets. For some reason, however, this particular performance art was one I never considered integrating into my own musical works.

Other composers, however, have had no qualms about such an integated musical-pyrotechnical art form.  Handel, famously, made music to accompany fireworks.  Others have required explosions to occur during a piece.  And still others made music about fireworks (Ives's Fourth of July, Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice.)   One of the most endearing qualities about composer David Cope, one of my teachers as an undergrad in Santa Cruz, was his serious affection for fireworks. During my years there, he frequently reported about scouting out the perfect place on the beach for a big piece with rocketry and one piece, Vectors, a setting of texts by Ives, was one of the highlights of those years, climaxing with assembled on-stage musicians, two marching bands and electronics being overwhelmed by an indoor fireworks display, sending all the audience and performers to the exits as the the hall rapidly filled with smoke.  



Paul Muller said...

Well, the Hollywood Bowl incorporates fireworks on a fairly regular basis and I'm not sure that the music is always the better for it.

But, if it draws people to the performance...

Anonymous said...

I too am a big fan - and we can't help but notice how many fireworks displays are now coordinated (or synched) with soundtracks - Handel had it right.

Could fireworks be a weird kind of synesthesia?

David Wolfson said...

Fireworks can be music by itself—-here's an excerpt from an entry on my blog with the same title as this one (surprise!)

A fireworks display is a time art, probably more akin to choreography than music, strictly speaking, but still it shares some compositional problems and solutions with music.

The show I saw was quite neatly composed; it began with a fountain effect, and segued into the body of the show, with one, two or a handful of rockets going off at a time, always varying the timing, never predictable, coming to a cliffhanger with a pair of explosions that left behind glowing parachutes, and then of course finishing with a Grand Finale—which started with a much larger and louder fountain effect. I suspect if I had been paying closer attention (or knew more about fireworks), I would have noticed more subtleties and relationships among the fireworks chosen. The center section seemed somehow contrapuntal.

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz said...

Came to this discussion late, but I'm a fireworks person, too. I did a dozen shows over the years, and loved every minute of preparing them, coaching the crew, and doing the show itself.

But music, no. I simply love the light and the sound of the explosions, all (as David Wolfson describes) choreographed and scored without external commentary.