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Wits student merges guitar with robot

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Even the performer doesn't know what will happen when a new form of music is presented on a Wits University theatre stage later this month.

PhD candidate Jonathan Crossley has designed and brought to fruition what he claims to be a new type of musical instrument. (Gallo)

What do you get if you cross a guitar with a robot? 

"I don’t know," says Jonathan Crossley, one of South Africa’s leading jazz guitarists and PhD candidate at Wits University. "But I’m keen to find out!"

On Saturday February 22, at the Wits Main Theatre and part of the Edge of Wrong festival, Crossley will unveil a world-first musical performance in partial fulfillment of his PhD requirements.

The study of instruments and their design throughout history is known as organology. Throughout the history of this study, there has always been a careful distinction made between music produced on stringed instruments and music produced through various electronic means. Crossley completely ignores this distinction, creating a sound that, he says,  "explores the boundaries of music and noise, stretching strings and electronics to their complete potential".

He has designed and brought to fruition what he claims to be a new type of musical instrument – "a cyberpunk glory of technologically enhanced traditional jazz guitar". The instrument surrounds the performer, constructing a loop and feedback system between the performer and his instrument, enabling Crossley to tackle the traditional divide in a number of ways, he says.

"The instrument system itself is completely software free, no PCs or laptops are involved whatsoever in the performance and no music is pre-prepared in a recorded audio format – all music is improvised wholly live.  This is completely unlike traditional music, which is either pre-conceived or improvised. 

"This system is set up with a kind of chaotically driven unpredictability within the technological matrices. Kind of like developing a system to find out what happens when a butterfly flaps its wings – a musical interpretation of chaos theory, if you like!

"Additionally, the score itself contains very little fixed detail. This is designed to facilitate an unprecedented interface and improvisational experience between musicians, musical score and also technology. What we are developing is music of a chaotically 'sentient' nature."

Hardware hacked
Secondly, he says, 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 hand wired units. Like the inevitability of the Borg revolution, it has been assimilated."

The outcome of Crossley’s mods, hacks and innovations, he says, is that the technology is no longer separate to the body but rather subsumed within it. 

"Visually, the clear evidence of the musical instrument as an extended body prosthetic that has had its own internal organs hacked and replaced by technological prosthesis is matched by the unique sound produced by the collaborators.

"The system has feedback systems within its design – it produces three signal paths on output. These three signals are modified via internal effects as well as further signal modifiers outside the instrument. A selection of parameters on various effects units are controlled via a mechanical exoskeleton which generates variables.

"Thus the guitar can be performed with in a full sense, drawing on all of the instrument’s history, techniques and improvisational abilities alongside improvised electronic interventions through the extended upper body of the performer"

Timers
Technological interventions are also made by Larry Pullen, the sound engineer, based on the score and digital timers. 

"These interventions represent the machine system interrupting the acoustic flow of information and thus will effectively renavigate the improvisational praxis."

Lastly the three signals are fed out to three separate stages for the other improvisers. At certain points they interact with the whole ensemble and at certain points are isolated. 

All this will be an improvised reading of a graphic score especially composed by Crossley.

"I have no idea what it will sound like, but I can’t wait to find out," he says. - Gadget.co.za

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