Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Rockets' Red Glare

I'd like to talk about something a little unusual, but something with which I've been fascinated and curious for a while now. It's the language used by commercial catalogues to describe large grade fireworks. Aside from the Fourth of July displays sponsored by huge companies, it seems to be a singularly redneck pastime, and driving through states like Oklahoma, it was pretty remarkable how very many fireworks outlets there are as compared to anywhere else in the country. They're enormous warehouses with every imaginable combustible that if lit on fire could probably blow out a crater a mile wide.

Fireworks, the big ones anyway, are also fairly expensive. A somewhat impressive "cake," as they're called, can be as much as $200, for an event that lasts no more than about a minute and a half at the most.

Personally, the idea of setting off a dangerous explosive scares me to death, but I suppose that's part of the appeal: the adrenaline rush. What's interesting about the terminology used is that it's the exact language that might be used by someone who was enraptured by the art of warfare (such as it is). The Italian Futurists thought warfare was the ultimate art form, presumably because it was doing exactly what so many artists (like the Dadaists) were at the time, destroying the idea of a visual, art historical culture. Modernist architecture was doing the same thing.

Here's what F. T. Marinetti wrote in their manifesto in 1909:
We want to glorify war--the only cure for the world--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman...We want to demolish museums and libraries...It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism.

Now, of course I find the misogyny utterly disgusting, and the implications this has of foretelling fascist states is a bit disturbing at best. But they were in their twenties, the most insufferably arrogant age group in any generation, and obviously inexperienced and naive, if not uneducated. Plus, Italy has long been a bastion of anti-feminism. It also makes some sense with the redneck connection.

It's also interesting to note our national anthem:
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Every time it's heard, the beauty of warfare is being celebrated. It was a noble fight, to be sure, against an oppressive monarchy. But truly, it's no wonder so many young people think signing up to go off and murder innocent people in foreign lands is the best way to prove their patriotism.

As far as I'm concerned, Nature puts on the best shows, and she has in great abundance in recent years: thunderstorms. Spectacular, unpredictable, beautiful, exciting, scary (the thought always occurs to me when I'm sitting watching a storm blow in on my fire escape, which is metal of course, is this ladder up there to the roof the highest thing in the sky around here trying to attract a lightning bolt and fry me alive?). Thunder so loud it sets off car alarms. One of the things I love about Queens is the great expanse of the skyline. I can see storms in their totality here. I can watch storm systems approach over Manhattan and engulf my neighborhood with their fury. It's completely majestic.

I've decided to look at the language used to describe fireworks in terms of the metaphoric categories employed, I think it's somewhat telling. Most of these are pooled from the site for Phantom, a major distributor to be sure, and a few others.

Culture, Symbolic
Cross, Latin Cross
Crossette (technically an architectural term, but used predominantly to refer to fireworks)
Culture, Technology
Strobe, Strobelight
Culture, Textiles/ Adornments
Kamuro (a boy's style of haircut)
Culture, Warfare, Artillery
Machine Gun
Culture, Warfare, Tactical
Nature, Astronomical
Comet, Comet Tail
Nature, Biology, Fauna
Dragon, Dragon Egg
Bee, Swarm
Fish, Flying Fish, Liquid Fish
Frog, Tadpole
Horse, Horse Tail
Oyster, Pearl
Tiger, Tiger Tail
Nature, Biology, Flora
Leaf, Falling Leaf
Flowers, Bouquet
Palm Tree, Palm, Ti, Coconut
Pine, Snow Pine
Nature, Meteorology
Rain, Time(d) Rain
Storm, Thunderstorm
Nature, Optics, Colors
White, Silver, Platinum (Titanium, Aluminum)
Red (Strontium, Lithium), Pink
Orange, Neon Orange (Calcium)
Yellow, Primrose, Lemon (Sodium), Gold, Golden (Charcoal, Iron)
Green (Barium)
Blue, Sea-Blue (Copper)
Purple (Potassium), Violet (Rubidium)
Nature, Optics, Qualities
Nature, Physics/ Dynamics

Here are a few of the luscious descriptions of the "repeaters" and "fountains." The names of these products are also interesting in their own right.

"Da Bomb"
The nine mega-bursts, including: gold willow to red; gold willow to green; silver twinkling willow to green; brocade to crackle; green to crackle; gold willow--green glitter; primrose-silver glitter; red dahlia--silver chrysanthemums; and silver peony to red.

(Click links for video) Plenty of gold comets, mixed in with some silver and blue peonies with beautiful bursts of red, green, and silver heads, as well as blue stars and flying fish.

"Orbiters Launch Sequence"
The first twenty shots alternate between high-breaking red and green palm trees, crackle breaks, and multi-color chrysanthemums. The final two shots are spinning shots that fly screaming with a high pitch whistle out of the center of the cake, with big breaks of red and green.

"Supercell Storm"
...the Supercell Storm has a spectacular whirling-firing pattern that has falling leaves, color comets, and an awesome willow finale. Several shots of crackle to multi-color breaks with fast-paced crackling willow finale that fills the sky.

And last but not least:
"Pyro Pulverizer"
...professionally designed effects featuring brocade, crackles, fish, and red chrysanthemums. The first five shots are fired in sequence, ending in large gold willow breaks sparkling along their branches as they spread out. The next five shots end in green breaks with crackle. The next five are all-crackle breaks. The next group of five ends in a mixture of green stars, silver flying fish, and crackle. Finally, three large shots are fired all at once with bright silver comets that end in a nice large dahlia breaks of red stars with silver trails.

One thing I find quite interesting is that these fireworks displays can be subject to copyright. But it's almost baffling to consider the chemistry that goes into one of these. The designer has to pack all the right explosives and in the right measure into one box. He or she controls how high into the air it will go, in what direction, whether it will rise with a streak or invisibly, whether or not it will make noise and if so, how loud. Then when it gets to the right point in the sky, what it will do, how it will explode and how big the explosion will be, what color(s) it will be, whether it will crackle at the end or be "fishy." And that's just one shot, these "repeaters" can have forty of them in one box which, ideally, are timed out in just such a way that they combine in pleasing patterns in the night sky.

When you put all this together, especially if we want to talk about a big city Fourth of July display, I don't think an analogy to composing symphonic music is that difficult to pick out. Without question there is choreography to this. I'd like to suggest that for Independence Day coming up this weekend, we each pause for a moment, in between our "oohhs," "aahhs," and "wooows" to consider the fireworks displays for their aesthetic qualities. At the very least, the no doubt huge teams of people risking their lives lighting fires on a barge full of, essentially, bombs deserve that much.

©2010, Ryan Witte

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