Notes on Light: The Musicality of Light and Theatre

Amy Chan*

Light is a major visual element in theatre but remains subordinated to texts in dramatic theatre. With the development of the concept of postdramatic theatre, the potentialities of light in theatre, particularly the musicality of light, open up. In this paper, I examine the interrelationship among light, music and theatre, as well as the role of the musicality of light as a concept, model and method on expanding the notion of theatre, through review of and reflection on the creative processes and workings of three original theatre, performative installation and Cantonese opera productions. The experimental exploration on the musicality of light in a cross-disciplinary and cross-media context re-considers the dynamics between theatre and music in contemporary theatre. 
Keywords: Lehmann, postdramatic, Appia, Robert Wilson, Notes on Light, Morbid Anatomy, Philip Glass, The Fable of the Ungrateful Wolf, Memento Mori

Notes on Light, Music and Theatre

Notes on Light is a cello concerto composed by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho in 2006. Anssi Karttunen, the solo cellist and long-term collaborator of the composer, wrote about this piece before its world premiere:

The soloist is not just the hero of Notes of Light. He/She also has to stand up for its rights, fight, lead, collaborate with and sometimes submit to the orchestra. All these make Notes of Light a rich voyage that could well lead us into the very heart of light.

Light is indispensable in theatre. Visual images of performance can only be perceived with the presence of light. However, the significance of light as a distinct performance component was only recognized in the early twentieth century with the development of lighting design as a separate and valued discipline, associated with the vast technological advances in electrical lighting equipment, lighting control and lighting techniques (Bergman 346)

The development of theatre lighting is also closely associated with the heyday of dramatic theatre, so the aesthetic of light in theatre, mostly developed from this period, follows the aesthetic logic of dramatic theatre. Light is subordinated to texts, plots, characters and dramatic actions. It is often made to synchronize or harmonize with the texts, the acting, the movement and the music of the performances. In theatre, light is mostly functional, representational, illusionary and atmospheric.

The importance of light aesthetics as a stage component remains predominant and highly influential, particularly at the institutional level nowadays, although contemporary theatre has gradually shifted away from representationalism since the 1960s. In Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre although light is not the focus in his work, certain aesthetic characteristics of postdramatic theatre, particularly the challenge and even rejection of the predominance of text, shed new light on the import of light in contemporary performance.

“In postdramatic forms of theatre, staged text (if text is staged) is merely a component with equal rights in a gestic, musical, visual, etc., total composition,” says Lehmann (46). There is “no longer the wholeness of aesthetic theatre composition of words, meaning, sound, gesture, etc., which has a holistic construct offers itself to perception” (56). In gaining equal rights with other theatrical means, including text, light is liberated from the logocentric hierarchy of dramatic theatre; it attains the potential of being an independent artistic medium, thus opening up the potential of theatre in general.

The study of postdramatic theatre also brings the musicality of theatre to the foreground. According to Eleni Varopoulou, quoted in Postdramatic Theatre, musicality in theatre “is not a matter of the evident role of music and of music theatre, but rather a more profound idea of theatre as music.” Musicalization in postdramatic theatre does not only concern language but all theatrical means (Lehmann 91). This implies the potentiality of musicalization and the musicality of light in theatre. In fact, the “mysterious affinity between music and light” in theatre, as noted by Adolphe Appia, has long been contemplated (Appia and Beacham 51).

Video 1
Trailer of the documentary Adolphe Appia—Visionary of Invisible where one can see the potentiality of light

Although working on different senses, both light in theatre and music are time-based arts. Both have the potential of being abstract, non-linguistic and non-logocentric, thus freeing themselves from any text hierarchy. Both are also flexible and potentially polyphonic media, which gives them the capacity to perform beyond text (Roesner 34)

The intimate relationship of light and music can be found in various theatrical works, with the scenographic works of rhythmic space by Adolphe Appia and the scenic composition of Robert Wilson being the notable examples. However, in-depth studies and discussions focusing on the musicality of light and its implications to theatre are still rare.

In the following parts, through the review of and reflection on the creative processes and workings of three of my original productions in different genres, I am going to explore and examine the interrelationship among light, music and theatre, and the potentiality of the musicality of light as a method, model and concept with regard to expanding the notions of light in theatre and of contemporary theatre.

Morbid Anatomy (2016)
Video 2
Morbid Anatomy (2016). Credit: Drama Collaboratory

Morbid Anatomy was a site-specific light installation-performance (2016) in a functioning pathology teaching laboratory of a local teaching hospital. The explorations in this work were two-fold, placing under critical examination both the established aesthetics of light in dramatic theatre from an artistic perspective, and the tension between medicine and the human from a medical humanistic perspective. Music was the main creative strategy in the performance (not limted to light), in order to break through the limitations of dramatic theatre with its privileging of text and the representational aesthetic.

The basic structure of the performance was constructed according to real-life pathology procedures instead of text and scenes. For each “procedure,” light and the associated visual images as well as sound were the key inspirations of creation.Texts only came in later, acting as a conceptual reference and a tool of communication within the production team, rather than a script dominating the performance. The text was subsequently deconstructed musically into acoustic elements, and it became merely one of the theatrical means, interacting with light, sound, space and performance. For example, in a “procedure” titled Specimen, the red laser light beam and the acoustic beeping sound of the laser scanner (a lighting device), which was used for scanning the registration barcodes of pathology specimens containing human tissue, were employed as the major performance components and as a critique on how human beings are dehumanized and enter the medical system as codes.

The light and the acoustic element of the laser scanner, together with the visual images of red laser beam interacting with the numerous specimen bottles, the laboratory space and the performers, the sounds of bottles interacting with the benchtop, the rhythmically repetitive movement of the performers and the musically deconstructed text, were transformed into a piece of minimalist music referencing the early works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The prolonged repetitive rhythmic pattern, characteristic of minimalist music, created a mechanized atmosphere within the context of the performance and functioned as a critique of the dehumanized and industrialized process of the medical system on a semantic level.

The additive and cyclic processes characteristic of the early works of Philip Glass were embedded within the rhythmic pattern of laser scanner, specimen bottles and deconstructed text. Through this rhythmic pattern, time was manipulated and appeared extended to (almost) timeless-ness, leading to a different perceptual experience that was unimaginable in narrative-centred performance. The prolonged repetition, together with relatively low information content, created an openness to perception and interpretation of light and performance. On a structural level, the compositional structure of minimalism allowed for a form of coherence between light and other theatrical means within the same “procedure.”

Other “procedures” were created following a similar musical concept and compositional process. Once different “procedures” were established, they were again musically arranged to create the overall flow of the performance. The darkness, the long pause, the silence and the pace of the movement of both the performers and spectators during the transition of every “procedure” on different benches of the laboratory were also taken into account and treated musically to form the essential parts of the musical flow. The overall energy flow, pace, dynamics and intensity of light as well as other theatrical means in the entire performance were arranged together like a musical composition. A dramaturgical structure of light and performance was also revealed through this musical composition.

Music also supported the creative and rehearsal process on a practical level. I used a metronome to look for the appropriate pace and rhythm patterns of light and performance as well as to assist the rehearsals. Practicing playing a musical instrument became the metaphor and method of rehearsal process with light. The dramaturg/assistant director, herself a pianist, assisted by notating the rhythmic pattern of each Specimen “procedure” with musical scores for documentation.

Memento Mori: Sonata for Light (2017)
Video 3
Memento Mori: Sonata for Light. Credit: Amy Chan

Memento Mori: Sonata for Light was a performative light installation (2017), exhibited in an art gallery focussing on contemporary photography. Although the work was presented as installation, the creative concept was indeed a durational performance work, with each cycle lasting for eight minutes and fifteen seconds and repeating during the opening hours of the gallery throughout the entire period of exhibition.

Light is crucial in photography. No photographic image exists without light. In Camera Lucida, the influential writing on photography by Roland Barthes, time and death are the constant themes underlying photography. Barthes also mentions that the photographs he liked “were constructed in the manner of a classical sonata” (27). As a dialogue between light and a photography art gallery, the installation is a contemplation on light, music, time and death. Musicality of light, particularly with reference to the form of the sonata, becomes the key concept, inspiration, structure and title of the installation.

When the spectators entered the rectangular gallery space, they would find six tungsten light bulbs of warm, diffuse light scattered around. These light bulbs were either hanging from above, bare on light stands, inside the shield of a table lamp or under a cloth lamp shield. There were also three cameras on tripods with their lenses removed and replaced by a small tungsten halogen or white LED spotlights. The cameras did not receive light for the creation of images, but rather emitted light themselves. In the centre, there was a rectangular white light box around the size of a single bed/coffin, with a plaster replica of the famous death mask L’Inconnue de la Seine lying still and silently on the box. At the far end, away from the entrance, a single seat sofa was placed against the wall and beside the stand light with the cloth lamp shield, facing the said box with the death mask and the three cameras. The floor was full of fine grey granite chips.

Although the sonata was the main structure of the musicality of light, I was highly conscious and aware to avoid a direct one-to-one translation of light and music. Instead, I extracted the essence of the sonata form for the development of the musicality of light: the interplay of two contrasting themes or a two-part tonal structure embedded in the four-section structure of exposition-development-recapitulation-coda.

The diffuse warm light of the tungsten light bulbs and the sharp, bright and punch-like spotlight of the small tungsten halogen and white LED spotlights became the two contrasting themes. Every single tungsten light emits light at a constantly changing intensity on different repetitive rhythmic patterns of different cycling time, in a manner resembling minimalist music. Some fade in and out slowly like breathing. Some breathed in slowly and died out suddenly. Some emitted bring light abruptly and dimmed slowly. At the same time, the small spotlights flashed spontaneously at different constant intervals, together with the mechanical rhythmic sound of shutter opening and closing of the three cameras.

The four-section structure of the sonata was the basis of the coherent form and structure of each cycle of the “sonata for light.” Every cycle started with a section of “exposition,” with the two tungsten light bulbs, one on the light stand under cloth shield and another hanging above the death mask, fading in and out roughly 180 degrees out of phase, like engaging in a dialogue. The other tungsten light bulbs and spotlights together with the camera shutter sounds joined in the section of development. In the recapitulation, the two-tungsten light configuration, which was similar to the “exposition,” returned.

The cycle ended with a coda of an abrupt and single illumination of the white light box, by cool white fluorescent light tubes, followed by a total blackout and silence of 10 seconds. Then another cycle began.

In order to construct the horizontal temporal and dynamic development of the cycle in details rather than relying on testing, a total “score” of horizontal temporal development of light and sound was composed. Instead of musical notes, stave and clef, there were the intensity and the time of every light and shutter sound being composed and musically arranged in this “light score”.

This horizontal temporal conception of light is a stark contrast with the convention of lighting design in dramatic theatre as well as in many light art works, in which light is created to focus on the formation of a snapshot image in terms of vertical temporality, and in which changes in light composition are interpreted only as insignificant temporary transitions. Drawing on the concept of horizontal temporality in musical composition, the transitions, transformations and changing dynamics in light become the focus of the works, leading to the musicality of light.

Space was also important for the construction of the said musicality. Although every light was in a repetitive rhythmic pattern, the different physical locations, directions and colour temperatures of light, together with the objects in the space and the changing intensity and time, created the continuous transformation of light and shadows in the space, the overall light intensity in the space and the texture of the space itself. The light-shadow-space were relatively quiet and static in some instances and became violently aggressive at other times, like a piece of music with variations of dynamics, tempo and timbre.

An additional musical layer involving the presence of the spectators was constructed. There was no single designated point of view in this installation. The spectators could choose to stand still, move around or sit on the sofa while viewing the work. The physical presence and arbitrary movement of the spectators within the gallery space and the sound created by their footsteps moving against the fine granite chips interacted with and changed the minimalist light-shadow-space and sound composition, allowing a greater variety of dynamics and liveness of the “musical piece” in different instances. Through all the different layers in the musical compositional structure of the installation, light was rendered autonomous and became a performer in its own right.

The Fable of the Ungrateful Wolf (2019)
Video 4
The Fable of the Ungrateful Wolf (2019). Photo: Fangönei

The Fable of the Ungrateful Wolf was a light installation-Cantonese opera performance in the black box theatre of University of Calgary, presented within the frame of the Performance Studies International Annual Conference 2019.

In contrast to Morbid Anatomy and Memento Mori: Sonata for Light, this light-performance was based on a Cantonese opera script consisting of texts and musical structure that strictly followed the convention of the traditional Chinese art form. Therefore, the role of the musicality of light shifted from original creation and structuring of the work to the breaking of the borders and negotiation with a different art form and its aesthetics.

On the bare stage of a black box theatre with pale backdrop, the two Cantonese opera performers performed in an area surrounded by eight table lamps of tungsten light source, which were entirely visible to the spectators and formed part of the scenography. The light artist/performer (myself) was on one side of the stage outside of the circle of table lamps, again visible to the spectators. The light artist/performer in contemporary costume controlled light with a lighting console live on stage and, at the same time, performed a role in the Cantonese opera script.

Instead of synchronizing and harmonizing with the musical structure of traditional Cantonese opera, the musical compositional structure of light in this work was inspired by minimalist music comprising mainly repetitive rhythmic patterns but with subtle variations in tempo and dynamics, making it more organic and less orderly. The musicality of light was a huge contrast to that of Cantonese opera, which was historically developed from the traditional meters and rhymes of ancient Chinese poems. Different physical locations, directions and intensity of light interacted with the performance of Cantonese opera performers, the light artist herself and the space, constantly transformed the space and the performance with different light and shadows based on a musical structure, and at the same time co-performed with, commented and criticized the story and the performance on stage.  

The technological aspect of light also had a role in modelling the musicality of light and the performance. The lighting console was a combination of a PC-based light software and a MIDI music controller originally designed for live music performance with the capacity of manipulation of music samples. The sampling capacity of the control system allows more flexibility in live jamming and creativity with the musicality of light, leading to stronger dynamics between light and Cantonese opera performance in live performance. The overall musicality of light in the performance created a constant dialogue and tension with the traditional art form and transformed the entire performance into a polyphonic composition, expanding the imagination and the notion of both traditional performance and light.

Musicality of Light and Theatre

Through the detailed examination of the creative processes in works of three different genres, the multiple potentialities of musicality of light in contemporary performance and performative installation are reviewed. By means of music acting as a concept, model and method, with particular reference to minimalist music, musicality is created with/in light.

The musicality of light has great potential in inspiring, shaping and structuring the creative process and the works instead of the text. Musicality originating in light can extend to other theatrical means which can develop the form and the dramaturgy of the entire performance.

The musicalized performance with light and its characteristic abstract, perceptual and non-linguistic property and temporality can break free from the restrictions of the logocentricity and representationalism of dramatic theatre. In the specific context of traditional performance, musicality of light can also contribute to the rethinking of traditional art forms as well as light and contemporary theatre. The resultant entanglement of musicality of light and performance provokes the re-proposal of light in theatre and the re-imagination of aesthetic logic of contemporary theatre.

By means of the composition and the aesthetic effect created through musicality, light itself is rendered autonomous, it breaks free from the hierarchy of dramatic theatre and traditional performance and becomes a performer in its own right.

Although I describe light as a “performer” here, this light “performer” is not necessarily anthropomorphic but rather retains its characteristic nonhuman property in the performance, with its own aesthetic logic different from a human performer. Similar aesthetic logic can also extend to other nonhuman theatrical elements, including sound, scenography and digital media. The concept of nonhuman performing elements and their musicality could expand the notion of contemporary theatre, pertinent in our times.

As in the music of Notes of Light, light continues to stand up for its rights, fight, lead, collaborate with and sometimes submit to theatre, leading into the very heart of light, of musicality and of contemporary theatre.

Works Cited

Appia, Adolphe, and Richard C. Beacham. Adolphe Appia: Texts on Theatre. Routledge, 1993.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, Vintage, 2000.

Bergman, Gösta M. Lighting in the Theatre. Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1977.

Karttunen, Anssi. “Programme Note Notes on Light (2006).” Kaija Saariaho, 2015. Accessed 5 Mar. 2020.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Translated by Karen Jürs-Munby, Routledge, 2006.

Roesner, David. Musicality in Theatre: Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making. Routledge, 2016. 


*Amy Chan is a lighting and theatre artist. Her main artistic interests are the exploration of musicality, theatricality and performativity of light in theatre and installation. She has a Master of Fine Arts (with distinction) in lighting design, from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Her key research on light in postdramatic theatre was presented in international conferences and symposiums and published in peer-reviewed journals. More information on her work can be found at https://www.amychan-light.com/.

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