“I mean you watch that blue detergent blob run on the plate, watch the grease cut – well, it can be a real trip.”
That line from Slouching Toward Bethlehem could describe the material heart of The Joshua Light Show. From 1968-71, founder Joshua and the original members were the resident artists at Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East, illuminating shows by the Who, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Chuck Berry, and Iron Butterfly. The group disbanded, but returned in 2007 when Nick Hallett brought them to The Kitchen. Still led by Joshua White, The Joshua Light Show has recently headlined high culture landmarks, including The Hirshhorn Museum, Lincoln Center, and LACMA.
One could ask: what ingredients fueled The Joshua Light Show’s ascension up the cultural ranks? Is it the pure, self-evident relevance of projecting colored shapes, liquid lights, and ethereal “lumia”? Is it this medium’s kinship to the canon of abstract painting? Is it the compelling affinity to performance art and relational aesthetics? The collapse of high/low culture walls? Some current demand for more 60s?
One could respond: it’s probably all of the above, and we are glad it’s happening. Anyway, the climb continued last week, as The Joshua Light Show phased into an academic presence, setting up shop at NYU’s Skirball Center. For four nights, The JLS dazzled a seated audience with the vibrant, emotive, and delicious projections that have demanded a JLS resurrection even after more than three decades of relative inactivity. (Just like acid!)
The Skirball series lined up The Joshua Light Show with an eclectic roster of musicians, including Dame Evelyn Glennie and Zeena Parkins, Terry and Gyan Riley, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT, Debo Band and Forro in the Dark, and an avant-super group: John Zorn, Lou Reed, Bill Laswell, and Milford Graves.
This collection of acts checked off an array of genres, generations, demographics, distributions, and demands. For example, the MGMT night was “like a rock show,” and “full of college students,” according to my friends. On the other hand, I overheard numerous professorial attendees at the Terry and Gyan Riley night, discussing the history of Terry Riley and his formal connections with La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Jarvis Cocker was at that show, too, and he did look professorial.
The two nights I attended were like fire and ice. With Terry and Gyan Riley, the mood felt cool and introspective. With Forro in the Dark and Debo Band, the roof was on fire, hands were in the air. In advance, I chose those nights because Terry Riley had always sounded trippy to me, just like The JLS; they seemed like the closest synaesthetic translations of each other. And Forro in the Dark and Debo Band might come closest to recreating “a rock show” because they were bands with lead guitarists and amps. In the end, The Joshua Light Show gave me a spectacle to passively enjoy, while also offering me a prompt for creatively shaping my experience: just what I wanted, and just what I needed.
Terry Riley alternated between a grand piano and a Korg Triton, while his son, Gyan, accompanied on guitar. “Detached” (though “lively”) is how I’d describe the Riley recordings I had heard prior to this show, but this live performance felt warm and genial. Maybe it’s the father-son relationship, or the relaxed confidence of the artists, or the jokes during a technical lapse, or maybe…maybe it’s the lights! The performance of Terry Riley’s classic A Rainbow in Curved Air sounded like a twinkling, pulsing sensation, and the light show seemed most alive through those moments.
Forro in the Dark got my head nodding, and the ostentatious fists of the zabumba player reminded me of the hands controlling the dancing lights behind him. As for the music, here’s Richard Gehr of the Village Voice: “Guitarist Guilherme Monteiro added an acid-rock flair, tossing off dub effects as easily as he did a Chet Atkins-inspired country solo. Locked into a second-line rhythm at one point, Monteiro prowled the stage, occasionally gazing meditatively into the multicolored cosmic eyeballs looming overhead.”
Debo Band’s fusillade of horn-powered blasts, Bruck Tesfaye’s stamina, and of course THE LIGHTS got people out of their seats and into the aisles. A front-row dance party quickly grew, then lasted till the show ended. Tesfaye kicked and hopped on stage over the dancers; kaleidoscopic rhombus shapes and scarlet scatter bombs beamed over Tesfaye.
Further describing those light effects, Gehr writes, “Slowly dripping oils suggested emerging oceanic life forms, slitted sheets of laminated plastic splintered white light into galactic replicas, blue neon clouds blossomed overhead, and a Helen Frankenthaler blob of orange expressionism briefly suggested a gigantic grinning Halloween pumpkin.
Compare that to Laura Snoad, writing earlier this year. “The Light Show’s fantastic spectrum of colours brings to mind the most benign of acid trips – either imagined or remembered – but at times the light show is gruesomely visceral, conjuring up pulsing internal organs, Petri dishes and cell division. Its soft-focused abstraction allows audiences to project their own narrative: neon signs distorted by a rain-blurred taxi window, childhood motorway car journeys, blood draining from a murder victim.”
And compare that to Joshua White, speaking to Karen Day: “We have people coming up to us going ‘were there camels carrying giant bears?’ or something, and we always say ‘You saw that? Good for you!’”
That is, The Joshua Light Show forgoes steering anyone’s trip. It does not court the audience the way a DJ, with the right selections, teases movement from the crowd. While watching all three performances, I could see the musicians monitor and respond to each other. But with the JLS on the opposite side of the screen, I wondered how the light artists could follow the musicians. Weren’t they looking for visual cues? Didn’t the wall force the artists into a passive, dependent role? After the show, Joshua White explained to me that the group just responds to the sounds. Then the audience members can shape their own responses. “You put the conditions in place for the audience to synthesize something new?” I asked. “Yes, and that is how the synaesthesia happens,” is what Joshua told me, paraphrased. JLS’ Gary Panter, also an SVA faculty member, described it for the Bomb blog:
“It really is an equivalent to jazz in a way. Improvisational, fugitive performance where you’re responding sympathetically to the music, and then the audience fills up the gap. They provide the closure relating the music to the light. Their minds start organizing it, even hallucinating it. People see things in the show that we don’t do.”
Another Joan Didion quote: “Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast.” I feel similarly about recounting hallucinations on blogs, so I’ll spare you my visual assocations. But when The Joshua Light Show is back in town, we can discuss our trips in person, because I won’t miss it.
Great vintage photos at Cool Hunting.