Playing with Fire: Pyrotechnics & Music

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choreographed fireworks

Laura Ross (photo by Robby Klein)

This holiday weekend in the U.S., many of the largest public fireworks displays will feature pyrotechnics choreographed to music – either live or recorded. In Nashville, for example, the Nashville Symphony will perform an original medley of songs in a “perfectly choreographed fireworks spectacular.” We thought that learning about the technology behind these patriotic spectacles might make them even more memorable.

Advancing the Art

Although fireworks originated in 12th century China, the ability to coordinate displays to music only started in the 1980s. That’s when computers were first programmed to output a script, or sequence of events, with each triggering a small electric charge igniting an e-match and shooting off an aerial shell or firing a ground effect.

“Like most kids, I grew up loving fireworks,” says Will Harvey, CEO of Finale Fireworks in Palo Alto, Calif. Harvey’s firm introduced Finale visual choreography software for hobbyists and pyrotechnic operators in 2009. “As software engineers, my friends and I were excited about the chance to advance the art of fireworks, like what Mac computers did for desktop publishing,” recalls Harvey. “Fireworks are appreciated worldwide.”

Today Finale is the world’s most widely used scripting software, translated into 14 languages and offering over a million different simulated effects. A next-generation 3-D version is under development. Fueled by this software, choreographed fireworks grew in popularity across the world, with ideas shared via fireworks competitions and trade shows. “It’s similar to how musicians influence each other,” explains Harvey. “Innovative ideas are copied and reinterpreted.”

Interpreting Beautifully

When planning a live-music fireworks show, the operator will first review the musical score or listen to a recorded performance and script a number of short choreography sections, which are then attached to specific triggers. During the performance, the operator will manually press a button at the appropriate time for each trigger. The musicians are performing as they would normally, with some choosing to wear earplugs to protect their hearing.

With either live or recorded music, Harvey often sees different styles of musical interpretation between beginner and advanced choreographers. “Beginners primarily synchronize shots to the musical beats, which is okay, but this looks a little robotic after a while,” he notes. “More advanced choreographers sometimes synchronize to the beat, but more often they’re matching the display to the spirit of the musical section, creating an artistic visual accompaniment.” His description reminds us of the difference between listening to a novice jazz musician and a skilled professional.

Due to slight variations in fuse lengths, the breaks (explosions) of aerial shells are difficult to time precisely. When exact timing is required, ground effects like comets and mines are used because there’s no delay between the electronic ignition and the actual break. Harvey says a typical small fireworks show may involve 1,000 to 2,000 shells; rare multi-million dollar shows might use 100,000 shells.

choreographed fireworks

Simulated image of Chrysanthemum shell (by Finale Fireworks)

Musician’s Perspective

Violinist Laura Ross has been a member of the Nashville Symphony since 1984, so she’s a veteran of many 4th of July concerts. To prepare, she says the Symphony rehearses the works in order with the fireworks operators in attendance, so the special “boom” or display can be perfectly choreographed with the music.

During the concert, Ross says the musicians must watch the conductor “like a hawk” since they cannot hear each other. During “The Stars and Stripes Forever” march, Ross’ part includes mostly off-beats; she cannot hear the three piccolos sitting right next to her.

“With the fireworks going nonstop, the only way to get through this piece is to watch the conductor and internally sing the melody all the way through to make sure I end where I’m supposed to,” she explains.

Until this year, the Symphony performed on a barge across the Cumberland River from where the fireworks were fired off. In recent years, Ross recalls the shifting wind carrying pyrotechnics debris – some still burning – onto the stage, musicians and their instruments. She’s looking forward to this year’s performance at the Ascend Amphitheater, which will be slightly removed from the fireworks. “Maybe we’ll actually be able to hear a little bit,” Ross notes. “I might also be able to see a firework or two, but I’m not counting on it!”

Explosive Growth

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), American consumers will spend almost $800 million on fireworks for this Fourth of July holiday weekend, a seven percent increase over 2015.

Last year, the APA estimates that 285 million pounds of fireworks were “consumed” [our warning: do not eat fireworks] in the United States – over 90 percent of them consumer fireworks, with the remainder used for over 15,000 public displays. (Before checking with the APA, we would have guessed those percentages were reversed.) That total amount has climbed almost 90 percent since 2000, up from 152.2 million pounds.

This 4th of July, we hope everyone has a safe, star-spangled and song-filled holiday!

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