A few nights ago, I got to see magic. And it was done with lights.
I’m not a total stranger to this kind of magic. When I was little, I got to see the beginning sparks every New Year’s Eve. On many of the December 31st’s with our mom’s side of the family, my cousin Brandon would decide we’d put on a show for everyone. We’d make off like creative bandits down to the basement and pool our resources: a string of half-working Christmas lights, a flashlight, some party hats, maybe some blowers. Our schemes were always elaborate—there would be complex dance numbers, skits, and witty jokes, all timed perfectly to end at the stroke of twelve with toasts of sparkling cider.
These were our dreams, even if reality didn’t match up. I was too painfully shy to be a very good performer, and our celebrations ended as brief, disconnected programs, and Brandon would find that there were too many technical issues with our lighting to go on.
But even if they weren’t fantastic affairs, we had fun.
At the time, we might have only seen a string of Christmas lights, a flashlight, and maybe a strobe, but there was something there that I only really came to understand a few nights ago when I saw the real McCoy.
Jump forward many, many years to a rainy Tuesday night.
My cousin, currently touring with up-and-coming hip hop singer Tinashe, is a lighting designer, in charge of the part of the show that makes the rest of the show quite literally shine. I wasn’t familiar with the artist, but when we heard that the tour was going to be close enough for me to catch a performance, my sister and I jumped at the chance to see Brandon at work.
The concert took place in an older venue, the kind whose walls slouch like the people who come to stand in it. Years of being shaken by sound and stomped down in rhythm make it comfortable with its eccentricities and paradoxes. It’s a building that will never feel empty, and despite a crowd pushing at its balconies and covering the ground floor, it will never be full.
Overhead, swirling, elegant cornices and towering speakers blended together like the club dresses and combat boots of the patrons I pushed past after entering through a padded side door of the theater.
Brandon made his way to the fenced-off area in the center where the crew has their base of operations. My sister and I hung back until he waved us in, and we got to the thrill of getting to be right where the magic was going to happen with a perfect view.
Sometimes you see the wonder of light by accident—fractals splintering through a glass of water, designs playing on the walls of swimming pools, or shafts piercings a curtain of clouds. But at a concert, you can really see how light can make a good performance astounding.
My cousin showed us his setup—a console with sliders and buttons, a keyboard, and a screen filled with more little boxes of information than I could comprehend. In one of the boxes, a timer was running. When it hit 9:00, the concert began.
Bass, keyboard, and drums were matched beat for beat with lights that cut into the dark room, strobing, focusing, and flashing up over the crowd.
As the beats shook us, our eyes were swept around the stage with swirling beams and spotlights. Contrast, brightness, and color carried the music into another dimension. Smaller lights caught subtle downbeats or kept time, and for the more powerful hits, poofs of smoke shot up and diffused the rays into electric haze.
It was amazing.
Each song had its own personality. Accompanying a new number would be a different color, a different shape, a different effect on the screen to take us to a new place.
Tinashe and her dancers gave a great performance on their own, but under these lights, they were fantastic. With careful direction, an unthinkable amount of wattage highlighted the performers’ hard work, enhanced the melody, made graphic harmony with lyrics, and packed even more energy to a room full of sound and excited fans. The music and lights came together for an overwhelming fusion of audio and visual that made even the most reluctant concert goer throw their hands together.
As the crowd called for an encore, I couldn’t believe it’d been an hour already. And what a journey we’d come on!
There is no replacement for going to a live show and being a part of a group of people expecting to see something great. When you see something that makes you say Wow, it’s a truly wonderful moment of joy. And in those moments, we should recognize each part of what’s brought us there, even the core essentials that can easily go unnoticed or unsung if we’re not looking for them.
Light is vital, because—to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis—by it, we see everything else.
It’s an art of its own, and I couldn’t be more proud of my cousin who makes this magic happen every night.
Keep doing that amazing work, Brandon!