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Hearing Lightning, Seeing Thunder

Instrumentation: clarinet (also bs.cl.), cello, percussion (vib., crot., glsp., B.D.), four Fresnel stage lights
Duration: 9:30
Year Composed: 2008
Performers: Four musicians including the light operator. Conductor optional.

Audio Samples


(near end)

Program Notes

I've been fascinated with the rhythm of light—silent rhythm—since I first started composing. In fact, the first piece of mine ever performed was for bass drum and two Fresnel stage lights. Fourteen years later I decided to revisit my initial study in visual counterpoint not only by increasing the number of lights to four but also by increasing the variety of percussion instruments and including sustaining tonal instruments. The substantial expansion of the timbral palette suggested, in turn, an enlargement of the repertoire of effects to draw from the lights. In addition to flashing and fading them on and off, I here introduce vibrato-like pulsing, rapid-fire bursts and controlled aleatoric passages in dialogue with the bass drum. Although the central section is intended to mimic an approaching thunderstorm, the piece is not programmatic as a whole. The amorphous opening, for instance, might suggest a phlegmatic subterranean creature's first encounter with light; while the gently glowing lights that end the piece might conjure up the dancing embers of a dying camp fire. The listener is invited—encouraged, even—to construct his or her own narrative. The key thing is to engage with the idea of light as rhythm, light as music, and especially, light as an equal partner in the chamber ensemble and not just as a superficial decorative layer. For this reason I have deliberately refrained from using coloured gels: I want to discourage mood-light associations.

The lights are performed manually, in real time, and therefore can interact organically with the other instruments. The analog lighting equipment I use hasn't changed in the fourteen years since I first composed for it. Moreover, the piece is technology-agnostic, i.e. any simple control desk with four faders and four momentaries will do. The lights themselves have survived many technological innovations. The Fresnel stage light is still a workhorse in theatre, film and television. And the Fresnel lens, with its distinctive concentric circles, has had a distinguished history since its invention in the 19th century, widely used in lighthouses, televisions, traffic lights, auto headlights and even on aircraft carriers. In the theatre, Fresnel lanterns illuminate the set and characters. In this piece, I have turned them on the audience, and in so doing, am asking the listener/viewer to think of light in itself as music, however paradoxical that might seem. —R.R.


  • Nov 22, 2008—Jamie Drake, Lydia Munchinsky, Peter Stoll; William Rowson (conductor); Robert Rival (lights) | Robert Rival Doctoral Recital, U of T


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