»Fireworks must be made with heart«

A conversation about musical fireworks, live ignitions and special effects

The crowning finale of each season is traditionally an impressive fireworks display together with the Festival Orchestra. In 2024, the sky will again shine in all colours at the »Monrepos Open Air«. Since 2010, Potsdamer Feuerwerk GmbH has had it in its hands – under the direction of Björn Wilhelm. Born in Berlin, he began his pyrotechnics career at Potsdamer Feuerwerk GmbH and, since 2005, has been the head of the company, which specializes in fireworks, laser and multimedia shows.

Mr Wilhelm, how can you imagine the preparations for fireworks like those at the "Monrepos Open Air"? 

The fireworks in Ludwigsburg are definitely one of the more elaborate orders we receive. Although 99 per cent of the fireworks we do are music fireworks, and we also specialize in them, only 1 to 2 per cent of them are fireworks with live music like the one in Ludwigsburg. The challenge here is to write the fireworks explicitly to the music half a year in advance. This means reading the score, listening to it, and checking with musician friends to see if there are subtleties in the piece that you might not have picked out yourself. You must have heard the piece hundreds of times to be able to attend live at the location where the orchestra is at any given moment. Our pyro designer Torsten Klewer, who has been responsible for the Ludwigsburg fireworks for years, handwrites all his cues into the score. He composes the pyrotechnical »musical instrument«, so to speak. The difficulty here, of course, is that the moment of ignition is different from the moment when the effect appears in the sky. You first have the time in which the »bomb« shoots from the bottom of the tube up into the sky. Of course, he has to take this so-called ascent time into account. Typically, we do this much more automatically. 

How does the programming usually work?  

For a classic musical fireworks display, the music is played from a tape. This music is uploaded into our pyro design program and linked to our database. You can then see all the pyro items with the technical data, such as the rise time, at a glance and can immediately place all the effects at the appropriate points in the music. The significant advantage is that you can see what the fireworks will look like at the end. Then you only have to save the whole thing and press a start button once on site. This finished programming is taken out in Ludwigsburg and replaced by manual pressing on-site.

Does that mean that in Ludwigsburg, every effect is fired live?  

Yes, because conductors sometimes play a little faster or slower. That's why we don't have a continuous fireworks display of 20 to 25 minutes in Ludwigsburg, but there are only effects at specific points in the score. These pauses exist partly because the pyro designer has not provided pyrotechnics for them, or he wants to leave a gap for leeway in case the orchestra plays faster or slower. So there's a lot of spontaneity involved.

How do you select the effects to be incorporated into the fireworks?  

We have around 8,000 to 10,000 different fireworks effects in stock - the entire spectrum of pyrotechnics. For licensing reasons alone, we have to have all the data on these effects recorded: This includes rise times, effect times - i.e. how long the effect can be seen in the sky - how large the safety distances have to be; all the technical bells and whistles. Our pyro design team consists of many different guys and gals who have been planning fireworks for many years. They know the effects and know relatively well what effect they want where. In our orders, we also take special orders into account, such as the one for the Ludwigsburg Castle Festival. The year before, Torsten Klewer already thinks about which effects he would like to have for the fireworks that are not in the standard range. And these are then ordered in smaller quantities and only used for such special orders. These are effects you don't get to see in usual fireworks.

What does a good pyro designer have to bring to the table?

You definitely have to be interested. You won't develop a knack for it if you're not interested in it. The fireworks we shoot must be made with heart. The people involved have to stand behind them. You can't force this extreme artistic work on anyone. You can't force anyone to paint a picture, either. If you do, it will be something painted off, at best, but nothing with passion. We need people who develop something of their own, who paint a picture themselves, who imagine an image in the sky and say: I would like to see that. Those who put their heart into it.

Is it enough to be there with heart? Or what else makes a good fireworks display?

In the end, it's all about inspiring the audience. In Ludwigsburg, we have a few thousand people sitting there who don't just want to be entertained but thrilled. And fireworks, especially when they take place at the end, are the crowning glory. The audience has to go home with a great feeling. That's why we do the whole thing. What makes a fireworks show is ultimately a matter of taste, just like music. Some like it more romantic, others a bit more powerful. What counts is a good mix with something for everyone. 

Is there already any special effect that will particularly excite our audience at the Open Air?

There will be one, but not only that I don't know it, but my pyro designer also wouldn't reveal it either (laughs).

• In Germany, there is no apprenticeship for pyrotechnicians. The necessary qualifications are acquired through numerous internships at licensed companies and a final technical course. The training, which lasts between five and six days and is concluded with a written and oral examination, must be preceded by at least one year of practical experience. After successful completion, you can proudly call yourself the holder of a »certificate of competence to handle pyrotechnic articles«

• There is a difference between pyrotechnicians and pyrodesigners: pyrotechnicians carry out the fireworks technically at the venue, pyrodesigners are responsible for the composition of the fireworks and the artistic work

• In addition to the pyrotechnicians, live music fireworks are always accompanied by artists who can also read the score. The Potsdamer Firework calls these people »Klopfer« (»knockers«) because they also read the score and announce significant operations before the ignition by knocking

• Potsdamer Feuerwerk GmbH has been shooting the fireworks for the »Monrepos Open Air« since 2010; since 2015, Torsten Klewer has been the designer and foremost responsible for the fireworks in Ludwigsburg