Pyromusical Scripting – Written by Paul Marriott
There are many different approaches to scripting a Pyromusical and everyone has their own preferred approach.
The external constraints of budget ultimately impose a maximum duration on the display of around eleven minutes and this drives the overall format since it is necessary to make it appear that it is rather longer than this. Knowing this in advance helps shape the music and I normally strive for six or seven thematic elements to comprise the soundtrack in order to provide the appropriate emotional journey for the audience.
For the past two years I’ve worked with local Montreal electro-acoustic composer Sebastien Lavoie. Our first collaboration was an entirely original composition entitled Pyro PowWow [https://vimeo.com/74544890] and the second was more of a classic Pyromusical comprised of existing music entitled Odyssey of Fire [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RV5MyRhvgEE&feature=youtu.be]. I believe it is interesting to contrast the two as a somewhat different approach was used in each case, especially in the use of technology.
Before even considering the musical aspects, it is important to get the pyrotechnic staging correct and so my initial starting point is always the physical layout of the firing site. Having witnessed so many Pyromusicals in the Montreal competition, I favour a multi-ramp approach in order to use as much of the sky, at all levels, as possible. This leads to three positions at the “back” for shells of 75mm and above ; five positions for cakes, Roman candles and 50mm shells , and five front positions for smaller effects. Occasionally a few extra positions, even closer to the audience, may be brought into play for set pieces etc. This layout ensures that all possible angles can be used and provides the essential interplay between the lower-level effects and the shells above. The left and rightmost shell positions, for example, are angled at ten degrees to the left and right respectively, to give the maximum spread in the sky and allow a contrast between them and the centre position. Five positions for candles and one-shots gives enough possibilities to create interesting patterns and overlapping effects.
The second constraint I keep in mind is the physical characteristic of the firing racks. For example, 125mm racks two tubes, 100mm racks usually have five tubes available and 75mm racks have ten . Budget and practicality preclude using individual ematches for all the shells so a mixed approach is used. Key accent points get individual cues, but most of the shell sequences are constructed with pyrotechnic time delays. Thus a rack of 100mm shells could form a sequence of fifteen or twenty seconds if three second or four second delays are used. Similarly for cakes, these usually have a duration in multiples of fifteen or twenty seconds. Knowing these physical constraints in advance helps shape the design of the soundtrack.
A third constraint I try to apply is a simple one: don’t use the same effect twice in a display. Every thematic element of the display should have its own musical and visual distinction. In reality, this is often easier said than done, though, the time constraint on the display actually helps here as a display of ten to fifteen minutes may be imposed by the budged. Fortunately, there are very many fireworks effects so it is usually not too onerous to achieve this, though in displays over twenty minutes it is much more difficult. Working with the award-winning Royal Pyrotechnie of Ste Pie, Quebec, helps here as they produce many large pyromusicals and so have a very broad inventory.
With these three physical constraints in mind, the design process can begin. I usually begin with the soundtrack as this is the backbone of the pyromusical, though for the project where Sebastien specially composed the music, a more mixed approach was used.
These days there is software available that allows an entire Pyromusical to be visualized using a simulation of the actual pyrotechnic effects and the firing positions used. Examples of such software are Finale Fireworks or VisualShowDirector. For the displays I design, we use the Pyrodigital firing system and, ultimately ShowDirector is used to enter the final script, irrespective of the way the initial design is performed. In order to edit the final audio track, we used Audacity, though Sebastian has many pieces of special software at his disposal for the composition and mixing process.
Audacity has some useful features that are helpful when designing a pyromusical. One that I particularly like is that ability to add text labels to the soundtrack. This sounds rather uninteresting, but some simple transformations in Excel allow the creation of start and end times for particular effects and these can be seen when annotated onto the audio waveform. ShowDirector can export an Excel file of the script and I used this for final verification and tweaking of the display. For example, a cake may last 30 seconds or a sequence of 5 shells with a time delay of 3 seconds between each will last 15 seconds. It can be difficult to visualize which pyrotechnic elements are firing simultaneously, but the addition of these labels in Audacity make it very easy to see . Even more fun is the Karoke mode that Audacity has – this will “fire” each label with a red bouncing dot as it is encountered during the playing of the soundtrack . Of course, just the overall envelope of the soundtrack as displayed can be used to verify the energy levels throughout the display. In the examples shown, there are seven songs in the final soundtrack.
One thing I also like to do in my displays is, where possible, create a “live” part for myself to participate in fireworks. The scope of this is usually restricted to running with gerbs or flares, but it is always fun. I have seen displays where performers play live and have pyrotechnic effects triggered by their playing – this is a dream that budgetary restrictions have not allowed to be realized yet. In one display centered around an Olympics theme, I was required to run in front of a set of five wheels representing the famous rings logo and appear to light them with a flare (though their ignition was, of course, controlled by the Pyrodigital Field Controller). A long exposure photograph has me appearing as a ghostly figure just prior to the rings’ ignition.
Some designers like to use the visualization software for the entire process, but I have found that it can be too time-consuming. For the Pyro PowWow project, I did use Finale Fireworks to visualize parts of the display, in order to better work with Sebastien on the compositional side. The entire process was quite long as it took around six months from inception to completion, during which time Sebastien was already working on a Masters’ project on the same musical theme. Being able to visualize some of the effects helped Sebastien. For the Odyssey of Fire project, we started with the soundtrack and a target display length. I recently interviewed Sebastien to talk about the approaches we used on the two projects.
Interview With Sebastien
These projects were completely different to normal process of composition. For PowWow, it was a brainstorming around the theme of using Native music. The intent was to try to make the musical theme up-front and centre but to also create a musical evolution as well as create climatic build-up for the final.
For the Odyssey of Fire project, it was more like a classic playlist process of choosing relevant songs for the theme that would be musically interesting to both of us. We had a bank of interesting music in mind and then went from that using a perspective of requiring a certain flow, with ups and downs in the energy and dynamics. It’s not always obvious how to come up with this flow and dynamic but the project becomes much more organic if you can get the energy levels correct as well has have the right build-ups for the audience.
There are two schools of thought as to how a soundtrack should be constructed and these are whether to have gaps between the pieces of music of not. I prefer, where possible, to have seamless transition between pieces, though this doesn’t always work. For Sebastien this was a welcome challenge for the Odyssey project as he said that’s how a composer shows he has musical knowledge and can use this to keep the audience interested if the segueways are done in an artistic way, without losing the audience. It’s both an interesting and creative challenge as he can show his knowledge of the music as much of the music is already known to the audience. The skill, then, is to bring the different stories together from the elements of the pieces of music as they transition from one to the other.
One technical challenge is that it’s difficult to make the transitions sound seamless due to differences in pitch and tempo. I asked Sebastien how he dealt with this and his answer was interesting. As he started music late in life he said he doesn’t have a traditional understanding of pitch, but does have an innate sense of what sounds good, without a clear understanding as to why and so lets his ears dictate what works for both pitch and tempo. There are also tools available that can help with this to identify the pitch of a song or change its tempo without affecting the pitch, but these weren’t required on the Odyssey project.
I had mentioned to Sebastien to think in terms of fixed time constraints, such as intervals of 15, 20 and 30 seconds as these correspond well to many pyrotechnic effects. However, he told me that had had forgotten about these and so it was the music which really dictated what was required as this lead to more fluid transitions. When I have done soundtracks on my own, I’ve always tried to take into account these time intervals, but it is not easy to do without creating un-natural sounding transitions between pieces.
If asked if the representation of the music by the fireworks really respected his musical choices and so I was happy to hear that Sebastien was very pleased, especially when he re-watched the displays afterwards. For the Odyssey project we had decided to use girandolas at one key point but they were somewhat lost in the smoke, though. I pointed out that it is sometimes dangerous to rely too much on these extra special effect, just in case they don’t work as planned and so it’s always good to ensure there is still some action taking place at that moment. The audience won’t usually know there was something special planned then, if it does fail.
Finally, Sebastien said that each time he has worked on these projects he has been overwhelmed as these are a dream come true.
I must give sincere acknowledgements to Yanick Roy and Patrice Guy of Royal Pyrotechnie who turn my designs into the final product for public display. Without their support and encouragement, and the crew of excellent pyrotechnicians to set up the displays on the day, none of this would have been possible.
Photos by Simon Turcotte-Langevin and Paul Marriot`
Video by Simon Turcotte-Langevin