Talking Synesthesia with The Joshua Light Show’s Joshua White

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People always raise an eyebrow when you talk about the senses colliding. And sure, maybe some of that is warranted when you’re talking about smelling colors in a chemically enhanced state, but all you need to be able to see music—not simply a live performance or notes on a page, but cascading lights that match moods and ooze and dart around in time to the beat—is to take in a Joshua Light Show performance.

That’s not an exaggeration; it’s just science— synesthesia, to be exact. Our minds naturally sync the music we’re hearing to the lights we’re seeing, and the result is a live experience like no other. Led by Joshua White, the Joshua Light Show rose to prominence during the late ‘60s at the Fillmore East, performing psychedelic liquid light shows behind acts like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin and even Chuck Berry.

Paste caught up with White at CMJ before The Joshua Light Show’s performance with Woods at NYU’s Skirball Hall to discuss how his craft has changed over the years, why he walked away from it (and subsequently returned) and what exactly makes an ideal light show.

Paste: So what can we expect for this Woods show tonight?
Joshua White: It’s the classic traditional style based on how I first did it back in the day. I’ve been doing light shows really all my life, and they just morph into different things. And this light show now is based a lot on the old traditional stuff, which is the liquid projection, and then we have a whole modern section which is digital projection coming out of a video projector, and we mix them together. And it’s relatively seamless to the audience. And that’s the perfect show. Sometimes we have to do shows where we’re working on smaller screens. Sometimes we do shows with many less people. We love to do shows in challenging places like planetariums—planetariums are a really great place to do a show because you lean back, the screen is up there. So each of these shows that we do are what we would call site-specific. In other words, we pick the location or the location picks us and then we figure out what the hell are we gonna do. So this summer the Cleveland Museum of Art invited us to a big party they have every year, and the outside of the Cleveland Museum of Art is one of those Beaux-Arts buildings that’s solid marble in the doorway, and we projected on that marble using their video projectors but our art, and it was quite stunning.

It’s so funny because what we’re engaged in is a visual art, and of course all we’re trying to do is describe it in words. But it’s okay. The other thing of course is if you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what it is. What we do is something that we’ve always done and what I’ve always done in one form or another, and it just changes and morphs, and for the last few years I’ve been working with a group of people whose ages are all over the place in terms of the youngest is 22 and the oldest is 72, and we just come together and everybody is speaking the same language. We all know what the light show is, and we riff and improvise. And that’s very important, the improvisation is like spelled with a capital I because that’s what we’re proudest of and that’s what we do.

Paste: So would you say the site factors into the performance more than if you’re doing lights for a specific band?
White: Yes. The light show began for me as we were engaged full-time at the Fillmore East, which was a 3000-seat theater, to do exactly this with whatever band was on stage. And it was hard because everything was new then. There was none of the rock and roll technology or other things we’re used to, so we were making it up as we were going along. We’re talking about the late ‘60s. So as we were developing the things we did, the bands were developing—I mean things that you may even be familiar with, like monitor wedges, didn’t exist. The microphones. The sound. The lighting. Nothing was the way it is now, but that was ok,ay and all of that technology, all that stuff we just take for granted now, is all stuff that began to be developed in the late ‘60s. In 1969, the commercial world discovered how powerful the rock and roll was with Woodstock, because 400,000 people showed up. And so after that, bands were starting to play arenas and other large venues, making big, big paydays and the pleasure of a 3000-seat theater with a big screen was just not…it just wasn’t the same. And so I saw that and I moved away to other things. But I never stopped doing light shows, I just stopped doing them in terms of pursuing them as a way to make a living, and eventually I became literally a television director, a broadcast television director, and worked commercially in that business for 30 years, but always doing light shows and art projects and things.

Skirball Center, NYU, 2012

Paste: Did your background in light shows inform your career as a television director at all?
White: Yes. It was a little bit apples and oranges, but television when I began in the very early ‘70s was in many ways much more primitive than it is today. Cameras were enormous, they couldn’t handle the sound, just simple things we don’t even think about now like an intercom system. What they were using for the 15 years that they were in existence before that was telephone headsets, but the minute you turned up the sound, you couldn’t hear anymore. I carried with me as a director nothing. I’d show up with my script and this intercom system so the camera could hear me. And I began doing a lot of rock and roll, and because I’d been at the Fillmore, which was very successful, I became for a while the person who could handle big things on television. But more important is that the thing the light show always did was, it looks like a bunch of junk up there, but people have real control over what they do. And therefore we can improvise. So yes, we know what Woods is gonna play, but we don’t know what they’re gonna play. The minute we hear the first note of music, we have something, and then we listen and it flows, and it’s improvisation. And I tried to whenever I could do that in television. A lot of television, especially because it began as a live medium that couldn’t be recorded over, television had to be rehearsed and blocked and everything, but when I began it had just started to get looser, and they’d just go in and shoot something without any rehearsal and worked to develop ideas that allowed you to shoot something in a way that wouldn’t look awful afterwards. And the footage I shot in 1970 looks wonderful now. Not because I was a genius, just because I wasn’t trying to make shot sheets and tell everybody what to do. I was trying to create an atmosphere by—because you’d sit in a chair and talk to camera operators. And here we’re sitting here, we’re all on headsets, I’m not giving them direction, we’re just talking to each other. But our ability to improvise around a situation, to make something visual that goes along with what we’re hearing, that’s the essence of the light show. It’s all about improvising with light. And the audience puts it together. The audience actually are the ones who connect what they hear with what they see. So that’s the real responsibility there, that they are connecting.

Paste: Do you think there are certain genres of music that lend themselves better to light shows?
White: That’s a good question. At this point having worked for the last 10 years with the regenerated light show, which it’s the same light show but it’s more modern and it keeps changing and modernizing with whoever is in it, but the thing…I can tell you more what we aren’t, which is what we actually discourage now, which is anything that is nostalgic. We use a lot of terminology to refer to it, like the light show does not want to go “back to the garden” which means we don’t wanna do…it’s a wonderful idea that Jorma Kaukonen is having a 70th birthday three-day event at the Beacon Theatre with all the great musicians coming to honor him on his 70th birthday, and it would be just so great to have an old light show, but it is really hard to do and it’s expensive and it’s complicated and it’s not that we don’t want to honor him, but that’s not what we want to do, and we want to work with bands that are new. And a lot of the bands that are new, they are less about playing large, puffed-up shows , which was the goal, or releasing giant albums, and a lot of the music is just perfect because it goes on and on and on. They don’t play 10 songs and leave, which is what it used to be. “And now here’s our next song.” You know, it just flows. And lately there’s been this wonderful trend where bands come out and say, “You know, we really don’t want to be lit.” Well, that’s a new one, because that was always a problem, the lighting was always washing out the light show. And I’ve found myself just saying “Well, just a little bit because you don’t want to be a total silhouette either,” but the thing that’s made me stick with it is the music. It’s all about the music. And I can honestly tell you in all of the 10 years I’ve been doing [the regenerated light show], it’s extremely rare when the music does not inspire the light show. But at the Fillmore, we had to do a light show with everybody because it was what you looked at, but Chuck Berry came out and he just did his same old act he had been doing for 40 years, and we just did our light show and everybody was happy. But I wouldn’t want to be doing that now. The music is the most exciting part because along with everything else, it’s 50 percent of the experience. So it’s the most exciting part in terms of what makes it exciting for us because you sit down, you hear the music and you see something. The light show that we practice is essentially an abstract one with some variations. It’s mostly abstraction, which allows you to make your own connections, and people do. It’s also not in dead sync with the music. It tends to float around it. There’s this thing called synesthesia. Synesthesia is actually a scientifically recognized process in which the mind synchronizes. It wants to put things in sync, so if the mind is hearing music and seeing something, it connects them, which is good because what that does is that relieves us of having to—for this particular show—we don’t have to ever be literal. If someone is singing rock and roll, we don’t have to put up a picture of a rock and a picture of a roll. And that’s a mistake that was made a lot. And the other thing we try to do is to stay away from stuff that’s obvious process or in our shorthand, what we call “screensavers.” When something looks like a screensaver, you know when you’re looking at a screensaver that no matter how interesting it might be, that it’s always just gonna keep repeating, and there’s something digital about that, something about it that just has no soul, and what we try to do is we try to project the soulfulness of people back here. When we do the show at this place, we actually begin with the screen up and you can see all the equipment, it’s lit. And it’s just walking around, and then the screen goes down and we do the light show, and we actually have a series of pre-understood mistakes within the light show, like there’s a whole plate of liquid and a hand will come in and you’ll see a dropper squeezing some color, and it’s not a mistake, it’s to remind people from time to time that there’s people back here, because otherwise they think they’re looking at a movie. And the truth is, they could be, but the difference is movies don’t listen, and this movie listens.

Paste: Has there ever been a miscommunication between people improvising?
White: Well yes, of course it happens all the time, but the one thing we try to do is to always keep in mind that the audience doesn’t necessarily know that you’ve made a mistake. Unless you’ve done something really stupid. So the thing that happens rarely, once or twice an evening, is something will come on that shouldn’t come on and it’ll go off right away, and that we just wish didn’t happen. Like I hit a button last night and some blue lights came on and then they were off and there was nothing I could do to fix it, the moment passed, not a soul even remembered it a few minutes later, but the idea is we all talk to each other and we have a kind of a language, so one of the things is if we have too many ideas happening on the screen at one time, one of the people will say “it looks like soup.” And that doesn’t mean turn it off, it just means “everybody be sensitive to the fact that we’re putting so much stuff up there, there’s so many ideas, that it’s no longer fun or distinctive anymore, it’s like soup.” And if someone’s doing a solo piece with just some liquids that are spinning around and moving—and we use heat and we use cold, we use a lot of chemistry to do it—but sometimes it’ll last for 30 seconds, and sometimes it’ll last for 10 minutes. And when it starts to look not good, someone will say it looks like poo. And poo is just a signal, it doesn’t mean panic, it just means let’s start to think what we’re going to do next, how can we get out of it, and the different things we do in the light show go from very specific things to what I run, which is a lot of pure color. I just run color. So if something is going bad, if the screen just gets redder and redder or bluer and bluer and it washes that out, and then it fades out and something else comes out and the blue goes away, and that’s how we do it. It’s like in music it’s a vamp. They vamp. We have vamping lights that look like there’s something going on, but what it really is is we’re trying to transition to something else.

Hirshorn Museum, Washington, DC, 2005

Paste: What for you makes a successful light show?
White: Where we become one with the music. And we’re all feeling the music. I can be as egotistical as I want about the light shows, but if there was no music, there would be no light show. If there was no light show, the music would do just fine. So it’s always about what is leading us, where are we going, and for me a great show is a show where what’s happening with the music syncs with what’s going on in people’s minds and we interpret it. For us, one of the great things is when music goes through a lot of changes because every time there’s a change in the mood or the tempo or whatever, we do it as well. We love working with bands like this who are just working all the time. We did a show with Woods, one of the young people in the light show who’s in his early 20s, he did a show with them, our show was in a theater but his was in a nightclub. But he worked with them, and so I’m gonna ask him to lead for Woods tonight. And what that simply means is that he’ll be the first person. He’ll set the tone, and we will then work off of him, it’ll bounce off of him. He’s gonna be like the leader. Which does not mean that he tells us what to do as much as he has the responsibility of being the first thing you see, which sets the tone. It takes a little time sometimes just to find the rhythm, find out exactly what you’re dealing with on an item-by-item basis it takes a little while, but fortunately we’re in a kind of passive position here, so if we do very little while we’re waiting for something to happen, we’re fine. The worst things that can happen to a light show is people aren’t paying attention and the music ends but the light show keeps going. That’s like a super crime. What’s worse is the music begins and we don’t have anything. That’s bad. But if the music stops or the music does a massive change and we don’t reflect it in some way, then I’m unhappy and I let everybody know how unhappy I am, which means nothing to them. [laughs] And that’s our style. The light show, from the Fillmore all the way back, was run by people—myself and all the people I was with—we were all, we weren’t kids, we were 24. And we had all been to college and been to drama school and done productions in the theater, so we understood theatricality. We understood about when you’re doing too much, when to start, when to stop, you know? How to be part of something, which is not necessarily something that a lot of our colleagues did. A lot of them were people who just wanted to make light and be groovy and people who wanted to get stoned and be groovy or people who couldn’t be in bands so they did light shows, and that was then. Now people who want to make light shows really want to make light shows, but they get hung up on the technology. We call them “the new ones” who insist it can all be done on video and it looks like it, and then there’s “the old ones” who insist on taking 16mm film and scratching it and everything, and we do all of that, but we don’t build a light show around one idea. It’s all completely different concepts. And that’s very important. It truly is a mix of ideas, which can come together or work individually. But terms like “screensavers,” “poo,” “soup,” you know, are all derogatory terms which help us define—and there’s also good terms as well—but they help us define without any discussion what someone is feeling, and the other people in the light show can reflect on that. Not everybody agrees. Sometimes they don’t agree. A good example was I installed two powerful strobes last night, and strobes are like a scary thing. It’s this tremendous responsibility with strobes, they’re overused or they’re used only to rev up the crowd in an arena, you know? And there was this performer last night, Glasser, and she was one woman in a red dress on the stage with nothing, but she was cooking, and she was making great stuff. She was working to her own tracks, and I didn’t want to hit the strobes, but one other person in the show said “this would be just great with some strobes” and I waited for the right moment and then pounded away with the strobes.

Abron Arts Center, New York, 2010

Paste: Do you have a favorite show that you’ve done?
White: Gee. Well, from the old days, I’m proudest of two shows that we did. One was when The Who produced the album Tommy but it wasn’t really commercially released yet, and the Fillmore had them in for a week to perform Tommy in front of a live audience and we did a light show behind them. And I don’t know whether you know Tommy or you know the story of Tommy, but it doesn’t make any sense. It never did. But we managed to come up with abstractions and a few concrete images that defined it, that absolutely defined it. And The Who were, again, everybody’s in their mid-20s, they came out on stage and said we’d like to play this new thing, it’s called Tommy, and there’s only four of them, of which three play musical instruments, and they proceed to do the entire album and then they come back for an encore and play everything else they’ve ever done. And it was one show a night, and you could not get a ticket for it, and we were able to keep up with them. I was very proud of the Jimi Hendrix New Year’s Eve concert in 1969/1970 because we just did well with it. He was playing beautifully and we kept up with him. In terms of modern times, we’ve had a lot of success with very esoteric—and when I say esoteric I mean just not what you would expect—there’s an older generation composer named Manuel Göttsching, and Manuel Göttsching wrote one great definitive piece of music called “E2-E4” that’s become like the thing they play at raves before they close them, just one German guy playing this thing, but it just keeps going for 40 minutes. And we were able to come up with some very interesting ideas, and we performed with him several times. We’re looking forward to doing Television just because they have such an interesting vibe. The nice thing for me is that I’m ignorant of the music. My personal taste in music—and I’m the only one—it just ended when I left the Fillmore in terms of the kind of music that I had to hear. So what I did, both my wife and I we’re very interested in jazz. I live for the blues. If I could go back in time, I’d just do an Albert King concert. That’d be my idea of heaven. But blues, jazz, what we would like to do is more classical because there are musical pieces that we could be performing to and because the technology has evolved, we can go into Carnegie Hall now without a whole lot of setup, not putting up screens. We can project a giant light show to a classical music piece, and we’d love to have a shot at that, and that’s something we’re working on, but from a musical point-of-view, no, the truth is all I have inside my head is really great music from the bands but even if we’ve done wonderful shows, I don’t feel inclined to go home and put on the records or play their music, which is me. As a television director I directed New York Philharmonic concerts, so to me it’s really about the music is the driveshaft for the light show [laughs]. So even when I’m just sitting in a concert with no visual, I’m seeing a light show or I’m feeling a light show, and that’s just good luck for me. I just feel light shows.

Paste: Was it always that way for you?
White: Yeah. It always was, going all the way back to where I would be the one that would do the lighting for the high school dance, which in those days was “could you put up some red lights and a mirrored ball?” That was how I started. And then the first sort of real thing that I did when I was done with college was discotheques. Now, discotheques were different than discos. Discotheques were the first wave of nightclubs. They were basically clubs where you could have dinner and then get up and dance and they closed at midnight or one o’clock. So nothing like the discos of the ‘70s. These were the discotheques of the ‘60s. And because I had theater training and because I understood and wasn’t intimidated by the scene, I could do lighting that wouldn’t break. That was part of what I was hired for. It didn’t break all the time. And I would have continued to do that, but then I had a chance to start to do light shows. First we saw them and I was working with other people and then we said “we could do that” and then we did. And we never looked back after that. And the reason that I left it was because the scene was changing. The venues were changing. You can’t do a light show in an arena. You can do a million other things, which is what they do now, lights, flying smoke, everything, but the actual focused light show, it just can’t be done. Something else, but not this. And you can’t even do it for if you have all the money in the world and you’re doing the opening night celebration for an Olympics, you still can’t really do anything that is just going to blow people away. Maybe if you’re there, but otherwise it just doesn’t work. Everything has to be contained now.

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