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Song and Dance: Planning 4thFest Fireworks Choreography is Year-Round Affair

by on July 04, 2015 11:00 AM

The intricate interplay of lights and music in the State College sky is the defining feature of the immensely popular Central Pennsylvania 4thFest fireworks show.

Each year, brightly colored explosions dance in time with a carefully selected soundtrack of modern hits and patriotic classics – but what goes into choreographing the skyward waltz of smoke and fire?

“I don’t think anyone really has a good idea how much work does go into this, and what it takes to do a show like this,” says 4th Fest pyrotechnics committee co-chair Matthew Lindenberg.

Lindenberg explains that 4th Fest is “definitely an abnormality” in terms of its sheer size and scope.  With somewhere around 12,000 shells going off each year, he estimates the show is two to three times the size of most other choreographed fireworks shows.

But that kind of massive display takes time and hard work to bring to light, which is why Lidenberg says that planning choreography is essentially a year-round event.

Although the pyrotechnics committee doesn’t start meeting and planning until September, Lindenberg says everyone keeps their ears open for possible song choices all year round.

It doesn’t matter if it’s July 5 or Christmas Day – if Lindenberg hears a song that makes him see explosions, he makes a mental note for next year’s show. Then around Labor Day, when everyone has a whole list of songs, they all get together to start bouncing ideas off each other.

“Basically from Labor Day to Christmas, we pick the songs, put the soundtrack together and lay out all the effects we want to happen,” Lindenberg says. “So typically by mid-December, the entire show is together because we have to place our shell order.”

Each year the pyrotechnics committee whittles down a list of 50 to 60 song choices to a final total of 12 to 16, or about 45 minutes of music. The final set list tends to be a conscious mix of styles, with some popular hits, some patriotic standards, and some miscellaneous jazz and classical all thrown into the mix.

But what makes a good fireworks song?

Although Lindenberg brags they can “choreograph to just about anything,” he admits it’s very much an art and not a science. Luckily, Linderberg and the other committee members have been working together for ten years, giving them plenty of practice with trial and error.

Some songs with sweeping climaxes are better suited for a bunch of explosions at once, and tend to be placed at the end. Other songs with an interesting rhythm might be better suited for something less bombastic and more intricate, and tend to be placed near the beginning.

Lindenberg says the actual process of determining the choreography is done on a computer with software produced by the State College-based Pyrotechnics Management company.

It’s a simple as loading a song in the system and hitting a button each time Lindernberg wants a shell to go off. Then he go can back through and make each marker more complicated, determining exactly how many and what kind of fireworks should be used.

At that point, it’s just a matter of making sure everyone likes the finished product, ordering the shells to make it happen, and wiring up all the firework launchers to the choreography program.

“We’ve done this for enough years that the whole choreography team can kind of visualize what this will look like. That’s part of how we’re able to put this together, and sometimes we’re right on, and sometimes we’re a little off,” Lindenberg says.

“But to see it in real life is something else. It’s very humbling to see it come to fruition."

 



Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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