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Since the birth of the laser light show in the ’70s , the recipe has been pretty much the same: Take one planetarium and into it mix equal parts Pink Floyd, dazed-and-confused teenagers, and trippy visual effects. Harold Williams, director of the Montgomery College Planetarium in Takoma Park, Md., and coordinator of its light shows, provides an alternative.
For the past 15 years, the professor has invited local musicians to perform beneath his artificial sky, housed in a 42-seat facility at the college. Though he insists that the music is the main attraction, he believes that the laser light show has the power to complement music as “distilled sound emotion,” evoking deep feeling from the viewer. “I am the impresario that unlocks the door with light,” he says.
When Williams first arrived at the college, in 1990, as an adjunct professor of mathematics, he had never been to a laser light show and had no goal of orchestrating one. Despite some lessons on a great-aunt’s piano in his youth, he considers himself “musically retarded” to this day.
Rupert Chappelle, a colleague at the college and avant-garde musician, suggested that he and Williams collaborate on a performance; Chappelle’s concert was a success, and other musicians became interested in Williams’ unusual venue. A free monthly series that runs the course of each academic year was born. Though experimental music dominates—no shortage of soundscape artists and thereminists have made appearances—Williams has also hosted an a cappella group and “psychedelic reggae”; next month, he’ll welcome D.C. indie-rock outfit the Cassettes.
Though Williams sometimes maps out performances beforehand, he often works with musicians right before a show to decide what effects are appropriate. “The lighting part is like jazz,” he says. “It is impromptu.”
According to Williams, no band has yet been turned away. “The community college accepts the community,” says Williams, “and the community is diverse.”
Throughout his personal and professional life, the 55-year-old professor has embraced this diversity. A mathematician-turned-astronomer who’s also a Baptist deacon, Williams is as reluctant to label himself as he is to identify a favorite type of music. He remains more interested in the emotions that sound can stimulate—and his planetarium’s dizzying technical capability to bring these emotions to the fore—than in bickering over genre.
“I remember one time in college,” he says, “someone played the Beatles’ ‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road’ on one side of the dorm room and James Brown on the other.” He laughs, pointing out that, as a Baptist, he couldn’t fully appreciate either artist. “But they both evoked a response,” he says.
Williams brings this open-mindedness to every show to make what he calls “a collaborative effort between the scientific and musical community.” His goal is to enhance the auditory experience using techniques such as placidly rotating the stars, projecting lasers through rotating discs, changing the speed and tempo of blinking lights, or accompanying an anti-war song with battle scenes simulated with flashing colors. “You can make a laser light show with something as simple as a laser on your wrist,” he says. “First, you have a spot. Move it, you have a line. Move it around, you have an ellipse, or a circle….In the dark, we are constantly assigning meaning to what we see.”
The result of Williams’ efforts is a map of the common ground shared by art and science. “Many of the same people that do science are interested in art at some level, and vice versa,” he says. The professor points out that physicists often excel at music, then pauses. “This doesn’t include me, maybe because my great-aunt’s piano was out of tune.”—Justin Moyer
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.