Date:25 April 2014
Cyber-guitarist Jonathan Crossley rips up the rulebook on what constitutes music – and musical instruments
Jonathan Crossley plays the guitar like nobody else you’ve seen. He also plays a guitar that looks like nothing else you’ve seen. There is, frankly, little that’s conventional about the way it all looks or sounds.
Marvellously chaotic, yet orchestrated, it’s a unique marriage of music and technology that all somehow comes together on the fly.
At Wits a few months ago, Crossley put on a world-first musical performance in partial fulfillment of the requirements for his doctorate in music. The official title of his degree programme, PhD in Technology-enabled Performance Practice, did provide some forewarning. But it was probably not sufficient to explain the cyberpunk creation that confronted the somewhat startled audience. You’d expect no less from a man who defines music as ordered noise.
Crossley describes himself as a guitarist, technologist, cyber-protagonist and composer. His aim is to boldly go where no man has… well, to investigate the technology/body interface, to develop a new guitar-based instrument as part of a “greater cybernetic performance system”. Not for him the arbitrary distinction between traditional instruments (string, struck or blown) and those operated electronically.
The guitar, then, is just the starting point.
For his breakthrough performance, five years in the making, Crossley wanted to create something that was as close to spontaneous as could be. Although electronically based, it had to be operated via hardware and not software so that the performer was in control, in the moment. No PCs. No pre-prepared or recorded material. And, of course, no sheet music as we know it: everything was improvised, live, on the spot. It even transcended jazz, which (although heavily improvisational) is based on a pre-designed set of constraints. So, his score was like a road map, not a set of detailed route instructions. The idea was, as he puts it, to facilitate an unprecedented interface and improvisational experience between musicians, musical score and also technology.
Secondly, the guitar is a hand-built hardware hacked instrument. It was a standard instrument, but has had the traditional insides replaced by hacked hardware boards and handwired units. “Like the inevitability of the Borg revolution, it has been assimilated,” he notes.
Man and machine
Crossley took three years to create what he calls his “hardware hacked electric jazz guitar”. The normal guitar has one output; this guitar has three. It contains hacked effects processors, multiple signal paths, a three-way digital recording matrix, an upper body suit with 54 continuous controllers and a custom-designed Arduino board programmed to relay the continuous controller values through to a MIDI digital interface. The body suit and other add-ons (there are neck-mounted potentiometers, for instance controlled by his left thumb) constitute a mechanical exoskeleton that allows Crossley to control a selection of parameters on various effects units. “There are three values on each wrist, two on each elbow, two on each shoulder… and this all in real time.”
The three signal paths, modified by internal as well as external signal processors, are fed out to three separate stages. At certain points, Crossley says, they interact with the whole ensemble and at certain points are isolated. When and how this happens is up to him, based on the compositional framework (you know, what we used to call the score).
Even the sound engineer becomes part of the performance. He’d be responsible for “certain technological interventions” based on the score and digital timers. Crossley’s explanation: “These interventions represent the machine system interrupting the acoustic flow of information and thus will effectively re-navigate the improvisational praxis.”
Wits colleague and digital arts lecturer Anton Coetzee, “an amazing technical engineer”, figured out a way to connect it all to an Arduino microcontroller. “He was able to map the continuous controllers and blend various guitar effects units into the wiring.”
Nothing was left untouched, but it’s not all exotic stuff: “There’s a cable hanging out of my mouth, a control to a toggle switch I bought at Kempton Park Electrical.” Among the sound inputs are a cut-up iPod headphone. For what it’s worth, the guitar can be played in the normal way.
Expect the unexpected
For his Wits performance, Crossley enlisted the aid of trusted collaborators: bassist Carlo Mombelli and percussionists Jonathan Sweetman and Justin Badenhorst. “I have no idea what it will sound like, but I can’t wait to find out,” Crossley said beforehand.
If he was unsure of what was to follow, spare a thought for his poor sidemen, who did not even have the luxury of a rehearsal. “They tried to,” Crossley says, adding – with more than a hint of glee – “but I made sure they couldn’t.”
Crossley’s concept uses technology that is not separate to the body, but one with it, like some creepy extended prosthetic – a musical instrument that has had its own internal organs hacked and replaced by technological prosthesis.
Which is exactly how Crossley sees it, without the creepy bit. He is very much into the ideas of futurist Ray Kurzweil, who speaks of Transcendent Man, of human and machine becoming one.
“Everyone is afraid of technology. They think it is sentient and will take on a life of its own, but I don’t find the idea frightening. What I use is just an extension of what we are.” For him, the technology represents another way of accomplishing higher levels, musically speaking. He was frustrated that existing electric instruments did not have the level of detail that he found even in the conventional classical guitar.
“I thought, would it not be great if I could tweak values while constantly playing?” he says. “I could sculpt sound.” He began exploring ways of accomplishing that. “I looked at all sorts of (ways of triggering sounds)… ECG monitoring, even.”
Of course, there’s the little matter of the audience. “In music, potential variation is in many cases restricted to something that is audibly pleasing to the audience,” Crossley concedes.
Not easy to manage when your mission is to explore the noise/music boundary – “Where does noise stop and music start? What does music do? It structures noise, it arouses emotions. Music is, essentially, ordered noise.”
His Wits concert explored the boundaries of that, and then some. “When we started the concert, we brought in some very quiet sounds. Then there was a singular, loud event, then some tranquil noise, then some exciting noise events… then a climax.
“We followed this with more sweeping noise, then we stopped. And then we went into almost a church spiritual thing.”
How did the band cope?
“My musicians in the band are very skilled. But they were not using those skills. They were baring their souls.”
And how did the audience react?
This is how a member of the audience put it to him afterwards: “Musically, I did not get it. But emotionally, I was overwhelmed.”
Guitar: Ibanez archtop electric, modified
Controller: Gypsy motion control suit (controller interface: Arduino)
* Digitec Whammy. A pedal that emulates sounds that a guitarist normally makes using the vibrato (“whammy”) bar on the guitar, but in a more versatile and controllable way.
* Line6 M13 Modeller. Provides sound-shaping effects such as distortion, reverb and delays, plus a looper of up to 28 seconds.
* Oto Machines Bitcrusher. Signal modifier.
Music in the blood
A 37-year-old family man with a lifelong musical connection (born into a musical family, he started guitar lessons at age 6), Crossley is no stranger to musical innovation. On one early guitar that lacked a nut – the little bit that guides the strings from the fingerboard on to the peghead – he fashioned a replacement with a Lego block.
His musical journey took him from a classical guitar background to a BMus at Wits. Choosing to focus on improvised music, he completed a master’s degree (cum laude) in jazz. His thesis documented the career and guitar methodology of South African master guitarist Johnny Fourie, with whom he studied and became close.
In fact the guitar on which his creation is based was Johnny Fourie’s instrument. Sacrilege? “No, Johnny was much more liberal than anybody knows.”
Notwithstanding his interest in the theoretical and academic side of music, Crossley is a relentless performer. He founded the Jonathan Crossley Electric Band, has appeared on stage with countless international and local artists, and toured extensively both here and abroad. He teaches classical guitar and lectures in digital music technology at the University of the Witwatersrand (title of one final year course: Explorations in electronica and electronic music). Crossley has released five albums, co-owns a Johannesburg recording studio and as his day job is musical director of the His People church.