Being asked to write an article for Live Design magazine was an exciting prospect. Here was my chance, in 800 words, to show the industry how wise and enlightened I am and what I see in the future of live design. After several nights of staring at my computer screen, I was clearly not enlightened or wise, nor could I find a single inspired thing to say. By instinct and by iPod, I put on some favorite new music. Suddenly, I'm okay.
I allow myself to be transported by the music. I feel colors and blurry vibrations in my head. I see all the people and events that were in and around my life in those days. Of course, I listen to the recently older and classic music too, which opens my mind's eye to the feel of those days. The music helps bring back the good and bad memories. All are stored somewhere in my mental vault and are only triggered by the music. I'm clearly brainwashed, functioning only if I'm surrounded by my music. But this brainwashing is a good thing because I design sets for modern music performances, and being able to see and feel the past through music is just as important to me as the quest to see the future.
The ancient principles of design still apply in my design process. In my work, variable aspects of the design process come into play: who are the performers? Are they characters or people? Why are they loved, and who loves them? What does their music say, how do they move, and where do they perform? I've designed for dancers who sing and singers who dance; musicians who move and those who never leave a certain spot on the stage. Regardless, the live music and the faces that perform are part of us, the audience. We're connected. There's an energy there that is symbiotic.
For anyone who has ever attended a live concert, “the gathering” is most of the experience. It's similar to attending a college football game or a church revival. You arrive with certain expectations in mind. You physically and/or mentally enter through a tribal portal, a dividing line between your normal everyday self and your real inner open self. Out of the woodwork, a diverse crowd arrives. Some are like you, and some are not. Some are incognito clones, and some are visitors who dressed to infuse for the night. It's like a huge family reunion, only it's the family you got to choose, not the one you were born into, and you don't have to speak to anyone if you don't want to. You're attending a sort of music church, and you've paid money to affirm your faith in that music. You are all under the same roof for the same reason. Friends and strangers come together for this shared experience. The clothes, the hair, the attitude, the vibe, the shared anticipation, the interaction, all support the foundation that “the gathering” is the thing.
As the gathering of people increases in scale and fills the venue, ambient music is heard. Using hand picked favorites by the artists headlining the evening's concert, this music is played as the introduction to the night. It reminds us that even amazing performers have influences too and their influences are ours as well. It also helps us enter the venue space in a careful way even if the night's music is aggressive and dark. The lighting is bright, so that we can find our positions in the venue. It allows us to study each other, but at the right moment, it dims or drops to darkness signaling the start of the performance.
This is the most significant moment in the show, the primal beginning, the silent tribal cue that signals everyone to scream or clap in unison for the first time for the same reasons and goals. At this moment, it's dark except for the illumination from the stage with lighting, pyro, and video imagery. Our fellow audience members are in the shadows now, but we are clearly balancing the scale and volume of the production before us. Our attention is focused on the show, but our peripheral vision can see all those around us, and we settle into the first part of the hypnotic trance that comes with the music. While the performers and material are modern, the experience and atmosphere is ancient. There is an ingrained primitive response to this communal event. People connect on a higher plane at “the gathering” because live music experienced as a group is a primitive, universal, emotional, spiritual, and raw.
Bruce Rodgers is the owner of Tribe inc., a production design firm based in Venice, CA and Salem, CT. He has designed tours for Madonna, Sting, Dave Matthews, Rascal Flatts, and many others and is currently designing the next Mötley Crüe tour, and Ted Koppel's Discovery Channel Town Meetings.