an explanation of the beauty of raves and the importance of lights

By Harrison Jeong

Stark Raving Mad!

There are connoisseurs of art. There are connoisseurs of food. There are connoisseurs of wine. I am a connoisseur of raves. Every flicker of light, every flurry of the electric drums, every caged dancer, every glow stick, every puff of the smoke machine, nothing escapes my scrutiny. My critical domain is large. I don’t just see the rave, but the culture, technology and love—yes, I said love—that produces it as well. Raves are now more than music and dancing, but a techno-artistic revolution that is turning what was once a party into a free flowing blast of future. The result? Art, mind-blowing art, Mr. Bond. It takes great skill to throw a party, but to throw a party that turns into art, well, that’s not for the feint of heart. So, one, since there are no connoisseurs without art; and, two, I definitely exist; therefore, three, there can be no doubt that raves are art and I am their connoisseur. If you find the thinking circular, so is the rave.

The idea of a rave dates back to the 1950’s. The word sought to capture the emergence of a new party­-oriented youth culture. Groups of kids would meet in unauthorized “clubs,” where these “ravers” were free to congregate and dance all night long. Although rave culture or the rave itself hasn’t changed much, raves have gone from the underground to the mainstream. Raves now take place at massive music festivals led by famous and obnoxious headline grabbing DJ’s who play the latest in electronic dance music (EDM). The word EDM addresses various subcategories of electronic music such as house, techno, trance, dubstep, progressive, etc. Notorious for the amplified rumbling of the deep bass, raves typically require subwoofers and large sound reinforcement systems. Generally, the music is accompanied by LED laser light shows, projected images, visual effects, and smoke machines. It’s quite amazing how far the rave has come from its humble beginnings to now. In seventy short years, it’s gone from cave drawings to full blown Dutch masterpieces.

These are my people
Besides being a connoisseur, I am also a proud member of the rave culture and have attended/participated in many music festivals. The pulsating music, carefree dancing, encountering friendly faces and kind souls, it’s a magical environment. But the most powerful part of the rave is what people don’t pay a great deal of attention to—the lights. The light design is often mesmerizing. The patterns, the holographic images, the psychedelic, abstract projections are the heartbeat of the rave experience. Without the lights, it’s just a bunch of kids dancing; with the lights, we are in new worlds, and worlds that provide an experience unlike any other.

So I decided to give myself a Valentine’s Day present. Instead of a girlfriend, I went to a rave. I had missed the tingly buzz of bass reverberating through my bones, the exhilarating sensation of jumping together with thousands of eager souls. I wanted to dance wildly with strangers under a shimmering night sky. Longing to rave, yearning to PLUR (peace, love, unity, rave), Crush Insomniac 2015 was going to my sweet release for the winter of 2015; or well, it was supposed to be.

The festival was a Valentine's Day themed event so it made sense that all visuals were red. However, when the same animated projection rolls on repeat for the whole night, not even changing between different headliners, I got a serious case of the bummers. Distinct special effects are installed to capture and enhance the overall musical style or genre of each performer. Failure to correlate sight and sound produces an awkward, offbeat vibe that not only loses the attention of the ravers, but also creates a detached and uncomfortable atmosphere. Again, the thinking is circular.

Now, that's good rave confetti
I felt awful as pathetic heaps of confetti descended at random intervals, possibly in hopes of rekindling the seemingly absent energy in the crowd. Cut up paper wasn’t going to help this rave and just served to remind me of better times in other places. Ordinarily queued to go off at the climax of a massive drop during an artist’s most popular track, the confetti machines spat bits of red shreds at dead moments instead. Uninspired combinations of monochromatic red lights made their way around the arena barely illuminating the faces of the ravers. Over time the prolonged exposure to red hues took a toll on the audience and you could sense that everyone was getting a headache. Something was off; the rave had not ignited mayhem or passion or really any feeling at all. This was one of the saddest Valentine’s Days I’ve ever had.

As the night came to a close and the event was well over, I ran into a group of technicians responsible for the dismantling of the lighting equipment. After much interrogation and questioning, they referred me to Matt Kotch, production designer for Insomniac Inc. When I met Kotch, an average built man with sandy blonde and a surprisingly deep voice, I tried to innocently ask why the visual production, installations, and light choreography were so weak compared to previous events. If you are unaware, Insomniac is the largest electronic music based company that produces state­of­the­art concerts and events nationwide. Notorious for providing the most outrageous and mind­blowing experience, the company invests fortunes on extravagant stage installations, trippy projection, and hundreds upon hundreds of fireworks. All of which Crush 2015 lacked. “What went wrong, Matt,” I asked.

That's the Insomniac we want!
Kotch replied in an almost defensive manner, “Well see, this is the first holiday specific event we’ve produced and the bosses upstairs didn’t allow much wiggle room.” Apparently, the lighting and visual production departments were required to stay within the narrow confines of an inflexible routine. And so, because Crush was a Valentine's Day themed concert, it was only natural that Insomniac had to provide Valentine’s Day themed special effects. A questionable act on the company’s part, but it is a legitimate explanation for the clich├ęd patterns of floating hearts and the overuse of the word love during the show. I didn’t even ask about the migraine inducing red strobes, because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “There was just no room for imagination, experimentation, and the ability to improvise,” Kotch ruefully explained.

As the lighting assistant spoke of ideas, concepts and installations he wished they could have executed and choreographed into the show, I realized that everything he mentioned solidified my belief that the lights are the most important element in any rave. Excitedly, I asked if he too considered my belief that lights were at the top of the rave hierarchy? “Do you believe that lights are the most important part of the rave,” I asked, hoping to extend this fascinating conversation and prove my point at the same time.

Go to the light!
“Oh definitely, I would say light is the most important tool, mainly because of its capability in creating and manipulating color. We all know that every color has a unique effect on individuals and is responsible for stimulating various responses.” I nodded intelligently. “However, most people are unaware that varied characteristics of artificial light can also enhance or heighten the brain's response in physiological terms.”

Of course, he’s right. For example, red is the most vibrant and emotionally intense color, responsible for stimulating neurons and the adrenal glands causing faster breathing and heart rates. Strobe lights are a form of visual effect that produces regular flashes of light used to give an illusion of slow motion. The color yellow releases a chemical in the brain called serotonin, popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well­being and happiness. Heavily lit and high contrast LED lights tend to capture the viewer's focus and attention. Blue produces calming chemicals in the brain believed to render creativity and have a soothing effect on the human mind. The list goes on and on. The multitude of combinations involving various colors schemes along with the crowd’s many possible reactions and behaviors are endless. The task is bestowed upon the lighting designer to scientifically orchestrate a symphony of special effects and blended hues in hopes of creating an immersive and captivating experience. As Kotch enthusiastically said, “The lights are the main show! It sets the vibe for the people, the stage, and the festival as a whole.”

The DJ has been the focus
Since the genesis of rave culture, all-night dancing and live electronic music performances by DJs have been the central focus; But over the recent years, companies responsible for hosting these festivals have emphasized the incorporation of light based technologies and aesthetics. Fireworks, glow sticks, immense projection screens, holograms, refraction glasses, light costumes/gloves are part and actually necessary for the success of the shows. The importance of lighting design has changed the focus at raves from music to visual spectacle.

I asked Kotch if he believed the impact and inclusion of lights at present day music festivals gave ravers a skewed experience than what was originally intended. “Matt, do you believe that the impact and inclusion of light at present day music festivals give ravers a skewed experience, something at odds with the original impulse of the rave?”

Kotch replied, “ Lights are a required necessity. The situation is this. We are fully conscious of the fact that many of our viewers are under the influence of drugs whether it be marijuana, acid, ecstasy and so on. We are also aware and have come to the understanding that the association with alleged drugs and rave culture go hand in hand. Although we strongly discourage the abuse of illegal substances and enforce safety regulations and precautions such as security checks and immediate medical service/attention; in terms of drug restriction, there is only so much that we can do. And so we resort to the one aspect we are able to control; the health and well being of the spectators. What most people don’t know is that music, under the use of drugs, tends to be dangerous.”

Don't ask Alice
Kotch continued, “The human mind is capable of conjuring assorted images, colors, and patterns, making it easy to slip away and stray from reality. The melodic rhythm and hypnotic power of music is a well-known factor that influences the wandering of thought. Losing a hold of reality and tumbling into the uncontrollable wildness of imagination can lead one to, ‘fall down the rabbit hole.” Matt made an Alice in Wonderland reference there.

He went on speaking about the psychology of the rave, “The person would remain in the bad trip phase, continually receiving the negative effects of the drug, making it impossible to break out of his/her own demented consciousness. Lights on the other hand provide a focal point, a tangible source that grounds the viewer, an anchor for the meandering mind. In addition, due to the mass of colored hues and their separate yet distinct influences on mood and atmosphere, we can scientifically formulate a visual projection of lights and colors that not only guides people toward an enjoyable and entertaining good trip, but also keeps them rooted. In all honesty, when it comes to shaping and controlling the rave experience, credit goes to lighting.”

Kotch spoke with great enthusiasm and passion as he made the effort to deliver an infinite amount of information as quickly as possible. I could tell I got him excited—in an intellectual, probing way. As he continued to bounce around and touch base with various subject matters involving the importance of light, Kotch said something quite interesting. “This form of art is the next generation of interactive installations. We should actually be giving thanks to this era's weirdly high interest in EDM.

Bono tries raving
Since this sudden boom, rave culture has made its way into becoming one of the top grossing social attractions of the day. The demand and interest of lighting design companies for these events are higher than ever before. Why? Because they need us, because we are the ones responsible for creating the experience. People assume that the visuals, lighting, and special effects at raves are pre-programmed prior to the event, but what most don’t know is that we are dependent on the crowd's response. Like stepping into a living environment we have to become part of the mass to shape it and mold it. The gap between music and light is expanding everyday. Who knows, someday people might go to events that are supported only by lights.”

I thanked him and then walked into the night, alone, your connoisseur of the rave.

It's always sad after the rave is done
©Harrison Jeong and the CCA Arts Review

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