ideas for a minimalist fireworks display composition meant to bring a community together

most of the time i’ve ever seen fireworks, i’ve found myself dissatisfied with the lack of form and aesthetic pacing in the presentation.  Usually there’s a group of a particular type of firework that gets shot off, and then there’s a pause, and then there’s another group, and then there’s another pause, &c until the big finale where they shoot off more fireworks at once as a climax.  After a while, i just get bored.  If i want to see random flashes of pretty lights with pretty sound, i can just turn on an iTunes visualizer.

I’ve never seen the kind of fireworks that are super coordinated presentations all sync’ed by a computer program.  I bet that if composed well i would like that quite a bit, but it’s hard to make a judgement call without having any first hand experience in it.

During the Tulane homecoming fireworks show, as i found myself annoyed at the lack of form and tension and real understanding of how to make that more effective to the common viewer, this idea started to form in my head for a minimalist composition of fireworks that would span over the period of a month or more.

I heard about a piece of music that La Monte Young wrote in which a heavy weight was placed on one of the notes of  a huge pipe organ in a large church in europe somewhere and was essentially blasted at its loudest volume for the span of a couple of weeks.  The idea was based on that basic minimalist principle that an extended sound and a repeating sound isn’t the same as the time you’ve heard it before because the context of time makes it different.  There’s also the idea that the piece served as more of an installation piece – you got to walk around the church and hear how the note was different depending on the particular acoustic area that you were in, and could get yourself lost in the absolute pureness of it as it echoed in grand style that those cathedrals promote.

Thinking about pieces of music or sound installations with that sort of time scale and vastness is what brought about this idea for a fireworks composition.  Pick any beautiful night scene area – in my head i picture a waterfront – and have a single firework go off one night at a designated time.  Chances are, no one would notice it happening – they might hear the sound of it, some may see it, but they wouldn’t think much of it.

The next day do the same thing, but do it with two fireworks.  The next day do three.  All at the same time at night, all at the same location.

At some point, people will catch on to this.  You set it up like clockwork, you create that pattern of one more firework every day, and you start to create expectation.  The number of fireworks that go off have to be easily countable – everyone needs to deduce that gradually the fireworks are adding more and more.

And of course, like all great music, at some point, that pattern needs to be broken.

Exactly how it would be broken is something i don’t know yet.  The “dick move” thing would be to not have fireworks at all one day, but in my head the piece isn’t supposed to be about alienation or pulling the wool from people’s eyes.  The point is to make people excited, and bring people together.  And while i may want to play with that a little, maybe create the hint of disappointment, ultimately i would want to do that as a means to generate new excitement based on the unexpected.

Two easy ideas: first, delay the fireworks by five minutes.  People will start to get restless, maybe some people will wonder if it’s even going to happen, if it’s a wasted trip.  But five minutes is a reasonable delay – start it five minutes later, people whose expectation started to waver will find some small or large degree of exultation when the fireworks actually begin.  Suddenly the event is revitalized, becomes exciting in a new way.

Then for the next week, delay it anywhere between zero minutes and ten minutes.  You don’t want to wait longer because you don’t want to waste people’s time too much – and by creating a variable expectation that no one can really track, people who really want to see the fireworks display will show up on time or early, and in that potential wait time, strangers might talk to each other.  A sense of community develops. people strike up conversation, share in snacks and drinks.  it becomes an event.

The other variation that could get added to the mix is to change the location of the fireworks themselves – in my head i see it as “the audience is facing one way where they’ve always seen the fireworks, and then one day they go to the same spot and they have to turn around.”

The whole thing would happen with no real explanation except that in the area where there’s an optimal viewing vantage point for watching the fireworks, i’d put up a pedestal of some sort with an unmarked QR code on it.  Capture that QR code and you get taken to a website that explains what’s happening.  Maybe right away, or maybe the information will be revealed gradually.

In my head, i think the piece would last about two months.  That feels both long and short – i have to think about it more.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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