“Like a beautifully illustrated book”
Christian Glatthor learned his craft from the bottom up, is a rock’n’roller through and through – and always does his own thing. He followed up his concept for Rea Garvey’s Prisma tour, for which he was awarded the Opus German Stage Prize in 2017, with a highly acclaimed stage design for the singer’s subsequent tour, Neon, in 2018.
Creating spaces for artists and their art is what Christian Glatthor does. For Rea Garvey’s Prisma tour, he made light objects out of neon flex, which conjured changing images and moods with different colour schemes.
For Neon he created a theatrical art space on different levels out of various projection materials and neon-tube installations. Glatthor is a native of the Ruhr Valley and lives in Essen, where I visited him to talk about his work.
BTR: Mr Glatthor, our specialist magazine deals mainly with lighting for theatre and opera. You create light settings for pop and rock music. What do you spotlight – the song structure, the lyrics or the artist?
Christian Glatthor: Pop music isn’t just about the music, it’s also a lot about the personalities on stage. What kind of person is that up there on the stage? Some artists have a strong aura and don’t need so much ornament, others are frightened on stage. You can protect them with the set and light design and make them feel a bit safer. Secondly, of course, you need to think about what kind of music you’re dealing with. You’d never see metal lighting at a German pop band’s show. I always try to focus on and be open to the artist, the kind of music they make and its message. That’s why I involve the artist in the design process as much as possible.
Working with Rea Garvey, for instance, is a big game of ping pong. We meet, he plays me new songs, I take them home and think about what spaces would suit them; it’s a developing process. I take song after song, look at what messages I see in them and how I can accentuate them. Then I send the artist colour schemes to find out if he sees it like that too or if he sees a different colour. Why does he see a different colour there? That’s interesting too.
I use colour schemes to tell a story, not to show it’s time for the chorus. I want a show to be like a beautifully illustrated book.
You started your lecture in Bonn with a photo of a band in front of an LED screen and said: “Since we have that, screens show something that has nothing to do with the music anymore.” What do you do differently?
I design very untypical spaces in comparison to the other stuff on stage right now. I take a holistic approach. I see spaces not only in terms of light – to me, haptic spaces are always important. I’m more theatre-influenced, though I never had anything to do with theatre. I always try to change the space, to find a way to keep transforming the design. True, moving lights and dry ice create spaces and light walls too, but to me that’s boring.
Once I have the information and the stage dimensions, I try to create a space for the artist and the music that doesn’t look like my space but like the artist’s ‘living room’, their place to perform. They stand in it and, ideally, they sense more than just light and dark. If it works out well, they get a feel for the space.
During the last two tours with Rea Garvey, there were lots of ideas that we couldn’t visualize beforehand. During the Prisma tour, for instance, I made a space out of neon flex. I knew about it from the techno scene. I knew that it lights up if you shine light on it. We used different neon colours – over a total of 2.8 km of neon flex – each creating a different effect. The various colours of light shone on the flex created different effects and different stages; we could also literally white out the stage. But you can’t visualize the effect that it will create on the stage beforehand. So, the way I work, a lot happens during the tour. I’m always finding new things to do with the set. On the last tour I completely reprogrammed one song for the last show. A light designer designs light until the last day of the tour.
What differences have digital networks made to lighting in your view?
I’m 41 and started working in the concert business in 1999. All the people who were there when the development started in the mid-90s still know everything. But there’s no point giving a trainee a PAR can now. He wouldn’t know what to do with it; he’d say it’s no use. But in the concert industry it’s just as important to make side beams with 24 kW conventional light like in theatre and profile lights for ballet.
I once went on tour with Iron Maiden. They used 360 kW conventional light. Sure, as a technician it means climbing around on the truss for two hours and setting the lights, but it was just a DMX cable that came out of an MA Lighting LCD 120 and that was it. But that was light, too. Network technology is both a blessing and a curse, because we don’t have a protocol that can use the network properly. Lighting went digital before sound but then stagnated. All the things you can do in sound with Dante, say, we’re not even close to that. We’re struggling a lot with homegrown problems with the products, like false libraries and different software statuses. You need a lot of time just for the setup, before you can get creative at all. Today you need to set so many parameters for every single spotlight before you even start – network protocol, IP addresses, subnet mask, DMX universe, start address, the mode – and then do that for 300 spotlights…
How do you try out your ideas and prepare for a tour?
For the last tour, I had scheduled four days for programming, but we had so many technical problems that in the end I only had one night. For Rea Garvey I’m working with TDA. They have a rehearsal hall, 30 x 30 m, so you can build the entire set and rehearse in it, or you rehearse for one or two days beforehand in the arena or club. The critical phase starts four weeks before the concert. It always depends when they get me on board or if they ask me at short notice. I don’t often have two weeks to programme everything beforehand – it’s partly a question of money. Here in the German-speaking countries a club tour lasts 20 or 30 concerts and arena tours last 10 to 12 concerts, then it’s all over.
What are you currently working on?
This year I’m doing Rock am Ring and Rock am Park in Nuremberg with Rea Garvey. Before that, I’ve got a short club tour scheduled. The rest of the time, I’m doing a lot with the Follow Me tracking system (see BTR 4/2019, ed.), which I started getting into early on. I give courses in it now; I’m the nerd to go to in Germany about Follow Me.
What is lighting?
Much more than a spotlight. What people sense in the digital age but are somehow forgetting. I’m passionate about passing on to young people how to showcase the art, not the technology; that the audience should see the artist, not the spotlights.